Baseball in Japan

Comparison is the natural knee-jerk reaction whenever you arrive in a new country. The mind wonders, “How is this place different, how is it the same?”

Japan has been no exception for me, as I find myself constantly comparing everything I don’t understand with the things that look vaguely familiar–like baseball.

What most people don’t know is that Japanese baseball has been around almost as long as American baseball. The first official baseball game was played in the United States in 1846. Less than 30 years later, in 1872, the game arrived in Japan by way of a boy’s school. The rest is history: baseball is Japan’s most popular spectator sport, with a dozen major league teams and a whole exciting culture built around attending games, be they high school, amateur, or pro.

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Fans of the Tohoko Rakuten Golden Eagles watch their team in Sendai, Japan (AE, NG)

I watched my first Japanese baseball game in the Kleenex Miyagi Baseball Stadium, the same stadium that was so badly damaged in the 2011 Great Tohoko Earthquake. Unlike America, I found the Japanese reluctant to discuss something so awful and traumatic and recent as the quake and the destructive tsunami that ensued. Again, I began to compare how my culture deals with suffering and tragedy versus that of the Japanese. Obviously, the differences are intricate and significant, but in the end, I saw one thing we had in common.

Sports are a huge part of my own culture and I recall how after 9/11, major sporting events quickly became epicenters of national catharsis, complete with stadiums chanting “USA, USA” for hours on end. This is how we reacted in America–the flag-waving and cheering of our favorite teams somehow helped us pick up the pieces and move on from something so horrible as a terrorist attack.

Likewise in Sendai, where the tragedy was felt just as deeply and where spirits are still rather shaken. In the city, I saw very little visual damage–quick repairs have made clean work of what must have been a far uglier scene. And yet, high up in the stands of Miyagi stadium, I could feel the collective urgency to cheer loudly and be excited for a team with the same name as the earthquake that hit here: Tōhoku.

The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles belong to the Pacific League of the NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) and have long been synonymous with Sendai. As I walked through the busy city streets, I noticed their maroon and gold colors (and golden eagle logo) practically everywhere. At the train station, a fan store sold jerseys, pennants, key chains, signed baseballs, calendars and more logo-emblazoned paraphernalia than even a SkyMall executive could dream up.

Wikipedia explaines that there were subtle differences between American and Japanese baseball regulations, for instance, that “The Japanese baseball is wound more tightly wound and is harder than an American baseball.” Maybe so. I have never unwound the two baseballs to compare their tautness, nor have I been hit by enough American or Japanese baseballs to be an accurate judge of their hardness.

What I did notice was that even way out in the outfield, I could hear the crack of the bat against said hard ball and that the crowd was cheering and drumming with such uniformity, it felt  . . . organized?

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A young fan waits in the outfield, in hopes of catching a fly ball in Sendai, Japan (AE,NGS)

In the West, sporting events also have group cheers, but these erupt out of a mob mentality–one person shouts loud enough, then another joins in, a group is formed. These are only momentary fads, and suddenly, everyone repeats the cheer until it loses energy and dies away until another one comes along. Not so in Japan, where the “cheerleader” is dressed with a distinctive robe and accompanied by drummers and flag wavers. Like a sweaty conductor leading a symphony orchestra, this cheerleader directs the fans with impeccable detail–when to drum, at which speed, when to shout what and when to go silent. The crowd was exuberant, and some were probably inebriated (albeit placidly), but all were obedient soldiers in the cheering section, myself included.

For three hours I sat with the fans of the home team–this was Tohoko cheering for Tohoko. Like in America, Japans’ affection for a baseball team is only a thin disguise for one’s deep-seated love for one’s hometown.  When that hometown has suffered as Sendai has suffered, the cheering for something so small as a baseball game somehow becomes hugely important.

That is what I saw in Sendai and what this is how I will remember this city–a city packed with high buildings and the outfield packed with exuberant fans, cheering not only for the Eagles, but for the city that loves them.

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Girl sells drinks in the stands of Miyagi Stadium in Sendai, Japan (AE/NG)