Photo by takako tominaga via Flickr

Though one might naturally assume that baseball came to Japan during the U.S. occupation after World War II, this quintessential American sport was actually one of Japan’s earliest Western imports, during the Meiji Restoration, having arrived in the archipelago in 1872. Brought by an American, the sport was quickly adopted, and adapted, by the Japanese, and thus has a history in Japan nearly as long as its history in its home country.

Which is not to say that the Japanese play the sport the same way as Americans – or at least, with the same attitude. While Americans celebrate the home run hitters and fastball pitchers who rise above their peers to become baseball stars, and individual stats are followed obsessively by fans, the Japanese, true to their cultural heritage, make team cohesion and harmony the focus. As with many other imports, the Japanese have made baseball – now besuboru (bay-sue-boe-rue) – into something distinctly Japanese.

The Japanese National Tourism Organization once noted that besuboru (also known in Japan as yakyu, a combination of the characters for “field” and “ball”) is so familiar to the Japanese that some are surprised when they hear that it started in the United States.

Interaction between Japanese and American teams has been a feature of Japanese besuboru from the start, culminating in 1934, when an American All-Star team that included Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth and Lefty Gomez visited Japan to play 16 exhibition games against the All-Nippon Stars, a largely-amateur assembly. The Americans won every game – Ruth alone homered 13 times in 16 games – but the Japanese were inspired by several close games, and the characteristic Japanese sense that, were they to stick to it, they could challenge the Americans. Soon enough, the Japanese turned pro.

陽 岱鋼 Dài-Kāng Yáng Yoh Daikan
Photo by Takahiro Hayashi via Flickr

The first Japanese pro team, the Yomiuri Giants, was formed in 1936, but an actual league, Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) didn’t come together until 1950, when it became the overarching pro organization, similar to Major League Baseball in the US. Divided into two leagues (Pacific and Central) of six teams each, NPB isn’t a big league in terms of numbers of teams, but what the Japanese lack in numbers they make up for in intensity.

Besuboru is different. Everything from the ball to the strike zone to the dimensions of the field are smaller than in U.S. baseball, but the differences go much deeper: Since it was originally conceptualized by the Japanese as a form of martial art, akin to kendo (a form of sword play), besuboru in Japan ends up being subject to all the Japanese obsessions with form, face-saving and group harmony that rule most Japanese undertakings. Instead of a focus on individual players who excel in the context of the team – a great home run hitter in American baseball does his work within the context of the team, but is still celebrated for his individual accomplishments. As always in Japan, the individual is only as good as his ability to function within the team, even at the expense of his own ambitions.

These differences show up starkly when foreign players who are hired by Japanese teams assume that what works in American (or Cuban, or Dominican) baseball will work in Japanese besuboru. The difference lies in the importance of the group, or in this case, the team. A great player who draws too much attention to himself, even if it’s by hitting well or striking out a string of opposing batters, risks alienating his own teammates, even embarrassing them. More than once has a player who hits too many big hits, or strikes out too many opposing batters, could find himself benched until he cools off. In this way, no one stands out too much, and no one loses face. Even if they lose the game.

D7200 Testing - JPEGs
Photo by troy_williams via Flickr

Needless to say, this is contrary to most competitive players in most sports the world ‘round. But this is besuboru, not baseball, and for the Japanese, it works.

That said, a number of Japanese players have proven themselves, sometimes brilliantly, in American baseball, starting with the all-star Ichiro Suzuki early this century, right up to the present day (2018), when the California Angels’ pitcher/slugger Shohei Ohtani has jaws dropping all over Major League Baseball. More than 50 Japanese pros have transferred over to U.S. baseball since Ichiro cleared the way, and many have proven to be stars in the U.S. as well as in Japan.

For the visitor, seeing besuboru in Japan is generally overlooked by all but the most rabid baseball fans, but visitors ought to consider trying a game, which are not expensive and can be a cultural experience as well as an athletic one. Especially fun are the cheering sections at games, where fans, divided by team loyalties into parts of the stadium, passionately call out fight songs and bang on drums for the length of the game, once again showing that team spirit and group organization are among the highest values of the Japanese – even when enjoying an imported game.

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Photo by kagawa_ymg via Flickr

And then there’s this: Even if you’re a dedicated fan of the American hot dog, you’ll probably never regard it with quite the same affection after spending a Japanese ball game enjoying Japanese bento boxes and fresh sushi. This is one area where Japanese besuboru could markedly improve American baseball.

By David Watts Barton