Why Does Japan Love Baseball?

Hideki Matsui, Japanese baseball star
Hideki Matsui, baseball star from Japan. Koji Watanabe / Getty Images

Everybody knows that baseball is a huge deal in Japan.  But the casual observer might assume that the Japanese love for the all-American pastime began in the 1940s or 1950s, during the American Occupation of Japan after World War II. Some bored GIs, hanging around with local kids, probably taught them the basics, right?  In fact, the fascination goes back much further than that.

Baseball first came to Japan in the nineteenth century, believe it or not, during the Meiji Era.

 In 1872, an American teacher at what would later be Tokyo University taught his students how to play.  The game spread slowly and quietly throughout Japan after that, but did not really explode onto the scene until 1934.

That was the year that an all-star team from the American major leagues toured Japan, led by none other than Babe Ruth.  The all-star team, which also included Lou Gehrig, destroyed Japan's best amateur players in an exhibition game - an event that motivated Japan to start a professional league of its own just two years later.

In 1936, Japan launched its own major league, which included seven teams.  Today, the Nippon Professional Baseball League boasts twelve teams - as it has since 1956.  Japanese players are so good that many of them have moved to the United States to play in the American big leagues - players like Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Kenji Johjima.  However, such globe-trotting stars usually find that baseball in the US is not quite like Japanese baseball.

It's not too surprising, given Japan's very different culture, and the long history of baseball there, that the game has diverged from its American ancestor.  For example, in the US, an umpire's call is the law - even if he is obviously as blind as a bat!  In Japan, in contrast, with its less individualistic culture, difficult calls are usually made by several officials in consultation, who then explain their decision in detail to the crowd (and the players).

 

In the US, adult fans sometimes trample small children in an attempt to claim foul balls, which they will then hawk on Ebay.  Japanese fans, on the other hand, calmly pick up the foul balls and hand them to the ushers, who take them down to the home team's dugout to be reused.

The Japanese equivalent of the seventh inning stretch includes a general garbage tidy-up, in which the fans make sure that the stadium is tidy.  In a stark contrast, player salaries are kept secret, so that the players won't be envious or get distracted by another player's larger payday.  In the US, meanwhile, salaries are shouted at full volume by the talking heads on ESPN as soon as the deals are inked.

In Japan, teams are not independent entities - each is owned by a major corporation, and operates as a sort of public relations machine for the parent company.  For example, the Tokyo-area Chiba Lotte Marines team is owned by the Lotte Candy corporation, while the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters belongs to a meat-packing company, called Nippon Ham.

But never fear, American baseball purists.  Some aspects of the game are sacred, no matter which side of the Pacific you are on.  For example, concession stands in Japan sell classic baseball fare: "hottu doggus" and "dry beeru," alongside curry and rice.