Sunday 28 May 2023

Samurai Japan and Japan's Most Popular Sport: Baseball!

The start of May featured the Golden Week holiday - a series of consecutive holidays giving Japanese the rare chance to take a block of time off to travel or return to one's hometown - and the weather was absolutely gorgeous! Many Japanese enjoy cycling and hiking during Golden Week - the picture shows a stunning view of Mount Fuji from Oyama, Kanagawa, a sacred mountain not too far from Tokyo billed as one of the great spots to hike in eastern Japan. Resting at home afterwards - I like to put a hammock out on the balcony - there is one sound during the months of March to October that personifies the Japanese summer, perhaps even more then the buzzing cicadas - the crack of bat hitting ball. Indeed, a key and eagerly watched event of the summer is the National High School Baseball Championships (Natsu Koshien=甲子園) the largest scale amateur sport event in Japan which culminates in a two-week final tournament in August.

As a Brit I'm pretty clueless about baseball - I didn't even realise there was a UK team until recently - but I did attend one game in Japan (in Fukuoka) and was quite taken aback by all the organised chanting and dancing. There was also a mass release of rocket ballons at some point in the game - and beer sellers wandering around with giant kegs on their back! My American friends tell me that Japanese baseball actually differs from the US version, with a smaller ball, playing field, and strike zone plus a twelve or fifteen inning limit in which draws are allowed - though that doesn't mean a whole lot to this baseball ignorant Brit to be honest! Although a relatively new sport, it has become a part of the Japanese psyche and is pretty much the unofficial national pastime in terms of popularity. It was introduced in 1872 by an American and the professional league was establised in 1936; today there are two leagues of six teams. The picture shows the monument of the birth of baseball in Japan at Gakushi Kaikan, Tokyo.

While baseball remains the most popular sport both to watch live or on TV (see here), in terms of participation the number of people in Japan playing soccer (7.5m) recently edged above the baseball playing population (7.3m). This may change following "Samurai" Japan's recent victory in the World Baseball Classic (WBC) in March which saw Japan become world number one with a dramatic 3-2 victory over America in the final. In Japan, this game recorded 42.4% household viewership rating (視聴率), astonishing given that the game started at 8am on Wednesday here! The quarter-final between Japan and Italy was actually the highest-rated game in WBC history at an incredible 48.7%, meaning the game was watched by almost half the population. The Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum (野球殿堂博物館) at Tokyo Dome is currently holding a special exhibition to mark Japan's triumph and soccer-loving BritishProf went to check it out. The sacrifices one makes as a blog writer!

The museum is rather small but packed full of mementos of previous WBC games, including signed baseballs, winner's medals, and Ohtani's jersey from this year's victory (pictured). Unfortunately, the actual trophy was doing the rounds of Japan's baseball grounds when I visited. There is also a lot of information on the birth and development of baseball in Japan and of course a huge room featuring all those who have been elevated to the hall of fame (including quite a number of non-Japanese).

And so back to the hammock - and the hypnotising thump of bat on ball and cheers of the crowd carrying on the wind. It's incredible I can hear the chants and songs from so far away; below is a video clip from a National High School Baseball Championship game showing just how frenzied a Japanese baseball crowd can get! In the meantime, if there are any sports lovers among you, especially baseball enthusiasts, do please drop me a note in the COMMENTS! (Used under Creative Commons Attribution license. Credit to @chibasportsouendan, direct video link here.)


Tony Usher said...

I see there's a well-organised cricket league in Japan. three divisions each of 27 teams. Perhaps you may want to take a look at a match and report back. I'm sure you're au fait with the rules!

Chris Burgess said...

Thanks for the comment Tony. Didn't realise cricket was so popular here - most Japanese are completely unfamiliar with the sport! Rugby, on the other hand, is experiencing real growth, especially after the 2019 Japan World Cup.

Richard Pluke said...

Ohtani is having arguably the greatest baseball season ever - leads in 5 batting categories, and is second in strikeouts.

Chris Burgess said...

Thanks for the feedback Rich! Despite playing outside Japan, Ohtani is by far the most popular athlete in Japan, more popular even than Ichiro Suzuki who spent 18-plus seasons in the big leagues. Phenomenal.