American baseball spills beyond pastime and into national ritual, with more performances of the national anthem than the most fervent political race. But baseball in Japan strips the bleachers of their red, white and blue flare and keeps it firmly in the realm of the rising sun.
Here, the game is literally called “fielding ball,” and the twists on the game reveal as much to observers of Japanese culture as any sumo match.
Baseball practice starts at 9 a.m. with a 10-mile run and lasts 10 hours, “all in smothering 85 degree heat with just as much humidity.” Oh, and that’s just little league. In the big leagues, players are practicing at full-game intensity every day. Consider Choji Murata, who won 21 games and led the league with 202 strikeouts and an ERA of 1.82 in 1976.
Murata thought a pitcher should never stop working. He threw 100 or more pitches every day in practice, and in games, he would throw every pitch as hard as he could. … This was contrary to standard practice in the U.S., where pitchers take three to four full days of rest between starts. – Robert Whiting
“Practice makes perfect” doesn’t exactly describe the Japanese approach to training. Think, “practice is perfect.” If you aren’t preparing for the decisive moment, you aren’t working hard enough.
Jo-ha-kyū is a distinctly Japanese way of plotting out a drama. Roughly translated, it means “start slow, get quicker, and end quickest.” While it comes from Noh and Kabuki dramas, it also works with sumo – where wrestlers face off for 5 minutes before a fast, 10-second struggle – and baseball.
Consider baseball as a kind of drama: The slow downtime between pitches. The action gets quicker as the pitcher winds up for the throw. After a 90 m.p.h.pitch and the crack of a bat, the action is swift and the end comes quickest.
Then we go back to waiting.
(Baseball, with its cycles of innings, rotations of batters, segmented periods of at-bats and strikeouts, also fits perfectly into Japan’s love of segmentation.)
People often comment that the Japanese are awfully quiet during a baseball game. This is not actually true. The truth is that Americans are extraordinarily loud during baseball games.
For the Japanese, the tension of the buildup is part of the drama. The time between the action is just as important as the movement of the actors. On American television, our commentators fill up this space. Americans like to talk.
I suspect professional athletes know what it means to be “in between” the pitch and the hit. There’s drama as the pitcher and batter try to get inside each other’s head. These moments – like so much of America’s reflective moments – are lost to commercial breaks.
The Japanese crowd is not austere. They want to catch pop-flys and they cheer when their guy slides into third. But they appreciate the head games that take place between throws.
Unified, scheduled chanting
At a Japanese baseball game you’ll be handed free balloons and sticks to bang together. The balloons are spectacular. Inflated, they look like the swaying fingers of a sea anemone; once released they shoot through the air, filling the sky with latex and the buzzing sound of fluttering propellers.
The thing to know about this video is that everyone had the balloons for the entire game, and that no one – sparing some New Zealand high school boys – released them at any other moment. The Kiwis actually had a manager come over to tell them to settle down after they launched a balloon at an inappropriate moment.
Similarly, the bashing of the noisy sticks was contained to short bursts as the teams changed position. Which brings me to a point of contention with my own culture.
It seems that the English-speaking world can’t be trusted to contain itself with flying noisemakers, a bizarre fixation that makes us the best in the world at annoying everyone and then beating them at war.
Hand an English-speaker something that makes a sound, and you will hear that sound repeatedly for several days. The Japanese, God bless them, know when to stop smashing things together and watch the goddamned game.
Weird Rules for Weird Reasons
Games in Japan are limited to 12 innings because otherwise fans might miss the last train home. Playoffs are determined by comparing the percentage of wins, so ties get dropped.
Also, there is a cap of four foreigners per team, which surprises no one.
The Formal Ceremonies
Japan is big on formal ceremonies, and that means many speeches at the start or end of events. Baseball is no different. After a recent Softbank Hawks victory over the Rakuten Golden Eagles, I was treated to:
- A dance performed by all eight (8!) Softbank Hawks mascots, including Harry Hawk’s brave flag-waving from the top of a moving golf cart.
- The launching of the balloons.
- A speech by two children who watched the game.
- A question and answer period with the two children who watched the game.
- A speech by the manager of the Softbank Hawks, Koji Akiyama, denying his role in the victory.
- A question and answer period with Koji Akiyama.
- A speech by the Hawks’ pitcher, Tsuyoshi Wada, denying his role in the victory.
- A question and answer period with Tsuyoshi Wada.
- A rousing cheer by “Max,” a fluent white foreigner who makes weird Engrish puns on his name, such as “Yoroshiku Onegaishimax,” in a self-parodying radio-announcer voice, aka, Guy With The Most Awesome Job In Japan.
- Indoor fireworks which, if asked, would deny any part in the Hawks’ victory.
Great article. I was a bit surprised you didn’t mention the beer girls though. :)
Hanshin Tigers’ games are ridiculous. The group chanting is kind of exciting at first, but get tiresome very quickly (for me anyway). The crowds aren’t quiet at all, and most teams’ have informal bands, who are just fans who organize themselves and go to the games with instruments to lead the cheers.
Forgot to say – nice article! Japanese baseball is an experience.
Yes, the beer girls! Remember how obsessed I was with the fact that they all had horribly bruised knees from kneeling on concrete steps to pour people beer while not blocking anyone’s view of the game? Ahhh, Japan …
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I also deny any part in the Hawks’ victory.
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For some reason (that reason being that my dad asked me to bring him back a Japanese baseball hat from Japan) I suddenly started to get interested in baseball last week (while I never cared for it during my 7 years in the US). Now, I can’t wait to go watch a game. (Go Olive Guyners!)
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