Japan’s Unique Baseball Culture

As a Chicago company, we here at Kipling & Clark know a little something about love for baseball, but, remarkably, not even our beloved city can compare to Japan’s obsession with the traditionally American sport.

The History

The history of baseball in Japan dates back to the early Meiji Era when Horace Wilson, an American professor at Kaisei Gakko (now Tokyo University) first brought the sport to the college level sometime between 1867 and 1873.  After years of the sport remaining at the amateur level, the first professional team was founded in 1920 but didn’t last long at all, until the first professional league was founded in 1936. The league competed through 1949 (though they suspended their seasons during World War II) and reemerged the following season as the NBP league, (Nippon Professional Baseball) the current the top-level competition in the country, consisting of four leagues.

Originally published in The Conversation, Steven Wisensale’s March 2018 article “Babe Ruth in a kimono: How baseball diplomacy has fortified Japan-US relations” was republished on Smithsonian.com. In the article, he writes,Goodwill tours first began in the early 1900s, when Japanese and American college baseball teams competed against one another. Professional teams soon followed. While World War II interrupted the cultural exchange, baseball has served as a healing mechanism since the end of the war, helping the two geopolitical foes become loyal allies.”

When Babe Ruth and his All-Star colleagues played their 18-game tour of Japan in 1934, the Babe’s carefree attitude and big personality won over the baseball-loving, Japanese people and they even erected a statue of him that remains standing in the Sendai Zoo, where his first home-run in the country landed.

On February 9, 2001, the USS Greeneville, an American submarine, surfaced off the coast of Oahu and collided with the Ehime Maru, a Japanese fishing vessel, boarded by Japanese high-school students learning to fish. The tragic accident resulted in the death of nine students and teachers. Turning to an old diplomacy technique, the U.S. and Japan decided to form an annual youth baseball tournament, alternating locations between Shikoku and Hawaii to memorialize the victims.

Meiji Jingu Stadium
Meiji Jingu Stadium

Today’s Culture

According to attendance figures and polls, baseball has consistently ranked as Japan’s most popular spectator sport, overcoming soccer and sumo wrestling (Japan’s national sport), with fans even widely partaking in the annual, summer, high school tournament. Welcoming to everyone from teenagers to business people to Westerner’s alike; everyone can take part in the fun, energetic atmosphere of a Japanese baseball game. Located in nearly every major city in the country, the stadiums feature concession stands with Japanese fast food like takoyaki (octopus fried in dough) and ramen, as well as American staples. Playing roughly from April to October, the rules are so similar to American baseball, that it’s impossible to not follow along. The country has twelve professional baseball teams, five of which all play in or around Tokyo.

Tokyo Dome in Japan
Tokyo Dome

The Stadiums

Our favorite stadiums for watching Japanese baseball are the Meji Jingu Stadium and the Tokyo Dome.

The Meji Jingu Stadium, where the Tokyo Yakult Swallows play, is smaller in comparison to the Tokyo Dome, maxing out at a 38,000 capacity. The Swallows have long been considered the lovable underdogs (not unlike our northside Chicago Cubs until 2016). When visiting this open-air stadium be sure to bring an umbrella, not just in case of rain. The traditional “umbrella dance”, where fans sing “Tokyo Ondo” and dance with their umbrellas, happens during the seventh-inning stretch and every time the Swallows earn a run!

The 55,000 capacity Tokyo Dome is home to the Yomiuri Giants, the league dominators. They managed to make it to the Japan Championship series 34 times in its 68-year history and have won 22 times. Though the stadium is much older, there is no lack of energy here; young women serve cold beer on tap and fans often break into song at random!