One of the most watched sporting events on television in Japan is not a professional league… not even a college league. It is school baseball in a country where this sport is almost a religion.
Therefore, it is not a surprise that this sport returned to the Olympic Games in Tokyo-2020.
Every weekend, at diamonds across the country, boys reflect concentration on their faces as they play, encouraged not only by their parents and family members, but also by spectators who look at them with equal attention.
More than a century after it was introduced to Japan by an American English teacher, this country has embraced baseball, with a style of play that prioritizes teamwork and a broad fan base.
“Every boy plays baseball, every young man plays baseball,” Itaru Kobayashi, a former player for the Chiba Lotte Marines professional team, told AFP.
“Baseball was invented in the United States, but somehow we’ve fallen in love with it,” adds Kobayashi, now a sports management expert and professor at JF Oberlin University in Tokyo.
The game was introduced to the country in 1872 by a teacher at the Kaisei Academy, a high school in the Japanese capital.
It took a huge leap after a team from the Ichiko school beat one of foreign residents in 1896, sparking a frenzy of interest and more matches against rivals from the United States.
“These games had symbolic significance in Japan because the Japanese were behind in many ways, such as commerce and industry,” said baseball expert Robert Whiting, who has spent decades in Japan.
“The message was that if we could beat the Americans at their own game, surely we could outplay them in other ways,” added Whiting, author of the book ‘Tokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys … and Baseball’. Tokyo: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Alleys… and Baseball).
– Koshienmania –
In the 1930s, a professional league was developed and half a million people took to the streets of Tokyo in 1934 to welcome the mythical Babe Ruth and 14 other American baseball players on a tour.
And after World War II, baseball became Japan’s national pastime with a particular reverence for the amateur game, seen as free from the “contamination” of money.
The devotion persists to this day.
Fumihiko Kaneko, 31, arrived four hours early to a game in the ‘Tokyo Big Six’ college league last Sunday, although he already had tickets. He was excited for the opportunity to see historic archrivals Keio and Waseda face off in Japan’s oldest league, founded in 1925.
“I have been a fan of baseball since I was very little,” he tells AFP. “Today’s game has a 100-year history!”
The major event baseball in Japanese school baseball is known as ‘Koshien’.
The ‘Koshien’ games have at times attracted 50% of local viewers and are played on radios in ramen restaurants and local shops, a sound as familiar in Japanese summers as the buzzing of cicadas.
“It’s like the Major League Baseball World Series and the Superbowl combined,” Whiting says of these tournaments, which are broadcast on national television.
– “A ritual” –
The fervor has a dark side: the constant concern about the intensity of training and the pressure on young players.
“I really don’t have happy memories of baseball,” says Takuya Honda, who played for 12 years but never made it to Koshien. He eventually quit the sport, although he recently returned to playing it.
“It doesn’t matter if I make mistakes now… I can finally enjoy playing baseball,” he says.
Kobayashi believes that Japan’s fondness for the sport, in part, “is like a ritual.” «Work as a team, unite as a team. We love it! ”He says.
The popularity of baseball in this country was put to the test when the first professional soccer league was launched in 1992.
But the soccer fever has died down and baseball continues to garner attention at home and abroad, with Japanese stars like Shohei Ohtani flying the flag of the rising sun in the American Major Leagues.
The Olympic baseball tournament will begin in Fukushima, putting the spotlight on the recovery of that region after the tragedy of 2011.
“I think the Olympics are going to be a beacon of hope in a world where I hope that some kind of normalcy will soon return,” concludes Kobayashi. AFP (HN)