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Baseball has truly become a global sport, and besides America, probably no nation has embraced the game more than the Land of the Rising Sun. Why is baseball so popular in Japan?
Japan has embraced baseball for a slew of reasons including a history with the game dating back about 150 years, notable visits by hugely popular American players, a post-World War II re-growth for the love of baseball, and eventually the integration of top Japanese players on American professional clubs.
Since becoming established on the islands, baseball in Japan blossomed with growth of the nation’s own professional leagues, international player stardom, Olympic glory, and an infiltration of hometown players into America’s Major League Baseball (MLB).
Attention to Sadaharu Oh’s career home runs, Hideo Nomo’s pitching feats for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Ichiro Suzuki’s Hall of Fame-caliber MLB career all contributed to solidify Japan’s place in baseball lore.
However, those players and feats alone are not responsible for the popularity of baseball in Japan — where it’s considered the national sport. As with baseball in the United States, fans’ ties with baseball in Japan were nurtured over a dozen or more decades, eventually amplified with the introduction of mass media.
Baseball’s History with Japan
Baseball has been around in Japan longer than major league baseball has existed in the United States. Baseball was introduced in Japan in 1872 by Horace Wilson, an American English teacher in Tokyo. (Major League Baseball began in 1876 with formation of the National League).
Other teachers and missionaries from the United States then continued to popularize baseball throughout the eastern nation in the decades that followed. Progression and growth of baseball there was steady, with a victory by a Tokyo high school team over a squad of foreigners early in the 20th century solidifying baseball as a school sport for high schools and colleges, and attracting significant media attention.
Much like old-time Harvard-Yale battles promoted growth of college football in the United States, Japanese school rivalries like Waseda University vs. Keio University did so for Japanese baseball. A trip by a Waseda University team to America in 1905 is a notable event in the history of Japanese baseball, as over the next three decades American professional players would trek to Japan for promotional tours after the MLB seasons concluded.
All this helped nurture slow growth of baseball in Japan, until the watershed year of 1934 when the first Japanese professional baseball team was born, and big-name American players arrived one off-season to fully propel baseball forward in Japan.
The Babe, Other MLB Stars & Pro Baseball in Japan
A post-season tour of Japan by Babe Ruth in 1934 generated enough new interest to nurse formation of Japan’s first professional baseball league, in 1936. In the mid-1930s, major league players like Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx, along with Ruth at times, played exhibition games against Japanese teams.
The Japanese pro league was halted in 1944 due to bombing to end World War II, but soon thereafter began the real blossoming of baseball for the island’s inhabitants. Then during the Allied Occupation and reconstruction — and backed by the recommendation of General Douglas MacArthur who wanted baseball returned to its pre-war popularity to boost citizen morale — baseball truly started to take off in Japan.
It culminated in 1950 with formation of what would become Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), which exists to this day. The league started large enough to host two leagues, the Central League and the Pacific League. Those leagues still operate, supplemented by what are essentially its minor leagues, the Western League and Eastern League, with short schedules to develop young players just like in the United States.
Japanese pro teams, including the popular Yomiuri Giants, the Hanshin Tigers of Osaka and the Seibu Lions in the Tokyo region, are delivering top players to Major League clubs to this day. More than 50 former Japanese pro league players now populate MLB rosters.
Slow Japanese Player Penetration of Major League Baseball
The trend of so many Japanese players today in MLB did not occur overnight. In fact, the first Japanese player to don a major league uniform did not occur until 1964 with pitcher Masanori Murakami of the San Francisco Giants. Still, real establishment of Japanese players in the MLB did not occur for 30 more years.
All this despite international attention to Japanese baseball hero Sadaharu Oh, as he surpassed all American career home records and ended up with 868 over a 22-year career ending in 1980.
It took Hideo Nomo’s success with the Los Angeles Dodgers starting in 1995 to solidify the trust of Major League clubs to sign and develop players from the Japanese pro teams. Relatively soon thereafter Japanese players became outright stars in America, most notably Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners, arguably the All-Time Hit King regardless of the league.
Each year it seems Japanese signees make a splash in baseball news outlets, including Shohei Ohtani when he signed with the Anaheim Angels. With prodigious power at the plate and a fastball approaching triple digits, Ohsani signed with the Angels in part to allow him to both pitch as well as bat.
More on Sadaharu Oh
Sadaharu Oh is known as the Babe Ruth of Japanese baseball, for good reason. Not only did he surpass the MLB career home run record of 755 by Henry Aaron (at the time, before Barry Bonds set the steroids-aided, asterisk-noted record years later), he did so not very long after Aaron made the chase of the record a national news item.
Oh was an unusual slugger both due to his moderate size, at 5-feet, 10-inches tall and weighing 173 lbs., but also for his unique batting stance and hitting style. After a tepid start to his career in the late 1950s, a batting coach instructed him to adopt a pre-pitch style of standing on one leg like a flamingo, lifting his lead leg high and tight to his body before exploding into pitches.
It worked, and has yet to be fully imitated by other players, at least for the power. Ichiro applies a similar batting approach, but he utilizes bat control more to spray the ball to all fields and take advantage of his superior speed.
American Players Heading East
Nippon Professional Baseball teams now can carry up to 4 foreign players on their roster, up from the limited 2 of past years. Stories of American players heading to Japan abound, and some gain experience and achieve enough success to return to the States and the MLB.
Often it’s longtime minor leaguers or borderline major leaguers who head east, either because they were targeted and scouted by Japanese teams, or to pursue a more consistent professional career. Notable successes in the NPB include:
- Willie Davis, the former Dodger all-star and Gold Glove winner who batted over .300 and hit 43 home runs in 2 seasons in Japan;
- Warren Cromartie who left the Expos at age 30 to spend many seasons in the NPB including 1989 when he was named most valuable player (MVP) of the Central League.
- Tuffy Rhodes, known for hitting 3 home runs on opening day once for the Chicago Cubs, actually played 13 years in the NPB and holds the record for most home runs by foreign players with 474 (placing 11th overall in the Japan league’s history).
Three non-Japanese players toiled so long in the NPB that the league granted them “Japanese Player” status, eliminating foreign-player restrictions. (Interestingly, Rhodes was not one of them).
It is important to note that cultural differences between the Japanese and American games — as well as in their societies — often results in short stays for American players abroad. Player salaries in the NPB do not compare with what players make in the MLB, though Japan’s league pays more than what American minor leaguers can make hence so many moves of young players east.
Differences between NPB and MLB
It’s notable that player records in Japanese and American pro baseball are difficult to compare, because the Japanese league has shorter season schedules and generally smaller fields on stadiums.
The 6 teams in each NPB league play 146 games per season, basically 6 games a week with Mondays off, late March or early April to October (just like MLB). (A regular MLB season is 162 games). The top NPB teams then play in the Nippon Series (or Japan Series) championship tournament playoffs — their version of the World Series.
Overall, NPB rules are basically the same as in MLB, with some notable exceptions. The NPB uses slightly smaller baseballs that are wound tighter than those used in the United States; the strike zone is smaller; and many Japanese stadiums’ playing fields are smaller resulting in “cheap” home runs. Five NBL clubs have fields that violate the MLB’s minimum field sizes for stadiums per the distance from home plate to outfield fences.
Many American baseball pros call the NPB’s level of play “AAAA,” meaning a notch above the triple-A highest level of American minor league baseball, but not as competitive as in the Major Leagues. Cultural differences between the games include a less aggressive, more polite or respectful game in Japan. (Read: No beanballs or rushing the mound, vicious slides to break up double plays are rare).
Question: Are other nations as into baseball as Japan?
Answer: Yes. It’s not so much nations as it is regions. In the Far East, joining Japan in baseball popularity terms are Taiwan, South Korea and even MainLand China. Another region where the sport has a stronghold is Latin America, particularly in Caribbean islands like the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.
Q.: Why do Japanese pro teams seem to adopt team names used by MLB clubs?
A.: Think of it along the lines of Japanese residents emulating American pop culture. When a brand of jeans gets hot in America, odds are that the phenomenon will repeat in Japan. Same held true long ago when the NPB clubs were formed and named: team owners liked the brand-name recognition that came with use of Giants, or Tigers. (Note: this occurred often in the old Negro Leagues in the United States, also).
In summary, Japanese names for teams could be awkward for Americans to pronounce or remember, so part of adopting team names (and even uniform styles) of MLB clubs was an effort to be more easily accepted by baseball fans in the United States. Broadly, they are marketing moves.
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