Tuesday September 21, 2021

‘Every kid plays’: how Japan fell in love with baseball

AFP
July 27, 2021

TOKYO: Every spring and summer, baseball fever hits Japan. But it’s not a professional league keeping people glued to their screens — it’s high-school baseball, in a country where the sport borders on religion.

It’s no surprise then that baseball is returning to the Olympics at Tokyo 2020. Every weekend, at diamonds across the country, children wince with concentration as they practise, cheered on not just by parents but also passers-by, watching just as intently.

More than a century after it was introduced to the country by an American English teacher, Japan has made baseball its own, with a playing style that prioritises teamwork, and a positively fanatical fanbase.

In Japan, “every kid plays baseball, every boy plays baseball”, Itaru Kobayashi, a former player for the Chiba Lotte Marines, told AFP. “Baseball was invented in the United States, but somehow we fell in love with it,” said Kobayashi, now a sports management expert and a professor at Tokyo’s J.F. Oberlin University.

The game was introduced in 1872 by a teacher at Tokyo’s Kaisei Academy. But it took off after a team from the Ichiko high school beat a group of foreign residents in 1896, sparking a frenzy of interest and further matches against American teams.

“These games had symbolic significance in Japan because the Japanese were behind in many aspects, like commerce and industry,” said baseball expert Robert Whiting, who has spent decades in Japan.

“The message was that if we can beat the Americans at their own game, then surely we can surpass them in other fields,” added Whiting, author of “Tokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys... and Baseball.”

By the 1930s, a professional league had developed, and half-a-million people lined Tokyo’s streets in 1934 to welcome Babe Ruth and 14 other American baseball players on an all-star tour.

After World War II, baseball became Japan’s national pastime, with a particular reverence reserved for amateur play seen as untainted by money.

The devotion persists to this day. Fumihiko Kaneko, 31, arrived four hours early for a recent Sunday match in the Tokyo Big Six university league, despite already having tickets. He was thrilled at the chance to watch historic arch-rivals Keio and Waseda face off in the league, Japan’s oldest. “I’ve been a baseball fan since I was very little,” he told AFP.