Rising fastball in the Land of the Rising Sun.

High-quality crowds, food and talent in Japan’s baseball stadiums.

P36_sport02The crack of the bat. The roar of the crowd. The runner sprinting home. The smell of hotdogs wafting in the air. This could be a ballgame in Anytown, America, but something seems just a bit different….

But take another sniff. Mmm … maybe that hotdog you smell is actually Kobe beef. Or udon. Or some wonderfully steamed gyoza.

And when the home team steps up to the plate, maybe the crowd seems a bit more lively. Songs are being chanted and sung. Trumpets and drums are being played. The atmosphere is a bit more like a big-time soccer game than a baseball game.

While the atmosphere and cuisine of a typical Japanese ballpark differ from an American one, the game within the lines remains the same … mostly. Nine players on the field, three outs per half-inning, and three strikes and you’re out. But there is a big difference: if a Japanese game is tied after 12 innings, it ends in a tie (in order to let the spectators catch the last train home). By contrast, U.S. games have to end with a winner—on some occasions, this has led to American games that are 25 innings long! On a school night!

And though it’s called “America’s pastime,” baseball is quite popular in Japan. Not only is it the sport that the Japanese are most likely to list as their favourite, but over half of the Japanese population say that they regularly watch baseball games. In fact, the Japanese are more likely to watch baseball or list it as their favourite sport than are Americans!

The top level of baseball in Japan is Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB). In 2015, NPB at- tendance was over 24 million people, which made it the second most popular spectator sport in the world. While many of the top players from Japan have left the NPB for Major League Baseball in North America—with the most famous being Ichiro (a player so good he doesn’t need a last name) and the dance-creating Blue Jay sensation Munenori Kawasaki—the league is still considered the second best baseball league in the world. And those millions of fans who turned out in 2015 were treated to another great season.

The culmination of the NPB season is the Nippon Series. The Nippon Series, also known as the Japan Series, is similar to the World Series in that it features the winners of NPB’s two leagues, the Central and Pacific leagues, in a best-of-seven series. This season’s Nippon Series featured the underdog Tokyo Yakult Swallows from the Central League versus the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks from the Pacific League. Befitting the global reach of baseball, the Hawks’ first baseman, Korean player Lee Dae-Ho, went 8-for-16, smacked two home runs and drove in eight runs to lead the Hawks to victory four games to one. He became the first foreign player to be named Series MVP since Troy Neel in 1996 as well as the first Korean player to win the award. He has since declared free agency and is looking to sign with a Major League club for the 2016 season.

The high quality of play in NPB means that while every season brings top-flight games, every off-season some of the best players will seek to prove their mettle—and earn a fat paycheque—in North America. Some make it big in the Big Apple, like Hideki Matsui; some are mentioned on Seinfeld, like Hideki Irabu; and Munenori Kawasaki just seems to have come over for the bush parties. In an upcoming issue we will look at some of those players trying to become the next Ichiro!


The name game

For North American sports fans, one of the clear favourite Japanese baseball teams, based on their name alone, is the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters. They inspire endless debate such as:

  1. Are they hams that fight?
  2. Are they people that fight ham?
  3. Is ham actually that versatile?

(The answers are no, no and yes.)

Naming conventions for teams in Japan are a bit different than in North America. Typically, instead of being referred to just by the city the team is located in followed by the team nickname (e.g., Toronto Blue Jays), team names in Japan tend to also include the name of the company who owns the team. So, the Yomiuri Giants are owned by the Yomiuri Group (the largest media conglomerate in the world) and are nicknamed the Giants. The Nippon Ham Fighters are owned by Nippon Ham, a Japanese food conglomerate, and are nicknamed the Fighters. Pork connoisseurs will have to wait a while longer for their dream of seeing a team named after a vengeful piece of meat.

D’arcy Mulligan has written about video games for gaming websites, sports for his blog, and cats anywhere and everywhere he can. He once spent his entire life’s savings on beer at the ball game. It was a very good pint.