Baseball: The Most Popular Sport in Japan
Surprisingly to many people, baseball (yakyu) is the most popular participatory and spectator sport in Japan. Its influence is spreading throughout the country. Almost every Japanese person has played baseball at least once when they were a kid. From elementary school teams to professional leagues, there are baseball teams for people of all levels.
About Japanese Baseball
In Japanese, baseball is called yakyu, consisting of “ya” (field) and “kyu” (ball). After being introduced to Japan, American baseball was Japanized. The cultural traditions of cooperation, hard work, and respect for age permeate every aspect of the sport. Contrary to American baseball emphasizing individual ability, Japanese baseball places more emphasis on the group. Players are valued more for their contributions to the team than for personal skills. Many Japanese players view their team as family and show the utmost loyalty and respect to the group, which leads to the fact that there are fewer player transactions in the Japanese baseball league than those in MLB.
The Japanese cultural tradition of hard work also surprises Americans who come to Japan to play baseball. Training in Japanese is literally “endless” - it can last ten hours or more a day, and there are no rest days. Even injured players are expected to play with the team because players should push themselves to the limit. Notably, the team manager has absolute authority. Any disrespect to the manager (from disobedience to criticism) is a transgression. Any player making such a mistake, even those with outstanding skills, will be relegated to the bench or even fired.
Cheering in Japanese Baseball Games
Japanese baseball is an exciting game that has many loyal fans. Similar to soccer, fans of visiting teams have a section designated for them. In Japan, each baseball team has its own cheering song, and each core player has his own cheerleading slogan! The oendan is the Japanese cheerleading squad but relies more on making noise with taiko drums than on any kind of acrobatic moves seen in American cheerleading. They are usually dressed in traditional costumes with the team logo, wave flags, and yell catchy cheers with horns and drums. It’s impressive that their cheers never stop, no matter what the score is. Even when their team loses badly, the oendan will still cheer for their team. All spectators can join the oendan easily.
The seventh inning of a baseball game is called the "Lucky 7". In Japan, when the game reaches the seventh inning, fans sing and then balloons are released into the air, making a loud noise. If you're attending a game in Japan, it's fun to join in the celebration. Just remember to take all your trash, including the balloons, home after the game!
Professional and Amateur Baseball
The highest level of baseball in Japan is Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), which is the Japanese equivalent of Major League Baseball (MLB). It consists of two leagues, the Central League (CL), including Chunichi Dragons, Hanshin Tigers, Hiroshima Toyo Carp, Yakult Swallows, and Yokohama DeNA BayStars, and the Pacific League (PL), including the Chiba Lotte Marines, the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, the Orix Buffaloes, the Seibu Lions, and the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles. The regular season is held from late March to October. In each season, the 12 teams plays 144 games in total. The season ends with The Climax Series, which determines which team from the CL and PL will advance to compete for the championship.
Believe it or not, the National High School Baseball Championship, known as Summer Koshien, is a bigger baseball event than NPB. It is a baseball tournament for high school students held during spring and summer of every year at Koshien Stadium in Hyogo Prefecture. Participating in Summer Koshien is key to a person's future career in the NPB. Winners and top players can become famous nationwide overnight and are fought over by professional teams. It is the dreams, passions, and endeavors of these young players that bring Summer Koshien public popularity and affection.