Baseball in the land of the rising sun

Written by: Jeff Idelson

Japan is called “The Land of the Rising Sun” because from China, it appears as if that is where the sun rises. The country’s ancient name, which comes from the Chinese Sui Dynasty days prior to the year 600, is “日本,” or in English, “Nippon” or “Nihon,” that when translated means “sun origin.”

After spending nine days in and around Tokyo, one could easily substitute a baseball for the sun, given its enormous place in daily life and it continuous rise in popularity.

Baseball is as much a part of Japanese culture as it is in America, or perhaps even more-so.

It’s founding dates back to the 19th century, as our game does.

Baseball’s popularity in Japan is deeply rooted in the amateur game, which is prevalent among children who play in youth leagues, and adults who play for industrial teams.

They help form very loyal fan bases that cheer for the home town teams, and cheer on their national teams, such as the World Baseball Classic Team, Samurai Japan, with great fervor.

And many of Japan’s stars stay and play in their two leagues, versus coming to America.

In summary, the game’s amateur roots are incredibly strong, the respect level for the professional game and its players is of the highest level, and fandom is rampant.

Suffice it to say, baseball in Japan is very healthy and here to stay.

The World Baseball Classic returned to Tokyo in early March, and the Hall of Fame was there to document the opening round in Pool B, and explore some of the people, places and events connected to baseball.

Hall of Fame Traveling Photographer Jean Fruth, who has beautifully documented the game and its connection to local culture in the United States and several other countries over the last decade, captured the essence of baseball in Japan.

Mizuno

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Mizuno bats are becoming prevalent in the United States, with 84 current players using hand-turned bats from Japan. The bats are made at Mizuno Technics, a factory that sits in at the base of a mountain range in the Gifu Prefecture of Yoro, a two-hour trip by Bullet Train from Tokyo.

The factory opened in 1946 and today its bat-makers turn 30,000 bats annually, all made from white ash (from the United States), maple (Canada) or Tamo (Japan) wood. Of them, 10,000 are made for players in Japan, 9,000 for amateur players, 1,000 for players in the major leagues and the remainder are sold at retail.

Of the nearly 2,000 bats that are a part of the Hall of Fame’s collection, 22 are game-used Mizuno models. The oldest is the one Pete Rose used on April 13, 1984 in Montreal to record his 4,000th hit. Rose was the first major leaguer to swing a Mizuno bat. Mike Piazza has two Mizuno bats in Cooperstown, the only ones used by a Hall of Famer. And Ichiro Suzuki, who has pledged his entire collection to the Hall of Fame, already has six safely kept in the Museum.

Tamio Nawa has been turning bats for Mizuno for a quarter-century. He has been the bat maker responsible for those used by Japanese players in the major leagues since 2004. He’s turned each and every bat used by Ichiro over the last eight years, and even turned a new one right in front of our eyes. “I see Ichiro every winter,” Nawa told me. “It is a tremendous honor to turn his bats. He is amazing.”

Truly an artist, Nawa puts forth the same effort with every bat he makes. He taps the barrel of each bat, listening for an echo. “The more metallic the sound, the better the wood. I put everything I have into each and every bat I make. Each one is turned with the same amount of care. I always try to imagine what the player can do with the bat I make for him. I feel like I am sending him one of his own children.”

Nawa made a trip to Cooperstown after the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006, which was won by Japan. While he was in the Museum, he saw many Mizuno bats on display, including the one Ichiro used to break Hall of Famer George Sisler’s single-season hit record. It was turned by his mentor, Bat Master Isokazu Kubota. “I learned from the Bat Master, who also turned Pete Rose and Mike Piazza’s bats,” said Nawa. “He taught me so much.”

“The single happiest moment I have experienced as a Mizuno employee was being in Cooperstown and seeing bats that I and my fellow bat makers made, on display. I take such great pride in my work, that to see them on display in the Museum was overwhelming.”

The Knuckle Princess

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The Tochigi Golden Braves play in the 10-team semi-professional Baseball Challenge League. The league started in 2007 and has grown from four to 10 teams over the last decade. The Golden Braves are one of the two new ball clubs that joined over the winter.

They play their home contests on the 72-game schedule in the Ibaraki Prefecture, about 90 minutes north and west of Tokyo by Bullet Train. On the day we caught up with them, they were practicing at Sanawa Stadium in Koga City. There are 23 players on the Tochigi team, 22 men, and one woman: Knuckleballer Eri Yoshida.

The Yokohama City native began playing baseball at age eight, on her old brother’s teams. She was not a big baseball fan growing up, but became enamored with the knuckleball when watching videos that her father gave her of former major league pitcher Tim Wakefield.

“The first time I saw him pitch I was amazed.” the diminutive right-hander told me before her team’s practice. “I wasn’t so sure I would able to throw a knuckleball but I wanted to get it into my rotation of pitches. I was a first baseman/pitcher growing up. I didn’t have any heroes until I was 15, and then Tim Wakefield became my hero.”

Drafted in 2008 at age 16, standing at five feet tall, and weighing 114 pounds, the right-hander took the mound for the Kobe 9 Cruise and became the first female to play professionally in an all-male league in Japan. She soon became known as “The Knuckle Princess”.

Two years later, she was pitching for the Chico Outlaws in the Golden Baseball League in Northern California. “I had already been pitching for three years when I went to Chico. I was really interested to see if I could get hitters out at that level and see if I could be effective. I wasn’t as nervous as much as I was more anticipating how it would go.” She ended up pitching for three years in the United States.

Pitching in Chico in 2010, at the age of 18, Yoshida made history by becoming the first woman to pitch professionally in two countries. The jersey Yoshida wore and the bat she used to record an RBI-single in her first at bat with Chico, are in Cooperstown.

“When the Hall of Fame contacted me, it was a humbling experience and I was so honored that they would want something of mine. The Hall of Fame is such a sacred place for all of baseball. I am honored and proud that my jersey and bat are in Cooperstown. I have my lifetime pass. I have not used it yet but I will some day.”

Today, the 25-year old pioneer still has aspirations of pitching at a higher level. I am a Red Sox fan and Tim Wakefield is my favorite player,” she said with an ever-present smile. “I wear No. 49 because of my respect for him. My dream is to stand on the same mound as Tim did and pitch in a game.”

And even if she does not, she’s still an inspiration to women trying to make it in a male-dominated industry.

“When I started in baseball it wasn’t a welcoming environment, being a girl,” she said. “I knew I would need to work hard and find a way to continue my career. I tell girls today to work hard as there are more opportunities to continue their careers. If you give everything to the sport you will be satisfied at the end.”’

Tokyo Little League

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Little League Baseball in Japan is a big deal. A VERY big deal. It’s an important part of many children’s upbringing, and for some it’s the first step in a very long amateur or professional baseball career.

Opening Ceremonies for the 2017 season were held at Edogawa City Baseball Stadium for the 30 teams based in Tokyo. Some 1,080 boys and girls, along with coaches, umpires and officials all took part in the festivities, with more than 600 parents and siblings in the stands watching.

A 90-minute program, full of pomp and circumstance, demonstrated the level of respect and seriousness for how baseball is viewed in Japan at its youngest level. It featured all of the teams parading around the warning track waiving yellow rally towels, music by a brass band, and speeches by league, city, sports and government officials. Trophies were presented to the division winners from 2016. Toshimasa Fudetani and Takahiro Sekiguchi from the Hall of Fame in Japan also participated.

The underlying principals presented to the young ballplayers were the value of “early to bed, early to rise, and eat a big breakfast.” A mascot, using chopsticks as a bat, was present to help ensure the message was delivered.

Just before it was my turn to speak, the secretary general of the Tokyo league, presented me with a Daruma doll, which is hollow and round and modeled after Bodhidharma, the founder of the Zen sect of Buddhism. It has a design that is rich in symbolism and seen as a symbol of perseverance and good luck, making them a popular gift of encouragement.

When I addressed the children, who were organized by team on the field, I reminded them that Hisashi Iwakuma, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Tadahito Iguchi, all of whom went on to play Major League Baseball, as well as Seiya Suzuki, who stars for the Hiroshima Carps and plays on Japan’s WBC team, were all graduates of their program. As such, they had every right to dream big.

I talked about the lessons we learn in baseball, such as winning with grace, losing with dignity, and accepting failure. I reminded them that baseball teaches us the importance of hard work, how to play as a team and the value of being a good teammate. It also teaches us about respecting the uniform. But equally important is the social aspect of having fun and making new friends.

After the ceremony, Jean and I headed to Tokyo-Kitasuna Volunteer Stadium for a game between Little League powerhouses Tokyo-Kitasuana and Musashi-Fuchu. The two teams have combined to win five of Japan’s 10 Little League World Series titles in Williamsport, Pa. Kitasuna last won in 2015, and Fuchu in 2013.

As is the case in Little League in Japan, each team was afforded exactly seven minutes to take infield before the game. It was absolutely flawless. After infield, the team captains – not the managers – presented the starting lineups to their teammates. The two captains then exchanged lineup cards and presented them to their respective managers.

The teams played flawless defense in a very close game, won by Kitasuna. I was afforded the opportunity of throwing out the ceremonial first pitch (which I thankfully did not bounce). Our interpreter, Keita Takarada, who played for Kitasuna as a child, had the ball signed by both managers and team captains. It is now in Cooperstown, along with a rally towel and the ceremony program.

Tokyo Dome

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One of the venues for the World Baseball Classic’s opening round was the Tokyo Dome. Home to the world-famous Yomiuri Giants, “The Big Egg” opened in 1988, replacing Kōrakuen Stadium, which was where the team played from 1937-87. The Dome is part of a large entertainment complex called Tokyo Dome City, complete with restaurants, shops, an amusement park, video game centers and the Tokyo Dome Hotel.

The Giants were one of the founding members of the Central League in 1950, one of two Nippon Professional Baseball leagues, along with the Pacific League. Each league has six teams, and there is limited interleague play. The winners of each league play in the Japan Series, which takes place at the same time as the World Series in America.

Yomiuri is the oldest professional team in Japan and often referred to as “the Yankees of Japan,” because of their popularity and success: 36 Central League pennants and 22 Japan Series championships. From 1965-73, the Giants won nine consecutive Japan Series championships. The team name (Giants) and uniforms are based on the New York/San Francisco Giants, with the same orange and black colors and similar lettering on the jerseys and caps.

Of the many stars who have played for the Giants, no one stands taller or shines more brightly than Sadaharu Oh, baseball’s all-time home run king, with 868 round-trippers on his expansive resume. The distinguished and beloved slugger played for the Giants from 1959-80 and hit back-to-back in the lineup with, and across the diamond on defense from fellow Japanese Baseball Hall of Famer Shigeo Nagashima, forming the Far East’s version of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Oh, a first baseman, was a five-time batting champion, 15-time home run king and nine-time MVP; Nagashima, a third baseman, was league MVP five times and won The Best Nine Award – presented annually to the best player at each position – in each and every season of his 17-year career. They are two of the six men to have their uniform numbers retired by the Giants.

Pool B in the WBC’s opening round included Australia, China, Cuba and Japan, winners of the first two WBC titles, in 2006 and 2009.

Prior to the opening game, played between Japan and Cuba, baseball pioneer Masanori “Mashi” Murakami was on the field. Murakami made history in 1964 when he became the first Japanese player to step on to a major league field. He pitched in relief for the San Francisco Giants in 1964 and ’65. He was offered a contract in 1966, but instead chose to return home to be close to his parents, who never saw him pitch in San Francisco. In 1995 on a trip to see Alvin Dark, his manager in 1964, Murakami visited Cooperstown and donated his travel bag and a bat to the Hall of Fame.

While sitting in the dugout, Murakami had a chance to visit with Nori Aoki, who was starting in center field for Japan. Forty-eight years after his fellow countryman, Aoki followed suit, leaving Japan for the major leagues, and also played for the Giants.

As the game began, traditional Japanese baseball culture was prevalent, with Team Samurai Japan’s fan base showing off its vocal prowess. In America we have walk-up music. In Japan, every player has his own song that is sung by a majority of the crowd. The singing comes from the thousands of fans in the outfield seats, is orchestrated and very loud. The songs are inspirational and seemingly rehearsed.

Ballpark food is different than in the United States, with Bento boxes and miso soup being popular items to procure along the concourse. Beer, wine and scotch are sold by hundreds of female vendors in the stands.

Sitting in a suite and watching the game was Sadaharu Oh, who managed Japan to the first WBC title (and then donated his shoes to Cooperstown). Japan Baseball Hall of Fame Curator Takahiro Sekiguchi brought a bat from the Tokyo Museum that Oh donated in 1964, the year he hit 55 home runs, which is still a single-season record in Japan.

Oh’s eyes lit up when he saw the Jun Ishii model bat. “This bat was made by a friend who attended the same high school as me, years earlier,” Oh said with delight, as he swung the duo-tone history stick. The bat is made from tamo-wood and was turned by Master Craftsman Junnichi Ishii, who also attended Waseda Jitsugyo High School. Seeing the iconic slugger swing his bat with precision, as he had done so many times before, was chilling.

Earlier in the week, Jean and I ventured over to Sumida Koen Shonen Yakyujo, a small municipal ballpark in Tokyo. It was established in 1949 as the first ballpark for boys in Japan after World War II ended. It’s where Oh honed his skills as a youngster. A marker was located by the field in 1986 to educate visitors of the fact that it was built in the post-World War II ruins, “as the result of hard work by the volunteers and children developing wasteland, under the slogan of ‘hope of tomorrow to boys.’”

It’s almost as if the ballfield was built for Oh to get his start. It was easy to imagine the future Home Run King, whose career was built on hard work and discipline, launching baseballs out of its friendly confines.

Team Samurai went on to win the opener, beating Cuba, 11-6. Fan-favorite Nobuhiro Matsuda stole the show, as the third baseman and #8 hitter went 4-5 with a home run and four RBI, scoring three times as well. He’s spent each of his 11 seasons as a professional in a Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks uniform, during which his team has won four Pacific League pennants and three Japan Series Championships. His manager during the first three years of his career? Sadaharu Oh, who today serves as the team’s chairman.

Japan Baseball Hall of Fame

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Baseball in Japan was introduced in 1872 by Horace Wilson, an American professor of English at Kaisei Gakko University (today known as Tokyo University), as we learned at the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame from Museum President Shinichi Hirose, Curator Takahiro Sekiguchi and Librarian Taku Chinone.

Exactly 20 years after the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown got its start, Japan’s Hall of Fame was born, opening in 1959 next to Korakuen Stadium where the Yomiuri Giants played before the Tokyo Dome was built. Today the museum is located in the Tokyo Dome. The museum’s mission is similar to ours: To promote the game of baseball by collecting, preserving and displaying artifacts, while also inducting baseball’s greatest contributors.

The exhibit galleries take visitors through the growth and history of the game in Japan since Wilson’s introduction of the sport. Artifacts from several American Hall of Famers who played exhibition games in Japan are on display, including a Mike Piazza bat and a Ken Griffey glove, as well as a bat used by Pudge Rodriguez, who will be inducted in Cooperstown in July. Artifacts from goodwill tours by American teams, dating back to the Reach All-Americans in 1908 to the modern day MLB All-Star tours, give Japanese fans a further glimpse into the equipment used by stars from the states. And hundreds of artifacts related to the greatest contributors in Japanese professional baseball, remind visitors of the historical accomplishments achieved since the sport became professional in the 1920s.

Amateur baseball in Japan is so prevalent and important that there’s an entire gallery dedicated to its story. “Naigai Baseball” is widely popular, and its story is told here. The white ball is made of very hard rubber and is hollow, similar to the old pink Spalding balls many of us played with in the 1960s and 70s. These soft baseballs in Japan are very popular and have been around since 1949.

There are high school and college tournaments played with the Naigai ball, not to mention a summer youth tournament sponsored my McDonald’s for the last 37 years, featuring 1,200 teams. Every level of amateur baseball, from Little League to the Cal Ripken World Series to the Women’s World Cup (we learned that Team Japan won five straight championships) to Olympic Championship teams to industrial teams are all represented in the Museum.

The Museum has a special exhibit gallery that in 2017 features the history of the WBC and Japan’s successes, with uniforms from all of the players from the winning teams displayed. And just like in Cooperstown, the Museum documents history as it unfolds, with the Final Out baseball from Japan’s win over Cuba in the Opening Game of pool play on exhibit in the Museum when its doors opened the next day, as well as the final out balls from all of their other wins in the 2017 tournament.

Like Cooperstown, the Hall of Fame also has a Library full of books, magazines and photographs. The oldest book in their collection was published in 1868 and is called “The Book of American Pastimes,” and is of course, about baseball. In total, the Library contains some 50,000 titles.

The tour concluded in the Museum’s vaunted Hall of Fame Gallery of Plaques. Whereas our Hall of Fame now has 317 members, the one in Japan includes 197 inductees. Like us, there are five Japanese inductees this year. There ceremony is held in July as well, but takes place before the All-Star Game as a pre-game ceremony. Our plaques are made from bronze – there’s are from wood and bronze. And a very cool new mobile app developed by the Museum enhances the fans’ experience, as by pointing their mobile devices at any of the plaques allows them to view videos of the inductees.

Of the 197 inductees, three are Americans. Wally Yonamine, a Nisei from Hawaii was the first in 1994, Horace Wilson, and Lefty O’Doul.

Over countless trips to Japan before and after World War II, O’Doul, a former major leaguer and long-time San Francisco Seals manager in the Pacific Coast League is credited with training players, helping to found the country’s first professional league, spreading the sport’s popularity, and serving as a good will ambassador for baseball. O’Doul, who hit .349 and won a pair National League batting titles during his brief career in the late 1920s and early 1930s, became one of Minor League Baseball’s most successful managers.

Hanshin Koshien Stadium

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Our trip’s final day started with an early morning Bullet Train to Japan’s most sacred baseball grounds: Hanshin Koshien Stadium. The exquisite ballpark, built specifically for Japan’s immensely popular national high school baseball tournaments, called Koshien,” opened in 1924, one year after American baseball cathedral Yankee Stadium welcomed the Yankees. Ten years later, Babe Ruth played in an exhibition game at the stadium as part of a barnstorming tour of Japan, shining the spotlight even brighter on Koshien Stadium.

The stadium is also home to the NPB’s Hanshin Tigers, a team that has been in existence since 1935. The Tigers play their home games in the 47,757 seat ballpark, but move to a nearby domed stadium when the two national high school tournaments take place. Between the very popular Tigers – the Giants biggest rivals – and the Koshien tournament, the ballpark draws nearly three million fans annually.

“It’s an absolute honor for us to share the stadium with the Koshien tournament, and we don’t mind leaving when it takes place,” Mr. Nagi, a Hanshin team-representative, told me. “This ballpark is probably more famous for Koshien fans than Tiger fans; but our fans are like Red Sox fans. They are very passionate.”

There are two Koshien championships called the Koshien Tournament: One is played over a 10-day period in April and the other, played over two weeks, in the summer. The tournaments include the regional champions from each of Japan’s 47 prefectures, draws upwards of 500,000 fans, and is televised nationally. In many ways, Koshien is Japan’s version of the NCAA’s March Madness and football Bowl Games, all rolled into one. Crowning a national high school champion in Japan dates back to 1915.

Adjacent to the ballpark is a beautiful shrine called Susanoo Jinja. Part of the Koshien tradition is for players to visit the shrine, as according to legend, touching the stone will bring a player good fortune. Players also leave hand-written note in the shrine with their wishes to play well.

The ballpark has several defining features that together bring the structure personality, charm, a feeling of reverence and give it a vintage look and feel. Originally planted in 1924, ivy cover the outside of the stadium in the spring and summer, akin to the outfield wall at Wrigley Field. The walls and seats are painted classic ballpark green.

The unique infield is comprised of black soil carefully mixed with white sand by experienced groundskeepers, assuring a smooth playing surface. It sits atop volcanic gravel, gravel, and crushed stone and is said to have the best drainage in Japan among all of its natural grass stadiums. The black infield juxtaposed against the vibrant green outfield grass (Tifton grass in the spring and summer; rye grass in the winter) is beautiful.

The stadium’s scoreboard is modern in technology to complement the fan experience, though the lettering and color tones replicate the traditions of the past.

On the day that we visited, the Tigers and the Chiba Lotte Marines played an exhibition game. The Marines are managed by former catcher Tsutomu Ito, who was inducted into Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame in January. Ito was the catcher for the Seibu Lions’ Pacific League dynasty of the 1980s and 1990s. We met him outside of the visiting clubhouse before the game, offered our congratulations, and presented him with a Hall of Fame pin from Cooperstown. “I am honored to be in my country’s Hall of Fame, but I often wonder if I am really deserving,” he said humbly.

The game we saw was pretty low key with few hits and runs, but the wonderful traditions of Japanese baseball were prevalent. Both teams had boisterous fan bases who sang to their players when at bat. The Marines fans were in the left field bleachers and the Tigers fans were in right field. Instead of ballboys, ball girls would hand baseballs to the umpires from small bags they carry. Bullpen cars, long gone in the USA, are still a ritual in Japan. Tiger mascots Trucky and Lucky entertained the fans.

The ballpark also has its own museum dedicated to the history of the Koshien Tournaments and its star players, as well as to the Hanshin Tigers. As you enter the Museum, a wall with 4,253 baseballs is to your left, with each ball representing one of the high schools that compete in the tournament. When a team wins the tournament for the first time, their school name is added to one of the blank baseballs.

The modest museum behind the center field wall contains tastefully presented exhibits and fun fan interactives. Hideki Matsui, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish all have items here, as players who starred in the tournament. Darvish’s jersey, with the No. 1 on the back, is front and center. The ace of each youth team in Japan, at every level, is assigned uniform No. 1. The history of the Hanshin Tigers and its greatest players are contained in another exhibit gallery. The experience in the Museum leaves one with a deeper understanding of the significant role Hanshin Koshien Stadium plays in Japanese baseball.

As the sun began to set on a trip to the land of the rising sun, it dawned on me just how important and revered baseball is to Japanese citizens. The game is full of tradition, treated with great respect, and is truly one of Japan’s national treasures. A love for the game is fostered at a very young age, whether it be by playing, or by following. A Little League game, a high school game and a professional game in Japan is something every baseball fan who has never visited should experience, as well as a trip to the Hall of Fame. Like a trip to Cooperstown, it’s certainly a pilgrimage. And also like Cooperstown, the experience enriches one’s feelings about the game.


Jeff Idelson is the President of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum