From geopolitics to Murakami: How Japan fell in love with baseball

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It’s no surprise that baseball is returning to the Olympics in Tokyo this year, after a 13-year hiatus. The sport has been a favourite in Japan for over a century — and this year, the national team is determined to match that fervour with medals.

On Wednesday, Japan’s baseball team played its first game of the Tokyo Olympics, with a 4-3 win over the Dominican Republic. In a country where the sport borders on a religion, all eyes are on the national team and expectations are high.

Some 150 years after it was introduced to the country by an American English teacher, Japan has made baseball its own, with a playing style that prioritises teamwork, and a positively fanatical fanbase.

In Japan, “every kid plays baseball, every boy plays baseball”, Itaru Kobayashi, a former player for the Chiba Lotte Marines, told AFP.

“Baseball was invented in the United States, but somehow we fell in love with it,” said Kobayashi, now a sports management expert and a professor at Tokyo’s J.F. Oberlin University.

Kobayashi believes Japan’s fondness for the sport is “partly because baseball is like a ritual”.

Japanese play emphasises the battle between pitcher and hitter, producing games that can be lower-scoring than the US version, with tension centred around strikes and fouls.

“Work as a team, unite as a team. We love it,” said Kobayashi.

The sport that inspired Murakami

Japan’s baseball fans include no less than the country’s most famous writer, Haruki Murakami, who in 2015 credited baseball with inspiring his writing career. As he was watching a national game at a Tokyo stadium in 1978, he wrote, he had a revelation: “I can still recall the exact sensation. It felt as if something had come fluttering down from the sky, and I had caught it cleanly in my hands. I had no idea why it had chanced to fall into my grasp.”

“All I can say is that my life was drastically and permanently altered in that instant,” Murakami continued. Just the next year, he published his first novel, “Hear the Wind Sing”, which won a top literary prize for emerging writers.

Murakami’s epiphany came roughly a century after baseball was introduced to Japan, by a teacher at Tokyo’s Kaisei Academy in 1872. It took off after a team from the Ichiko high school beat a group of foreign residents in 1896, sparking a frenzy of interest and further matches against American teams.

“These games had symbolic significance in Japan because the Japanese were behind in many aspects, like commerce and industry,” said baseball expert Robert Whiting, who has spent decades in Japan.

“The message was that if we can beat the Americans at their own game, then surely we can surpass them in other fields,” added Whiting, author of “Tokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys... and Baseball.”

Amateur play takes centre stage

By the 1930s, a professional league had developed, and half-a-million people lined Tokyo’s streets in 1934 to welcome Babe Ruth and 14 other American baseball players on an all-star tour. After World War II, baseball became Japan’s national pastime, with a particular reverence reserved for amateur play seen as untainted by money.

The devotion persists to this day.

Fumihiko Kaneko, 31, arrived four hours early for a recent Sunday match in the Tokyo Big Six university league, despite already having tickets.

He was thrilled at the chance to watch historic arch-rivals Keio and Waseda face off in the league, Japan’s oldest.

“I’ve been a baseball fan since I was very little,” he told AFP. “Today’s match has a history of 100 years!”

Japan’s favourite baseball events though are the high school tournaments known as Koshien, after the stadium where they are held each spring and summer.

Koshien games have sometimes claimed 50 percent of television viewers, and their sound on radios in ramen shops and local stores is as much a part of Japan’s summer as the buzz of cicadas.

“It’s like the World Series and the Superbowl combined,” said Whiting of the tournaments that air on national television for hours each day over a fortnight.

Geopolitical rivalries

The Olympic competition is being held in Fukushima, spotlighting the region’s recovery from the 2011 disaster.

And if Japan and the US face off, sparks will fly, Kobayashi said.

“For Japanese baseball, beating the United States is the ultimate goal.”

Other analysts say, though, that Japan’s rivalry with the US has been overtaken by that with South Korea.

“It must be said that baseball is the number one sport in both countries,” explains journalist Philippe Mesmer in Le Monde. “As a result, it crystallises, even more than judo, soccer or volleyball … the persistent tensions between two neighbours whose relations, delicate on questions of historical memory, are at their lowest since the election of South Korean president Moon Jae-in in 2017.”

These tensions above all revolve around the Korean sex slaves known as “comfort women” and others conscripted into forced labour by imperial Japan during World War II. South Korea has also objected to the inclusion of the Liancourt Rocks, a group of islets known as Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan, on the map displaying the Olympic torch relay. South Korea currently controls the little archipelago, but Japan contests that claim.

South Korea’s Olympic delegation took the tensions up a notch further when, upon arrival in Tokyo, it hung banners from the balconies of its dormitory referring to a 16th-century war between the two countries. After Japan protested, the International Olympic Committee declared that the banners violated the Olympic charter.

In exchange for taking the banners down, the South Koreans obtained a promise from Japanese authorities that the “rising sun” flag, seen by many as an imperial symbol, would not be raised during the Games.

It’s against this tense backdrop that the two countries could find themselves facing off in the semi-final. In the meantime, Japan has already claimed one gold medal in its favourite sport, with the women’s softball team scoring a 2-0 win on Tuesday — against the United States.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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