Japan’s love for baseball is well documented. The country has been the birthplace of many MLB superstars including Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, as well as current MLB megastar, Shohei Ohtani.
Slowly, baseball has grown into the most popular sport in the country with an attendance rate that rivals soccer. But why exactly do so many people in Japan enjoy playing and watching it?
This article will answer this question by diving into the history of baseball in Japan and how the sport has cemented itself into modern Japanese culture.
Baseball has a long and rich history in Japan. It started as a simple American game with a low barrier to entry, but grew into a national treasure. The story of its origins can be traced to 1872 when an American professor named Horace Wilson introduced the game to students at Kaisei Academy.
Previous to this, Japanese people had limited exposure to the sport. However, they did get to witness American sailors would passing time by throwing around baseballs while stationed on Japanese soil. In 1878, the Shimbashi Athletic Club was formed by a group of students in Tokyo – they were the first baseball team in the country!
From there, baseball games between schools at the high school and collegiate levels began to happen. As baseball became more popular throughout Japan during this period, increasing numbers of high school, college, and university teams were established.
At the high school and university levels, fierce rivalries were formed, with Keio University vs. Waseda University being the first major rivalry to draw spectators’ eyes. These contests drew packed stadiums of thousands dating back to as early as 1903. Even in the early 20th century, baseball was already becoming one of Japan’s most popular sports – even without professional ranks.
The Popularity of the Koshien
University baseball in Japan wasn’t the only avenue that helped grow the game in the country. High school baseball also exploded in popularity, with the spectacle known as “the Koshien” being a huge factor in bringing eyes to baseball.
The Koshien serves as a baseball tournament that is played at the high school level. The tournament takes place in Nishinomiya, Japan and it is the most popular sporting event in Japan for high school students. This tournament began in 1924 and was named after the famed “Koshien Stadium”.
The tournament started with only hosting 2 teams but has since grown to include 16 teams. These teams are high schools who compete in regional qualifiers across the country When this tournament began, it was only considered an informal game amongst friends and family, but soon grew into a national event.
How It Works
The Koshien is similar to the NCAA March Madness in the sense that it showcases the best teams from all over Japan. Teams play against all different types of opponents, ranging from other schools in the same prefecture to teams that are hundreds of miles away.
Also, like March Madness, if a team wins its state qualifier, they automatically advance to the Koshien where they can potentially face an opponent with equal or greater skill.
The players who come out of this tournament go on to play at the professional ranks. Some notable alumni include Hideki Matsui, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Tomohiro Anraku.
In terms of numbers, the Koshien regularly sells out its 80,000 seat stadium for games during the tournament. The games are also televised nationally, with many of Japan’s top high school players vying for exposure from collegiate and professional scouts.
This event shows us how much baseball is loved by Japanese people because of its intense popularity. The love of the Koshien has permeated into Japanese pop culture as well, with many tv shows, movies, and anime all having plots related to characters competing at Koshien. The event became so popular so quickly, that even Babe Ruth stopped by in 1934 to participate in an exhibition.
The Professional Ranks, NPB And MLB
While the MLB (Major League Baseball) is known as the baseball league where the best-of-the-best play, the NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) is no slouch either. Regarding its domestic popularity, NPB is the most watched sports league in Japan. A 2020 survey revealed that 40% of Japanese citizens were regular watchers of the league.
In 2019, NPB also hit record attendance numbers across professional baseball leagues. In 858 games played, they recorded a total attendance of 26,536,962 attendees. This means that they had 30,929 people attend each game on average!
When compared to the last full capacity MLB season (2019), NPB beat the MLB in attendance average with 30,929 attendees vs 28,317. With these numbers in mind, baseball is arguably a bigger sport in Japan than in its country of origin, the USA.
But what about the quality of play?
Should they choose to move, many of the top NPB players go on to have successful careers in MLB.
The best recent example of this is Shohei Ohtani, current pitcher/DH for the Los Angeles Angels. After moving from NPB to MLB in 2017, he won the American League Rookie of the Year award in 2018. He is also regarded by many as the best player in MLB currently.
Players moving over from NPB to MLB also help to grow the game in Japan as well, as Japanese MLB players become even larger celebrities in their country due to their success in baseball’s marquee league.
Baseball is not only popular in Japan, but it has a special place in the heart and culture of the Japanese people. From its humble origins promoting amateur team rivalries, the sport’s popularity caught like a wildfire – growing into the nation’s #1 sport today.
Nowadays, the sport sees popularity at all ranks of play. At the high school level, the Koshien functions as Japan’s version of NCAA March Madness – with nearly 100,000 people attending each tournament game filled with high schoolers. At the collegiate level, school vs school rivalries and the ability to watch professional prospects keeps spectator popularity high as well.
And lastly, there are professional teams all across the country with rabid fans who appear at more games than MLB fans. While the sport may have American origins, one thing is for certain: baseball is deeply ingrained into the fiber of Japanese society.