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NEWS LETTER ARCHIVE


11/15 Baseball fans in Japan

by Takafumi Iwasaki (MPP1)


Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Daisuke Matsuzaka. These superstars are just a few of the many Japanese baseball players who are now playing in the Major Leagues Playing in the Major Leagues is a dream for every young boy in Japan playing baseball. On the other hand, the TV viewing rate of the baseball games within Japan, for example, has been on the decline for years.

Nevertheless, whenever I am asked if Japanese professional baseball is dead, I always answer, “Of course not.” To the contrary, I believe that Japanese professional baseball has never been more exciting. In fact, in my book, it tops even Major League baseball itself.

Ever since I was a kid, baseball has always had a special resonance for me. My dad was a big fan of the Yakult Swallows, one of several Tokyo teams, and I’d go regularly with him to Meiji-Jingu Stadium for games. It was the most exciting place I could imagine. I feel like I can still remember everything. We’d get off the subway at Gaienmae station at 6 PM and find ourselves already absorbed in a human wave of fans donning team jerseys and uniforms and heading towards the stadium. Worry would suddenly come over us as we’d wonder whether all the seats were possibly already sold out. On the winding road to the stadium, countless booths would sell food and drinks, but we were too eager to reach the stadium to stop for anything as mundane as food. Then, after a five-minute walk, there the stadium would stand before us, sparkling in the dark of night. Even outside of the stadium, you could hear the loud cheers of the crowd, making the wait as my dad bought our tickets nearly intolerable. Was that a cheer for my team or the rival team? Passing the ticket gate and running up the stairs to the entrance, finally I could see the huge baseball field surrounded by tens of thousands of excited fans. After finding a seat, it felt like the day could now begin.

Of course, those descriptions could apply to nearly any Major League game. But there is no comparing Japanese baseball fans and Major League fans when it comes to the way they cheer for their team. The key difference is Japanese fans’ “unanimity”—a feeling that is palpable at any game.

Japanese fans usually use a so-called “megaphone,” which might be called a “thunder bar” in the U.S. Fans use these megaphones while more specialized fan groups blare their trumpets. Amazingly, every player has been dedicated his own special song by fans. Besides the megaphone, Japanese fans are not shy about putting to use towels, umbrellas, and pretty much anything else. A little crazy, you might ask? Perhaps. But if you jumped in with these fans and cheered for players with them, you would surely feel an exhilaration you had never experienced.

I’ve been to Major League ballgames twice. One was an Oakland A’s game and the other was a Baltimore Orioles game. Yes, they were great experiences in terms of being able to see “authentic” baseball. The year I saw the Orioles game was the last year for future Hall of Famer Carl Ripken Jr. and I was moved by the respect the fans showed him for his long career in baseball. And yes, I felt there was energy in the atmosphere. But I couldn’t get over the awkwardness of being at a ballgame without megaphones and trumpets and the fanatical fans who are supposed to use them. The stadium even felt quiet most of the time except when the home team scored. The truth is that I was bored during the game, which surprised me a lot. I asked myself, “Why are you bored? This is a real Major League baseball game, something you have been looking forward to watching for years!” But it just didn’t have the exhilaration of a ballgame at Meiji-Jingu Stadium. I missed the unanimity of Japanese baseball fans that allowed me to share the feeling of excitement even with strangers next to me.


11/30 Japanese Baseball is as strong as MLB?

by Takafumi Iwasaki (MPP1)

People sometimes ask me about the skill level of Japanese baseball. When I was a 1st grader in elementary school, I went to see the Japan-U.S. All-Star game held in the Tokyo Dome. What I witnessed was a tragedy. The Major League team severely beat the Japanese national team. You can easily imagine how shocked I was as a 1st grader. The heroes for Japanese kids were not able to do squat against the big American players. The Japanese leading hitter Kiyohara couldn’t even hit the ball and the most famous pitcher Kuwata allowed too many runs. On the way home, I couldn’t speak with my dad. It was the first and last time in my life that Japanese baseball disappointed me.

However, the event is a thing of the past. And by the time of the World Baseball Classic, the “World Cup” of baseball held in 2005, it was impossible not to have a completely different perception of Japanese baseball. The Japanese national team won the first prize with only two Major Leaguers, Ichiro and Otsuka, on the team. It was clear that Japanese professional baseball had reached the ultimate level. And those deep childhood wounds from witnessing that painful loss of the Japanese All-Stars15 years ago seemed to heal.

Recently, in comparing Japanese professional baseball with Major League baseball, some baseball commentators have disparaged Japanese baseball. “Major League baseball is quite different from Japanese baseball,” they say. “The distance between players and fans is very close and that’s why people call a stadium a “ballpark.”” This may be true. But for me, that Japanese “Ball Park” has always entertained me. Fascinating fans and top-quality players taught me the true excitement of the sport

As I have tried to explain, Japanese professional baseball is unique not only because of its ardent fans, but also due to the high level of play. Since the time Japanese people “imported” Yakyu (“baseball” in Japanese) from the US, Japanese baseball has developed in its own way, adapting Japanese culture. That’s why the Japanese people came to love baseball. And the unanimity of fans and the discipline of players seemed to both reflect and express Japanese culture perfectly. After many decades, finally we have been able to say, “This is OUR baseball.”

If I have a son in the future, I will probably take him out to a ballgame at the old Jingu stadium. I know great fans and great players will be there. Cheering Swallows players, I will proudly tell my son, “This is not Major League baseball. This is Japanese professional baseball. This is our national treasure.”