At first glance, baseball in Japan appears to be the same game played in the United States, but it is not. The Japanese view of life stressing group identity, cooperation, respect for age, seniority and “face” has been infused into almost every aspect of the sport. Americans who come to play in Japan quickly realize that Baseball Samurai style is different. For some it is captivating and exhilarating; for others, infuriating, and occasionally demoralizing.
The game of Japanese baseball draws many of its roots from the game we watch during the spring and summer months in the Unites States. Our neighbors in the Far East mirror the same zeal shown by American fans clamoring for their favorite team, as baseball can be seen as, which the author views as an “international bond of leisure.” Baseball is high public drama and grinding anonymous routine, imbued with deep emotion, constant mental calculation, and enormous physical exertion. Much has been created in the past, and will be created in the near future, about the statistical output of the game. Many fans love to see their favorite player chase records that were set by the players their parents and grandparents admired as young children and adults. However, a strict statistical analysis does not provide the behind-the-scenes view of what events occur outside of the field itself. This institution that is Japanese baseball goes much further than a box score, a pennant race, or the corporate ties that all Japanese professional baseball franchise are attached to. There is a distinct social and political aspect as well that is not commonly known. With that dilemma presented, the cult like following of Japanese baseball as well as the social, political and commercial implications of team ownership will be the focus as the other, less glamorous, but critical side of Japanese baseball is brought to the forefront.
The exact moment that the game of baseball graced the shores of Japan cannot be pinpointed to a particular time or date. What is known, nevertheless, is the “father” of Japanese baseball, Horace Wilson, a professor of history and English at Tokyo’s Kaisei Gakko, is credited with introducing the American game to his students during the Meiji Era (1867-1912). Albert Bates, another American teacher at Kaitaku University in Tokyo, is credited with organizing the first formal game in 1873, while Hiroshi Hiraoka, a railway engineer who had become an enthusiastic Red Sox fan as a student in Boston, established Japan’s first team, the Shimbashi Athletic Club Athletics, in 1878. His players were railway engineers, station workers, and foreign technicians who used improvised gloves and ran the bases wearing wooden sandals known as geta. These events would mark the beginning of the absorption of the Western game, in which the Japanese named this new game, Yakyu, translated into the phrase “field ball.” Initially, the game was the sport of the upper class, but within a short time, several high school and college teams in Tokyo would also play baseball. Since its realization as a social activity, the game has developed into a popular pastime for the Japanese. In spite of its growing popularity, amateur baseball was the only game in Japan until the Shibaura Club was structured in the early 1920s. The Shibaura Club was founded in Shibaura, Tokyo and eventually ended up playing in Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture under the backing of the Hankyu railroad.
Though professional baseball tends to attract large corporate sponsorships, the non-professional game in Japan is, debatably, the international center of amateur baseball, in the sense of the sheer numbers of people that play there. Softball is also played in Japan but is far less accepted among men than baseball. However, the total number of softball and baseball players in Japan is probably about even, now that it appears as if many more women’s’ softball teams are being created than baseball teams. The game of baseball is popular with town and city leagues as well as with many youth and company leagues, with the most popular form of baseball being nanshiki, which uses a light rubber ball with dimples so that it resembles a large golf ball with the traditional raised seams of a baseball. At the high school level, there are annual national high school baseball tournaments in the spring, summer and fall. In the spring and summer, representative high schools from around the country converge on Koshien Kyujo in Nishinomiya City, Hyogo Prefecture. Every aspect of the tournaments, from the opening ceremony to the award ceremony is televised nationally. The fall tournament, held in Tokyo’s Jingu Kyujo, receives scant attention.
The older scholastic athletes throughout Japan take part in baseball by playing in local university leagues. As in high school ball, these leagues are split into spring and summer tournaments. Unlike high school ball, however, the focus is on the local tournaments with the national college championship earning scant attention from the media. The two most esteemed, but not necessarily the best, leagues are located in Tokyo. The Tokyo Roku Daigaku (Tokyo Six Universities) league gets the most ink and has the longest tradition, but far more top-notch players are now coming out of the Toto (Tokyo Metropolitan) League. The Toto league (and most other Japanese college leagues as well) has a division system. At the conclusion of the league’s season, the last-place team from the upper division has to play a series against the lower division winner. The winner of the series plays in the upper division in the following tournament, with the loser being downgraded to the lower division.
During the Meiji restoration, the Japanese began a process of modernization, adopting many Western ideas and forms of leisure and entertainment, which included the game of baseball. When the shogun relinquished power, he was clad in formal samurai robes and a traditional topknot hairstyle. A scant two years later, the Emperor Meiji was holding court in a three-piece suit and top hat. As Japan was changing socially politically, they viewed baseball as a link to the past that may indirectly provide life for their ancient customs and social practices. According to Robert Whiting, the Japanese found the one-on-one battle between pitcher and batter similar in psychology to their native sumo and martial arts. It involved split second timing and a special harmony of mental and physical strength. Because of this, the Ministry of Education believed it was good for the national character and encouraged its growth.
Also surfacing in the mid-Meiji period was the term konjÃ?Â´, or “fighting spirit,” along with its borrowed English synonym, gattsu. Both terms pepper the conversation, exhortations, and judgments of players, managers, commentators, and fans alike. KonjÃ?Â´ combines passive, stoic endurance with active, all-out drive. It is the application of doryoku (effort) to temper the seishin (spirit). The indivisible spirit is honed through repetitive, imitative practice, with hyperconditioning and a tight managerial control channeling the fighting spirit into collective ends. This ethic of “muscular spirituality” was self-consciously adopted by the Baseball Club of the premier higher school of the time, IchikÃ?Â´, or First Higher School. Students at this school were encouraged to run their own affairs through school meetings, dormitory councils, and sports clubs. The Baseball Club became the most prominent exemplar of this rugged autonomy and elf-imposed discipline. It reveled in grueling practices and the rhetoric of self-sacrifice. The club undeniably saw its ethic justified by the extensive success it enjoyed, not only with school teams but also against a series of American teams that it challenged through the 1890s. However, it is important to note that this was also a time when privileged youth fell under the critical watch of a general public that was suspicious of their moral and physical fitness for the prestigious positions in society that were soon to be theirs. Therefore, the pretentious exertions of the Baseball Club, and their expression of “fighting spirit” must be interpreted in that light.
By the early twentieth century, the game flourished in schools and colleges. Although baseball was becoming increasingly popular with many, others were reluctant to adopt the Western sport. According to Whiting, the influential conservative daily Asahi Shinbun ran an editorial series entitled, “The Evil of Baseball,” quoting several leading educators who opposed the game. One physician claimed that it was bad for the development of the personality because of “mental pressure,” and that throwing a baseball all the time caused lopsided body development. Others, such as General Maresuke Nogi, a hero in Japans victory over Russia in 1905, feared that players spent too much time getting drunk in Western-style restaurants after practice, while the chief of the high schools bureau in the ministry of education said flatly, “Baseball doesn’t fit the Japanese school system,” insisting that only “pure” Japanese athletics like kendo and judo were suitable for the Japanese. Perhaps the most emotional attack came from a writer who said, “Those who like baseball are those who think prostitution is good.”
Baseball would survive such attacks, most notably with the help of newspapers such as the Yomiuri Shimbun. Editorialists argued forcefully the game’s value in teaching spirit. One prominent proponent of the game, Yukichi Fukazawa, the founder of Keio University, said, “Sports is education too,” and suggested that students who traveled abroad to play baseball learned much from their exposure to different cultures. Matsutara Shoriki, owner of another popular newspaper, argued in favor of baseball; he seemed to be more influential. Shoriki, who later became known as “the great genius-father figure of Japanese baseball,” also helped support the game by sponsoring a tour which invited American major league players to Japan to play against Japanese college all-stars. The American players consisted of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Fox and numerous other American stars. Not surprisingly, the Americans won all seventeen games they played. Shoriki, amazed by the interest of Japanese fans, established Japan’s first professional team, the Great Tokyo baseball club in December 1934. By 1936, six other teams had followed the Yomiuri Giants, and the country’s first professional league, the Japan Pro-Baseball league (JPBL) was formed. As baseball in Japan was becoming more organized and popular, war broke out, causing interest to wane because of more important matters. Eventually games were suspended completely because all men were enlisted in the military, with many of the stadiums becoming ammunition dumps or were torn down for land to grow barley.
As Japan began to rebuild from a demoralizing defeat in World War II, high-ranking Allied officials recognized baseball’s potential for boosting self-esteem and allowed it to continue. In 1950, large corporations supported the rejuvenation of teams. The JPBL also split into the present two leagues, the central and Pacific, which has six teams each, playing for a spot in the Japan World Series. By 1955, the professional game was really growing with the help of television. The Tokyo Giants became the most popular team with nine consecutive Japan championships from 1965-1973. The Giant’s Sadahara Oh had 868 home runs in a twenty-two year career (1958-1980), exceeding both Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron in the U.S. According to Whiting, pro baseball’s postwar growth in Japan parallels that of their skyrocketing gross national product and by the late 1980’s it was extremely lucrative, drawing nearly twenty million fans a year.
Today, baseball in Japan is one of the most heavily attended sporting events in the country. To illustrate the love for the game of baseball comparing the Japanese and the Americans, the United States has one weekly sports paper, where as Japan has at least seven dedicated solely to sports, which concentrate mostly on baseball. This shows that the popularity of Japanese baseball has grown and continues to grow tremendously. According to Whiting, a Japanese writer summed up his country’s love for the game by saying, “Baseball is perfect for us, if the Americans hadn’t invented it, we would have.”
Though both countries share an intense love for the game of baseball, there are numerous differences. For example, the sizes of the baseball stadiums an obvious difference, since balls that are usually homeruns in Japanese baseball would often end as a routine deep fly out in American stadiums. A recent trend in Japan for the construction of modernized domed stadiums is due in part of American influence, but most importantly the rainy weather of Japan during the baseball season. On the contrary, the trend in American baseball is for outdoor “throwback” stadiums where the designs have a evocative feeling of the stadiums of old. On the playing surface itself, outdoor baseball infields in Japan are entirely dirt, while in America, the infield consists mostly of grass with dirt baselines and batter’s box. In Japan, each team is only allowed three foreign players on their active rosters, while in previous years in the United States as well as today, nearly all major league rosters contain several foreign-born players. Another difference is the treatment of umpires. In Japan, physically abusing the umpires is allowed, but only for Japanese-born players. Quite often, Japanese players are allowed to push, bump into, and punch the umpires without any kind of penalty whatsoever. Japanese baseball experimented with a gaijin (foreign, non-Japanese) umpire a few years ago. When the players and coaches from the Chunichi Dragons on a disputed call physically abused him, a scuffle ensued. The penalty for the players and coaches was a letter of reprimand from the league. The American umpire rightly left and went back to America within a few days after that for fear of his physical health. In the United States, if any player, regardless of race, creed, nationality, or gender touches an umpire, the player is usually ejected and suspended and/or fined for several games.
The concept of an off-season in Japan is a foreign insight. At the conclusion of the Japan Series, the players start practicing about a week or so after, making professional baseball in Japan an all-year sport. In America, the players usually start practicing in late February or early March. The issue of year round practices presents the example of Sachio Kinugasa, who held the consecutive games played mark until Cal Ripken Jr. surpassed him in 1995. Kinugasa played through all types on injuries, including a fractured shoulder blade in 1979. Kinugasa personified the Japanese concept of doryoku, meaning effort. This concept created some animosity between American players playing in Japan and the host country, due to the fact they were not accustomed to the long, time consuming, energy sapping pre-game practices that Japanese baseball payers viewed as symbolic of doryoku. Summing up what he viewed as the major difference in philosophies between the United States and Japan, former San Francisco Giant and Kinetsu Buffalo Chris Arnold, stated, “I’ll tell you the big difference between Japan and the U.S. In the U.S., we believe that a player has a certain amount of natural ability and with practice he reaches a certain peak point, but after that no amount of practice will make him better because after a certain point your ability reaches its limits. But the Japanese believe there is no peak point. They don’t recognize limits.”
As evident in the Whiting book, You Gotta have Wa, Japanese baseball may treat this concept of wa as its unwritten golden rule. The perception of wa is personified in the uniformity-preaching proverb, “The nail that sticks up shall be hammered down”. This group harmony among the team’s various personalities and the franchise’s fiscal goals is seen as the ultimate objective and always overrides singularity and individual accomplishments. Ironically, the corporate side of Japanese baseball plays an interesting role of sacrificing the individual so that the entire team can be successful. Many have displayed their dislike for such a system of corporate “sponsorship.” In a recent interview, sports journalist Masayuki Tamaki stated, “Japanese professional baseball is “professional” in name only. It is nothing but corporate baseball with teams used for propaganda for the parent company and for promoting parent company merchandise. The Yomiuri group owns the most popular baseball team and exerts influence over both professional leagues. The Asahi Shimbun and the Mainichi Shimbun both sponsor popular high school tournaments. High school baseball is used to promote private schools and professional baseball is used to promote newspaper circulation.”
Moving on from the players, Whiting covers the significant subject of the oendan, the organized groups of fans that fill the Japanese baseball stadiums. The oendan ostensibly coalesce the infatuation of British soccer hooligans with the self-control of the aristocracy. In Japan, the expected role of the oendan is to cheer feverishly no matter what the outcome of the game may be, being sincerely devoted to the team, cheering and/or singing through the entire game. This is an interesting sidelight to the tour of Japanese baseball culture, as many avid sports fans in the United States have been known to boo at the mere sight of Santa Claus or any mistake committed by their favorite team. To somewhat disagree with Whiting, when he states that the game of baseball and the role of the oendan provides the Japanese people a chance to “let it all hang out,” they are still very reserved in their actions.
However, their actions in relation to many of the spectators at sporting events in the United States presents a breath of fresh air from the violence and extreme intoxication that is all too common here in the United States. The average sarariman works hard, and is expected to hide his or her true feelings and desires during the business day in deference to the company. And when alone or in a small group, this attitude of shyness or reserve continues. However, the oendan is seen as the perfect escape valve for the internalized emotions and pressures of daily life, enabling the sarariman to lose his inhibitions and reveal his other boisterous self. These examples represent simple characteristics of the same mob-like tendencies seen at any crowded stadium, regardless of location, culture, reserved behavior or drunken violence. If a society accepts violence and intolerant actions (and on the contrary) as normal, the crowds at their sporting venues will mirror this toleration.
The social aspect of baseball applies to other sports outside of baseball itself. However, the focus presented will delve into the idea of baseball serving as a form of civil religion, baseball as form of war, baseball building character, and the unification of baseball and Japanese culture. Charles Prebish, professor of religious studies at Penn State University, foreshadowed the possibility of baseball and sports playing the role of a civil religion by stating, “It is not just a parallel that is emerging between sports and religions, but rather a complete identity. Sport is religion for growing number of Americans.” With baseball serving as new form of quasi-religion, similarities and differences can be drawn between the two institutions. Theologian Michael Novak was quoted in 1976, arguing that sports are a form of “natural” religion, because “an impulse for freedom, respect for ritual limits, a zest for symbolic meaning, and a longing for perfection shape both sports and religion.” This same zest for baseball as an escape from the rigors and extreme structure is evident with those who make up the oendan, as they practice baseball as their secular religion.
Among the similarities between baseball and religion: both have places and buildings for communal gatherings and special events, with baseball having stadiums and parks decorated with pictures of athletes and championship trophies, while some religions have churches and temples decorated with statues of saints and/or stained glass windows depicting great achievements. Both have procedures and dramas linked to personal betterment, with baseball having strategy and practices. Religions have sacred books, prayers and retreats. Both are controlled through structured organizations and hierarchal systems of authority made up of commissioners and bishops, athletic directors and pastors, coaches and priests. Both have heroes and legends about their accomplishments, with sports heroes elected to “halls of fame” and their stores told repeatedly by sports journalists and fans. Religions have their heroes that are raised to sainthood, with their stories repeated by religious writers, ministers, and Sunday school teachers. Both can evoke intense excitement and emotional commitment from individuals and groups. Both emphasize asceticism in that they stress discipline, self-denial, repetition, and the development of character, with the notion of “no pain, no gain” promoted by many coaches and ministers alike.
With many similarities come many differences as well. Religious beliefs, meanings and rituals events are grounded in the sacred and the paranormal realm, whereas sports beliefs, meanings, rituals and events are grounded in the sacrilegious and the material realm. The purpose of religion is to rise above the circumstances and conditions of material life in the pursuit of spiritual goals, whereas the purpose of sport is to focus on material issues in the pursuit of pleasure, fame, or fortune here and now. Religion is essentially rooted in faith, where as sport is essentially rooted in tangible rules and relationships. Essentialists highlight fundamental differences between the meanings underlying a baseball team’s commencement ceremony and a baptism, between a seventh inning stretch and silent prayer during a religious service, though all are seen as important or traditional practices. They often worry that when religion and sports come together, the essential character of religion becomes secularized and corrupted by the sport. Though essentialists may recognize overlap between baseball and religion, they will also stick to their position that sport and religion are fundamentally and essentially different. Sport is never religion-like, or that the social and psychological consequences of sport are always different from the consequences of religion.
The combination of sports, in particular baseball in Japan due to its cult like following of the oendan, and religious beliefs offers little promise for changing other dominant forms of sport. In fact, in some cases, it may actually obscure an awareness of the need for reforms and social transformations. Of course, individual athletes may alter their sport related behaviors when they combine sport and religion in their own lives, but at this time such changes have had no observable affect on what occurs in most sports. The recent emphasis of athletes on playing hard for the glory of God or gods has been the newest religious fundamentalist movement in spreading their beliefs by using sports as a medium. Contrasting what Coakley states earlier, data suggests that religion has been used to reaffirm and intensify orientations that lead to success in competitive sports. Where this may lead in the future is still relatively unknown.
Historical evidence suggests that physical activities of one sort or another have existed in all cultures. However, the forms of these activities and the meanings people gave them were the results of people interacting with one another and determining what a sport should be like, who should play them, and how various sport activities should be integrated into their daily lives. To believe that sport activities over the yeas have evolved to fit a pattern of progress or modernization is to distort life experiences of people all over the world. What is created out of these first games is what we see as society today in our own sports. Baseball can be seen as a form of war, not in the context of horrific casualties and massive rebuilding of destroyed cities, but rather the aggressive nature the game takes on as players exert doryoku to win, but in the case of the Japanese, honor and respect your opponent, teammates and coaches as well. The concept of war in sport is aptly states by George Orwell, “Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting.”
A popular belief is that playing sports teaches people to control aggressive responses in the face of stress, defeat, hardship, and pain. In making this case, people often assume that the lessons people learn through enduring such negative conditions in sports will carry over to the rest of life and enable them to behave nonaggressively despite other types of adversity that they may encounter. However, the training of Japanese baseball players emphasizes nonviolence, mastery of skills, and respect for authority. The Japanese players also use this time to develop bonds between each other that may carry on through an entire lifetime. Yet, this form of socialization is a critical process in which passive players are molded by economic, social or political forces to become compliant workers and eager consumers of the idea of wa. This example creates a clear picture in which elitist rules oppressively organized countries and overbearing team owners and managers run an autocratic, military-style of coaching that produces athletes that are obedient, physically conservative, and willing to engage in violence to achieve goals approved by those superiors in direct control.
There are outlying deviant players that contradict this concept, such as Hiromitsu Ochiai and Suguru Egawa, both of whom Whiting focused on his You Gotta Have Wa book. Both of these players were a shock to the mainstream Japanese baseball world, for neither exhibited Wa; instead they were braggarts, rebellious, and seen as the first “Japanese badboys.” In my opinion, this rise in “poor behavior” is the result of real experiences that have always been there and is now being revealed by more rapacious journalists. However, a switch has been not tuned on, igniting these deviant players to rebelling against the traditional aspects of the Japanese game. Quite possibly, the viewing public maybe afraid that such abnormal actions will spread to their ever-popular amateur game. The amateurs that take part in the Koshien tournament can be immortalized with a single swing of the bat. What is ironic is that for a game that preaches group harmony and continuity among the team, many individuals are raised up, such as the great Sadaharu Oh, the Japanese version of Babe Ruth (without the alcoholism and often rambunctious, abrasive personality), to idol-like levels that would not have been achieved without their individual talent. Those wishing to conform to the mainstream, though, still heavily outnumber these deviant players.
Beliefs about the consequences of playing a sport vary from culture to culture. However, the notion of playing a sport such as baseball building character has been and continues to be widely accepted in many cultures. This form of character logic has been used as a basis for encouraging young children to play sports, funding sports programs, building stadiums, promoting teams and leagues, and sponsoring world events such as the Olympic Games. This often unquestioned belief that sports are inherently character building has led people to ignore important things about sports and their experiences. Some of these important aspects, often referred to as a power and performance model, are the use of strength, speed, and power to push human limits and aggressively dominate opponents in the quest for victory and championships. This concept is made evident by the year round practicing of the Japanese to be fully prepared for the pending season ahead. Also, the idea that excellence is proved through competitive success and achieved through intense dedication (such as doryoku) and hard work combined with making sacrifices, risking one’s personal well being and playing with pain (as evident with the Kinugasa case). Social constructs such as the creation of hierarchal authority structure in which athletes are subordinate to coaches and coaches are subordinate to owners and administrators ( also evident in the case of Tatsunori Hara, which is used to show the role of reverence for authority in the Japanese culture. Hara was a teenage baseball star that always followed the advice of his coaches, yet never fully realized his tremendous untapped potential. The Hara case is a clear example of this cultural respect for superiors, even if the tutelage coming from the superiors is possibly hindering the physical development of a young, gifted player).
Another subject presented with the game of baseball and sports in general is the issue of social class status creating inequality among athletes and their opportunities. The lifestyles of middle-income and working-class people tend to include sports that by tradition are free and open to the public, sponsored by public funds, or made available through public schools. When people spend so much time and energy coping with the challenges of everyday life, they have few resources left to develop sport participation traditions as part of their lifestyles. Furthermore, when hard work has not made them winners in the economy, they may have little interest in playing or watching sports popularly associated with an ideology claiming that poverty is associated with laziness and lack of character. On the other hand, those who have been successful in the economy are very supportive of that ideology that they are willing to spend thousands of dollars each year to keep up their sporting lifestyle so they can reaffirm the cultural ideas that work to their advantage. Obviously, the game of baseball is relatively inexpensive to play, does not require special clothing, and can be played in any open area. The rise of the middle class in Japan, with their increasing discretionary income, has been essential to the growth of the game of baseball.
Despite such incremental growth of the game, Japanese baseball has lent itself over the years to a litany of stereotypic images, familiar to many readers: grueling over practice, abject obedience to coaches and managers, timid strategies, abiding prejudice against foreign players. There is enough truth to each of these to explain their durability and popularity, but like most exaggerated images, they capture poorly the variety in the game and its considerable changes over a long history in Japan This variety and this history are well illustrated by the distinctive features of the Kansai area teams. Stereotypes also extend to the fans, which tend to be dismissed as hysterical groupies, slavishly following their team through maniacal and monotonous collective cheering. These people are given the opportunity to shed their traditional social restraints, an opportunity they take full advantage of with taiko drums, horns, whistles and other noisemakers nonstop for a solid nine-plus innings.
However, there may be a deeper structure to their cheering other than just monotonous clamor. Takahashi Hidesato, associate professor of physical education sociology at the Nara University of Education, has studied both the Hiroshima Carp and the Hanshin Tiger oendan cheering and suggests that the fundamental rhythmic pattern of these cheers is a three- or seven-beat evocative of agricultural song cycles that date to the medieval centuries and that represented appeals to the gods for fertility and harvest, which contrast two-beat patterns found in chants and songs that were messages from the gods to the human world, such as fire warnings (“Hi-no-yÃ?Â´jin”!). Emblematically, the cheering can be seen as both for the players and to the celestial agents, in particular the goddess of victory.
The first time visitor to a professional baseball game in Japan will also notice the anonymous uniformity in the bleacher crowds. However, there is a rather intricate organization of fans, which has both deep historical significance and some fairly recent organizational schemes. Well-known in the urban commoner society of the Edo period, especially from the Genroku Era on, were the teuchi renchÃ?Â», or “hand-clapping clubs” from commoner neighborhoods, or fire squads or guild workers who organized around particular kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers and who exhibited their loyalties with color-coded scarves and seat cushions. These claques were celebrated for their precisely timed shouts and elaborate and distinctive hand-clapping routines whenever their actor or wrestler appeared. Many times, they were reprimanded for their violent meetings with rival clubs in the theatres, in the temple grounds on sumo days, or in the streets.
The genesis of cheerleading at baseball games is as unfamiliar to the Japanese as the sport of baseball is itself. The barnstorming Waseda and Keio baseball clubs that toured the United States in the early 20th century were so awed by the US collegiate cheering at football games that they took extensive notes of the patterns and instruments and brought them back to Japan. Cheerleading would become its own club activity, a colorful and closely controlled display of school spirit that remains today at the high school and university levels. Professional teams adopted a number of elements from the school teams, mostly in an effort to diffuse any hostilities from fans that felt playing for pay would denigrate the proletarian ideal that is associated with school baseball. For sponsorship and support, most of the early club organized kÃ?Â´enkai (fan associations) that were often just employee groups given free tickets and encouraged to provide vocal support for the company team. Flags, megaphones, and cheer songs were used for color and solidity, although accounts of the early decades signify that most spectators were not part of structured groups.
The noisy and colorful presence of fan clubs is certainly one of the key features that distinguish professional baseball in Japan from its older sibling in the United States. Yet, one must be careful in appreciating the significance of this difference. First, it was not national character but local circumstances that prompted the shisetsu alliance at KÃ?Â´shien. The efforts of the various founders are not attributed to an inevitable Japanese collectivist urge, but to factors like the small-business character of the Osaka-area economy and the gambling that plagued Japanese professional baseball long after it had been largely rooted out of U.S. baseball. Finally, while absent from professional baseball in the United States, organized fan cheering is certainly a crucial and occasionally disruptive element of other Western sports, including American football and European and South American soccer.
What baseball has in store for Japan in the future is obviously unknown. Clearly the fan base is as solid as the soccer hooligans that many of us see in Europe, clambering for their team as long as their vocal cords allow. Baseball is discussed among the locals of Japan second only to the weather, symbolically presenting Japan as enamored with baseball as much as the United States has been for over a century. The skill level of players has also greatly improved, providing further hope that the professional teams in Japan may be equivalent to those in the United States. In 1988 Sparky Anderson, after managing a team of major-leaguers in an exhibition series in Japan against the Japanese All-Stars, he provided insight on the Japanese team that had played them to a record of 3-2-2 in the series, saying “The Japanese have improved a lot. I think people ought to stop comparing them with us.”