Sometime between 1867 and 1873 an American professor at what is now Tokyo University introduced baseball to Japan. The sport quickly gained popularity throughout the country, with high school and college teams developing important rivalries.
Unlike American players who often lack team loyalty and move to new teams, Japanese players tend to stay with their clubs for the long haul. This contributes to the sense of community and camaraderie that exists in Japanese baseball.
Before World War II, baseball was a fairly minor pastime in Japan. But after the war, interest resurfaced. The sport was embraced as a symbol of national identity and continues to be an integral part of daily life in Japan.
The highest level of Japanese professional baseball, Nippon Professional Baseball, was established in 1920. Its first six teams were the Tokyo Giants, Hanshin Tigers, Chunichi Dragons, Osaka Orions, Dai Tokyo and Hankyu Braves. They all found names inspired by the New York Giants, a nod to Lefty O’Doul, who had brought over the American All Stars to kick start the Japanese leagues.
In addition to the professional leagues, baseball is played at the high school and university levels in Japan. Students often participate in the prestigious Koshien tournament, which draws widespread media attention and fuels student passion for the game.
Unlike the United States, where players are encouraged to move between teams so they can get more money (and possibly play better), Japanese players show great team loyalty. This is due to both the fact that they aren’t allowed to have agents and also the fact that contracts in Japan are negotiated by managers rather than by players themselves.
In addition, NPB limits game length by allowing games to end in ties (though this only happens during the regular season). In addition, the ball used is smaller, and rules regarding batting practice and strategy are different from those of MLB.
NPB teams are required to limit the number of foreign players on their active roster and in their game rosters. This is done to keep the salaries of international players lower and reduce the competitive advantage that these players might have over domestic players.
Japanese-made sporting gear has taken the world by storm. From golfers using Mizuno irons to volleyball players donning Mizuno spikes, these products are recognized for their superior quality. This reputation extends to baseball gloves as well.
The first bona fide visit by American professional baseball players to Japan occurred in the fall and winter of 1908-09 when A. J. Reach & Co. sent over a team called the Reach All-Americans to promote its brand and develop an oriental market for sporting goods.
The team was sponsored by newspapers that hoped to boost their sagging circulations. Moreover, the editors hoped that the goodwill generated by the tour would improve relations between the two countries. Menko, mass-produced postcards of baseball players posing and in action games, were also popular in the early 20th century, as were furoku, large magazine inserts that resembled Western-style trading cards.
The lives of baseball players in Japan are very structured and intense. They live in dormitories, have one month off a year and practice for hours each day. They are expected to be loyal to their team and respect the manager. If they fail to comply with the demands of their managers, they risk being fired. This is because the Japanese value obedience and loyalty above all else (Verducci).
As the popularity of baseball grew in the early 1900s, high school, college, and university teams formed, and important rivalries emerged. These include the intense battles between Keio and Waseda universities, documented in photographs from 1903. The winners of the Central and Pacific leagues then compete in a series of games called the Climax Series to determine the Nippon Professional Baseball champion.
Before baseball took off in Japan it had to overcome the war, American occupation and a lot of cultural differences. Once these hurdles were cleared, Japanese baseball has blossomed.
Unlike in the US, where players are said to lack team loyalty, Japanese baseball players are much more likely to stay with their teams for extended periods of time. This is a result of the greater emphasis on instant gratification that characterizes the culture in general.
There are a number of great stadiums to visit in Japan, but my personal favorite is Sendai Miyagi Stadium for the Sendai Eagles. It’s a spacious, outdoor ballpark that is full of fun things to do, both inside and outside the stadium. Getting in can be a bit of a pain because there are only three gates, but once you’re in you’ll have a blast for the next three hours cheering and shouting with your new fans.