American baseball in Japan

Cultural Insights — By on March 25, 2008 at 7:40 am

Baseball season begins today, with a season-opening game in Tokyo between the Boston Red Sox and the Oakland Athletics. For American fans of these teams, the season begins at the ungodly hour of somewhere between 3 a.m. (West coast) and 6 a.m. (East coast). Still, it’s always an exciting day for fans, and the Japanese twist to the opener gives us a chance to look at some of the different baseball traditions in the U.S. and Japan.

One of the most interesting differences is actually the fan experience at the games. The Boston Globe has been following the Red Sox in Japan and notes that the Sox-A’s game in the Tokyo Dome will not be quite the same as a contest between two Japanese teams.

A good part of the Dome’s charm will be missing when the Red Sox play the A’s in the real games Tuesday and Wednesday. There won’t be thousands of well-lubricated, yellow-clad Tigers fans standing, clapping, singing, and cheering (while a band plays) when the home team is at bat. These guys have gym-class whistles, flags, Thunderstix, and signage.

The Globe is not exaggerating here. I was at a Japanese game in Tokyo a few years ago and I wrote about the experience in my book. Here is how I described the scene in the stadium:

The visiting team was up first and so were their fans, who engaged in a series of coordinated cheering, jumping, shouting, flag-waving, drum-beating, whistle-blowing, trumpet-playing mayhem. And, no, coordinated mayhem is not an oxymoron, but rather a quintessentially Japanese way of rooting for a team. The cheers we saw were all choreographed, loud and non-stop.

When the ballplayers switched from offense to defense after each half-inning, the other team’s fans rose and launched into their own organized pandemonium. The first set of fans politely gave way, since it’s not socially acceptable to cheer while the other team is batting. For the young students sitting behind us in their identical school uniforms, that meant it was time to return to their chopsticks and finish eating their boxed dinners. For many adults, it was time for a concession run to bring back noodles and sake. Or, even better, to order beers from the attractive young women who wandered the stands with lightweight kegs strapped to their backs.

Then, there was the entertainment sideshow. I was amused by the booming English-language rendition of “Who Let the Dogs Out” every time the visiting team made its final out of the inning, but most interesting was the “fifth inning sweep.” This was introduced by the public address announcer much as the seventh inning stretch is in a U.S. ballpark. While the grounds crew ran onto the field to do their normal sweep of the basepaths, some cheerleaders and the team’s mascot came out and danced to the song “YMCA.” After the basepaths were swept, the grounds crew joined in the performance, doing a choreographed dance number with their brooms! Yes, I thought, I can just imagine the groundskeepers at Fenway Park doing that.

Amazingly, the fans’ enthusiasm never seemed to waver. In the game we attended, the Nippon Ham Fighters took a 9-0 lead into the ninth inning. I should note that this contest was being played near the end of the baseball season and both teams were hopelessly out of the playoff race. It was the equivalent of watching two of the worst American teams competing during the last week of the season, with both clubs more than 20 games out of first place. Despite this, and despite the fact that Chiba Lotte was losing by nine runs, none of the Marines’ fans left the stadium and they remained just as loud and raucous in the ninth inning as they had been in the first.

When the game was over, the Ham Fighters’ mascot ran onto the field and bowed to the fans, while confetti shot out of the upper deck and rained over the spectators. It was as if the team had just won the league title. Dramatic music blared from stadium speakers, a pedestal was set up on the field, and two of the star players came over and were interviewed live while the team’s fans stayed to watch and cheer.

Or, if you’re interested in cultural differences in how the players perform and train, the Globe also has that covered with an intriguing look at the Japanese Little League.

When the coach spots something he doesn’t like, he barks at the offending player, who instantly removes his cap and stands rigidly before bowing in acknowledgment of the message being received.

There is constant chatter from the players, who yell, “Koi-Koi” (“C’mon, c’mon)” and make other sounds, virtually indistinguishable even to a native speaker, but that are designed to help promote wa, which means unity and team spirit…

These are the values that penetrate to the youngest levels of Japanese baseball. Critics say the Japanese approach stifles creativity and individual expression, but these kids show a mastery of fundamentals that would embarrass some big leaguers.

Ariyasu said he tries to teach his players patience (“nintai”) and discipline (“choubatsu”). These are principles he learned as a youth studying judo, and from his father, who served in the Japanese navy during World War II. “It is a style,” he said, “almost like the samurai spirit.” 

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