150 Years of Baseball in Japan, A Primer

Sean Kawakami, JCCI 

A Sunday afternoon drive just doesn’t feel complete without listening to the play-by-play on the radio. Now when you’re at the stands of a typical ballgame, we tend to treat it as an outing, using the game as a backdrop while we converse with the person next. 162 games seems like a marathon as it’s one of the few sports that is played almost everyday. Unless you’re an avid scorekeeper, analyst, or a season-ticket wielding bleacher creature, this allows fans to view most games rather casually until postseason. Kickback in your seat over a beer which now costs nearly the same as the minimum wage in NY (can you believe it?), we eye the field when cheers erupt, or hear a ball hit the sweet spot. To us, it may seem like another leisurely game, but underneath it all is a whole rich history that got us where we are today. When we talk about baseball, there’s much to unpack, namely how it was introduced in Japan. As we celebrate 150 years of baseball in Japan, here is a closer look on how it became their national sport. 

It is said that baseball was first introduced in Japan by Horace Wilson, an American English teacher at Kaisei Academy in Tokyo in 1872. Hiroshi Hiroaka, a railroad engineer who was then studying in the U.S., brought back baseball equipment and guidebooks upon his return. He established the first formal baseball club in Japan, the Shimbashi Athletic Club of 1878, and the club’s reign lay the foundations for a number of competitive games played between Japanese high schools and universities thereafter. Baseball in Japan continued to sprout over the country, and schools began to send players abroad. Likewise, American players soon caught wind of the sport’s popularity in Japan, and made their way overseas to compete with each other. 

Wally Yonamine circa 1951 (Creative Commons)

This led the path for American baseball luminaries such as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Charlie Gehringer to make annual trips to play against them. These trips not only encouraged the development of professional baseball in Japan (NPB), but marked a watershed where baseball proved to be a universal sport no matter the color of one’s skin, just like when Jackie Robinson broke the baseball color line years later in 1947. 

Professional baseball in Japan then developed in the 1920s, the first team, the Yomiuri Giants, forming in 1934 founded by the Yomiuri Shimbun, a media conglomerate. Since then, the Giants have become the most successful team, having won 22 Japan Series pennants as of this writing. They’ve been known as the “New York Yankees of Japan” for their widespread popularity and titles. Some renowned players who’ve played for the Giants include Hideki Matsui, Eiji Sawamura, and Sadaharu Oh.

A visit from Ruth in 1934 was an attempt to ease the tensions between the two nations, according to Robert Fitts, author of Banzai Babe Ruth. Half a million Japanese welcomed Ruth as he made his way to the Imperial Hotel, who was already enamored for his success in his baseball career. 

The postwar period saw the resurgence of baseball from the involvement of several resilient Japanese-Americans. Wally Yonamine, who even had a brief stint with the San Francisco 49ers NFL team, came to Japan during the American Occupation, and stood his ground amidst an unwelcoming Japanese crowd for “betraying” his home country during the war. 

JCCI NY Senior Marketing Consultant David Ernst with Sadaharu Oh (1993)

In fact Executive Order 9066, the infamous mandate that uprooted Japanese-Americans from their homes to concentration camps, did not deter Japanese-Americans from playing the game. Kenichi Zenimura, known as the “Dean of the Diamond,” brought baseball to the internment camps, constructing a field within the barracks from the ground up. For Kenichi, baseball was the only activity that could make camps a home. Before he was uprooted from his home in California, he excelled in all nine positions, and founded the Fresno Athletic Club, where the Yankees eventually visited in 1927 for an exhibition match against Kenichi and his team. 

Forming teams such as the San Fernando Aces and San Pedro Gophers, baseball helped incarcerated Japanese-Americans distance themselves from the war, from their moral dilemmas of identity. For one prisoner (and perhaps for many others as well), wearing the jersey meant wearing the U.S. flag.

In 1964, Masanori Murakami became the first native Japanese to play at the MLB level. From 1964-65, he had a 5-1 record with a 3.43 ERA in 54 appearances with the San Francisco Giants. Decades would pass until Hideo Nomo’s debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995, and Ichiro Suzuki in 2001. 

Kenichi Zenimura and his teammates, alongside Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth

Despite playing the same sport, some approach the game differently, be it cultural or tactical. For instance, squeeze plays such as sacrifice bunting, base stealing, and precise fielding are more heavily practiced in NPB than in MLB. What’s more, if a pitcher unintentionally hits the batter, it is common courtesy to tip his cap to signal an apology. 

Stadium wise, typical sections in Japan are separated by team, where you are prohibited from wearing the opposing team’s colors when you are in that designated area.  In MLB, although there is an unwritten rule that you should sit on whichever side your team’s dugout is, fans can generally sit anywhere no matter the team. What’s more, rather than heckling and booing the opposing team’s players as we sometimes see from the crowd in the U.S., most eschew this in Japan and instead keep calm. 

 In his book, You Gotta Have Wa, Robert Whiting believes a prime cultural difference in baseball between Japan and the U.S. relies heavily on harmony (wa), a concept that is not only practiced in baseball but also in Japanese society at large. While many MLB players pay heed to their own batting averages and overall individual performance, Japanese baseball players see that working in unity breeds team spirit and effective results. Thus, it is far more unlikely to see Japanese players switch teams, as their length of years played symbolizes their loyalty to their respective team. This very much matches the workstyle of Japan around the postwar period, where it was common to see employees work for one company until retirement.

Yet this dilemma between personal and team goals continues to persist today. Managers taking out pitchers despite them throwing a potential no-hitter is an example. While the pitcher may lose the accolades, it may ultimately affect the team’s chances of winning, and keep him from injury. 

Today, while soccer is gradually becoming another popular pastime in Japan, baseball continues to thrive. Known for its passionate fanbase with a festival-like atmosphere of constant cheer, many even declare it as their own religion. Japanese high schoolers who practice baseball dream of playing in the National High School Baseball Championship (Koshien), akin to March Madness in the U.S. where teams from schools around the nation compete on a win-or-go-home basis. In the MLB, talented stars such as Shohei Ohtani and Seiya Suzuki continue to show us what they’re made of, and define the shape of baseball to come. 

Baseball initially reconciled the tremors of the war and its consequences, and helped bring the two nations to fruition. Yet at the end of day, the sky’s the limit—we know now that it can be played with minimal barriers even in times of strife. Wherever we may be, while we may not be glued to each and every game in the season, the beauty of baseball is its magic, and sometimes when the time is right, we experience that magic altogether. Whether it be catching a foul ball, coincidentally meeting someone we know in the stands, tossing a ball with an outfielder, or even reliving our own Field of Dreams. Something is bound to happen. And if the next 150 years resembles even a semblance of the first, let it give us a mighty ride.

Over the past years, JCCI has recognized several players and managers in the professional baseball industry. Most recently, we’ve presented then Yankees starting pitcher Masahiro Tanaka our Eagle-on-the-World Award at our 36th Annual Gala in 2020. In 2013, we’ve presented Hideki Matsui our Eagle-on-the-World Award at our 29th Annual Dinner Gala, and the Honorary Award to both Hideo Nomo in 2009 at our 25th Annual Dinner Gala and Bobby Valentine in 2006 at our 22nd Annual Dinner Gala.

To keep the tradition going strong, JCCI is also offering promotional discounts for select Yankee games throughout the 2022 season. Contact us at info@jcciny.org to view the list of games available for purchase. 

Further Reading and Sources:

Beschloss, Michael. 2014. “For Incarcerated Japanese-Americans, Baseball Was ‘Wearing the American Flag.’” The New York Times, June 20, 2014, sec. The Upshot. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/21/upshot/for-incarcerated-japanese-americans-baseball-was-wearing-the-american-flag.html#commentsContainer.

Fitts, Robert K. 2013. Banzai Babe Ruth : Baseball, Espionage, and Assassination during the 1934 Tour of Japan. Univ Of Nebraska Press.

Fitts, Robert K. 2012. Wally Yonamine : The Man Who Changed Japanese Baseball. Lincoln: University Of Nebraska Press.

Johnson, Daniel E. 2006. Japanese Baseball a Statistical Handbook. Jefferson, N.C. ; London Mcfarland.

Lewis, Michael. 2003. Moneyball : The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. New York: W.W. Norton.

Mochizuki, Ken, and Dom Lee. 2018. Baseball Saved Us. New York: Lee & Low Books, Inc.

Moss, Marissa. 2016. Barbed Wire Baseball: How One Man Brought Hope to the Japanese Internment Camps of WWII. Turtleback Books 03/08.

Staples, Bill. 2011. Kenichi Zenimura, Japanese American Baseball Pioneer. Jefferson, N.C.: Mcfarland & Co.

Nihon de Hajimete Curve wo Nageta Otoko (The First Man in Japan to Throw a Curveball) (Yasunori Suzuki and Kenji Sakai / Shogakukan)

Whiting, R. (2009). You gotta have wa. Vintage Departures.

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