With Japan winning the inaugural World Baseball Classic, Japanese players like Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui becoming fixtures on Major League Baseball All-Star Teams, and with baseball becoming the most popular team sport in Japan, the game is so highly associated with that nation that the connection seems completely natural. When one thinks about it, however, it is unusual for a country that embraces a sport as alien to Americans as sumo-wrestling to simultaneously be so enamored of a distinctively American sport like baseball.
While most Americans assume that the introduction of baseball to Japan came about during the period after World War II when American troops occupied that country, this is not the case. In fact, Japan’s history with baseball goes back to a time much closer to the Civil War than World War II.
During the “Meiji Restoration,” which lasted from 1867 through 1912, Japanese leaders made a concerted effort to modernize Japan. Part of this process involved the introduction and adoption of many Western ideas. Horace Wilson, an American professor of English at Tokyo University during this era, is credited with introducing baseball to the Japanese in 1872. It has been speculated that the Japanese immediately responded favorably to baseball in part because the one-on-one battle of pitcher versus batter carries a similar appeal to the conflicts involved in sumo wrestling and the martial arts. Further, the Japanese Ministry of Education felt that the necessity for extremely quick decision making and the harmony of mental and physical strength required when playing the sport contributed positively to national character. As a result, the Ministry encouraged baseball’s growth in popularity.
The first formally organized Japanese baseball team formed in 1878. In a phenomenon that might come as a shock to the highly paid professional players of today, for the first 30 years of organized baseball in Japan it was considered shameful to accept money for doing something that the players enjoyed.
As the popularity of baseball in Japan grew, this ethic was pushed aside as entrepreneurs began charging fees to see amateur games. In 1908, a number of professional teams from the United States toured Japan, matching up against amateur teams. This was the start of a tradition of American major league clubs and all-star teams “barnstorming” through Japan during their offseason. The most legendary of the teams to do this was a collection of players known as “Babe Ruth and the Lou Gehrig All-Stars.” Led by their namesakes, this team went 17-0 in their 1934 trip to Japan. Although the games on these tours were rarely competitive, they consistently drew large and enthusiastic crowds.
Amazed by the level of interest in baseball, a newspaper owner named Matsutara Shoriki founded the first Japanese professional baseball team, the Yomiuri Giants, in December of 1934. During the following two years, five other professional teams organized and, together with the Giants, formed the Nippon Professional Baseball League. Amazingly, despite the loss of a large number of its players to the war effort, and the general strain on the country, the Japanese professional league continued play through most of World War II. The games stopped during the 1945 season, during which some stadiums were used for ammo dumps. Upon conclusion of the war however, American officials in charge of occupied Japan permitted play to resume for the 1946 season in the hope that baseball could serve as a morale boost for a beleaguered population.
Since the end of World War II, baseball has steadily grown into one of the most popularly attended and widely followed sports in Japan. While American greats like Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Cal Ripken are well known in Japan for their achievements, Japan has produced its own collection of great players whose records in many cases eclipse those of their American counterparts. For example, Sadaharu Oh, who played from 1959 through 1980 hit 868 career home runs, far outstripping the Major League Baseball record of 755 held by Hank Aaron. In addition, Cal Ripken attracted an unprecedented level of media attention from his successful quest to break Lou Gehrig’s major league record of 2,130 consecutive games played. Little notice was taken in the United States, however, when Ripken passed Sachio Kinugasa’s Japanese record of 2,215 games played.
While American players have played and starred in Japan for many years, it is only recently that the flow of talent has started to go in the opposite direction. The first Japanese born player to appear in the major leagues was Masanori Murakami in 1964. It wasn’t until Hideo Nomo, an established star from Japan, defected to the major leagues in 1995, however, that fans of the major leagues understood the tremendous talent of players toiling across the ocean. Nomo pitched so well in his first season with the Los Angeles Dodgers that he was named an All-Star and won the Rookie of the Year award. In addition, his appearances caused such an increase in attendance that the attention surrounding the pitcher was dubbed “Nomomania.” Since Hideo Nomo, numerous established Japanese players have come to the major leagues and starred here, most notably Ichiro Suzuki of the Mariners and Hideki Matsui of the Yankees.
For a country with its own unique cultural identity and popular sports of its own invention, it is unusual how completely the Japanese have adopted “America’s Pastime” as their own. As one Japanese writer famously put it, however, “baseball is perfect for us. If the Americans hadn’t invented it, we would have.”