Guest Posts · Pop Culture and Japan

Guest Post: Japanese Baseball: Fun, Modern, Sacred

One evening not too long, my daughter surprised me an unlikely question about, of all things, Japanese baseball.  I am keenly interested in Japan and always enjoyed attending baseball games during my many visits to that country, but still the question came out of left field.  

“What is baseball to the Japanese?” she asked, explaining that “during the Second World War, Japan’s military government suppressed all things American, even the English language, but the Japanese continued to play baseball, even professionally.”  She then added, almost innocently:  “Didn’t they know it was an American game?” 

I assured her that Japanese people knew the game’s origins well.  Other than that simple fact, I had nothing specific to offer her.  In the back of my mind, I sensed that the answer somehow connected to a broader mystery about the Japanese – how they can so readily adopt so much from abroad and never for a moment lose their sense of self or their commitment to steward Japan’s unique culture and values.  Americans, when they adopt something foreign, often feel a tension between their identity and the new practice as if somehow indulging it makes them less American.  Not so the Japanese. 

They feel no such tension, no threat to their status as Japanese.  Indeed, their sense of self is so strong that they tend to make foreign adoptions their own.  I shared this vague observation with her and promised to look into it.  Our conversation then moved in other directions. 

The question weighed on me, in part because it was her question but also because the answer, I thought, might indeed offer insight into the Japanese people and their strong sense of identity.  I still have no answer to the broad question, but I am convinced now, having read much about baseball in Japan, that the game is, if not more Japanese than American then more important to Japanese than it is to Americans. 

For the Japanese, baseball seems to combine two seemingly contradictory feelings.  On one side, it embodies Japan’s triumph as a modern nation, rising quickly in the late nineteenth century to become the equal of any western power.  At the same time, baseball also serves as a vessel to carry Japan’s ancient culture and the enduring power of that society’s values and practices.  This strange combination comes through clearly in the game’s history.

When in 1872 the American Horace Wilson first brought bats and balls to Japan, he certainly had nothing profound in mind.  He had been hired to teach at Tokyo’s elite Ishiko School and was, no doubt,  thinking of a pleasant diversion for his new pupils.  Wilson would have done the same were he starting a new teaching job in his native state of Maine. 

But unlike Maine, the Japan he entered was fraught.  The country had just emerged from a huge transition – a revolution — and was in the process of extending it.  Prior to this upheaval, Japan had remained in a kind of medieval solitude all but unchanged for some 300 years.  Its revolution had begun in the 1853, when the American Commodore Matthew Perry sailed his war fleet into Tokyo Bay, levelled his guns at the shore, and made the demands of America’s president. 

Many of the parents of Wilson’s students would have had personal memories of Perry’s arrival.  Some of them may even have seen Perry’s “black ships,” as the Japanese called them, and could still feel the pain and humiliation of having no option but to comply with the commodore’s demands.

In the years between Perry’s arrival and Wilson’s, Japan had suffered two civil wars.  It had overthrown the 300-plus year run of the Shogun’s government and elevated the emperor as figurehead of a new Imperial government.  The painful experience had also imbued the new government and the Japanese people with a commitment to do whatever it took to become a peer of the United States and other western powers so that Japan would never again have to suffer the humiliation of 1853. 

Accordingly, Japan had committed itself to take on all it could from the west so that if it came to it again Japan could take on the west.  Like everyone else in Japan at the time, the Ishiko students, especially their well-placed parents, were passionately committed to this modernisation project.

To accomplish its aims, Japan sent missions to Europe and America to learn as much as they could about western ways and technology.  The new government was also actively recruiting people in the west to teach the younger generation.  Horace Wilson was part of this drive.  He had served in the Union army during America’s Civil War. 

His post-war civilian career had not gone especially well, and he had drifted west looking for opportunities.  By the time he arrived in San Francisco he has acquired a wife and she had given him a child.  There, the new Japanese consulate recruited him to teach at Ishiko.  He had enjoyed playing baseball while in the army, as many soldiers did, and, thinking no doubt of his young students, included bats and balls in his luggage. 

The game, he must have thought, would provide his young charges a break from their more serious obligations, as baseball had done for him and his fellow soldiers during America’s civil war.

He was right about the boys.  They very much enjoyed what they called, “Mr. Wilson’s game.”  For the dutiful sons of Japan’s elite, Wilson’s casual American approach to the game, if not the studies, must have offered a wonderful break from lives filled with traditional Japanese structures, disciplines, and obligations, none of which the country’s civil wars and upheavals had much changed. 

Baseball became a hot topic of conversation among these young men.  Students from other schools came by to watch the Ishiko boys in their intramural contests.  Other Americans, recruited just as Wilson had been and teaching at other Japanese schools, got wind of goings on at Ishiko and began baseball practices with their students. 

But there was something more happening than just boys’ games.  Ishiko served the sons of Japan’s elite.  This boy’s school was, after all, a precursor of Tokyo University.  The students there knew that they carried Japan’s future on their shoulders and took their obligations seriously.  They were determined to absorb what the west had to offer, in their studies surely, but they also saw baseball as part of the west and accordingly also worthy of absorption. 

If Wilson approached the game casually as a break from the business of life, his pupils became more serious about the matter.  They would take on this game the way Japan planned to take on the west generally and were eager to approach it with the discipline with which their Japanese upbringing had imbued them and for which Japan and the Japanese have long since become famous the world over.

Teenaged Hiraoka Hiroshi was not an Ishiko student.  He nonetheless stands as a great exemplar of the energy, zeal, and strength of purpose that permeated Japan’s youth during this modernisation drive.  He almost single handedly took on the west.  Hiroshi was the son of an aristocratic family and, like many who accomplish a lot in life, showed and excess of energy in his youth – so much energy, in fact, that he became an embarrassment to his staid family. 

In 1871, a year before Wilson’s arrival, Hiroshi’s father saw in Japan’s passionate interest in the west a way to exhibit patriotism and also rid himself of his troublesome son.  He enrolled Hiroshi in a Boston school, where he could learn English, western ways, and do the family’s part answering Japan’s need. 

The boy took ship for San Francisco at the tender age of 15.  From there he was expected to find his way across the continent to begin classes in Boston.  But while still in California, he saw his first railroad and fell in love.  He telegraphed Boston to delay his arrival at school and found a job on the railroad.  After learning a lot about that technology from the bottom up so to speak, he did cross the continent. 

Even then, he delayed his arrival in Boston.  Instead, he enrolled himself in what today we would call a trade school in Philadelphia to learn how to drive a locomotive.  There he saw baseball for the first time and developed a lifelong affection for the Philadelphia team, the Athletics.  Only after beginning this love affair and learning to drive a locomotive did he show up in Boston to begin the studies for which his father had sent him. 

While attending classes and upgrading his English, he developed a still greater passion for baseball.  At the time, all Boston was swept up with the game.  The city’s team, the Red Sox, had just won four national championships.  Not lacking in personal charm and having something of an exotic allure, especially in 1872 Boston, Hiroshi managed to strike up friendships with several of the team members, most notably the team’s leading pitcher, Albert Spalding.  

Young Hiroshi was amassing much to bring back to Japan.  His government delivered him his ticket home and also paved the path of his future career in the form of one of the many fact-finding missions it was sending to Europe and America.  The Iwakura Embassy arrived in Boston with a great need for interpreters.  Its members must have thought they had struck gold when the still teenaged Hiraoka Hiroshi appeared at their hotel suit to offer the services of a Japanese not only fluent in English, but familiar with Boston and American ways, probably better than any of his countrymen. 

The connections he made in that high ranked group much enhanced those already available through his well-placed family.  One such contact was another young man traveling with the embassy, Ito Hirobumi, who later became prime minister of Japan.  When Hiroshi finally returned home in 1877, a still young 21, he assumed a senior position with the new Shimbashi Railroad Bureau, then running the new line between Tokyo and Yokohama.  He prospered.  He knew railroading well. 

And since he loved baseball, he used his business perch to promote the game, establishing an employee’s team, which he named the Shimbashi Athletic Club (SAC) in honor of his much-admired Philadelphia Athletics.  Japanese baseball was no longer just for schoolboys.  Through the SAC, the game gained further notoriety.  Because Hiroshi was much in demand to teach English to Japan’s elite, he won several influential fans for the game.  In 1882, the SAC built the country’s first permanent diamond, Hokenjo (health) Field.

By this time, baseball was becoming popular in ever broader circles.  Many schools and companies had teams.  One wealthy man, of whom more later, established a private team called the Hercules Club.  The game seemed to be ride high on the patriotic wave for modernisation and westernisation.  But as in all such national movements, the more momentum westernisation gained, the more thoughtful Japanese began to raise questions.  A countercurrent began to develop in intellectual circles.

The first to question westernisation were those who knew the west best.  One was possibly the first Japanese internationalist.  Even before the black ships arrived, Fukuzawa Yukichi had studied Dutch under the shogun.  It was the only foreign language permitted Japanese at the time.  Later he learned English and other European languages, traveled on several government missions to Europe and the United States, and read widely in the western canon. 

He approved of the efforts to defend Japan by learning from the west, but, without a drop of anti-western animus,  he nonetheless worried that the country’s wholesale westernisation drive would steal from Japan the very reason it was modernising: to protect society’s unique and ancient ways, the essence of what he described as “Japanese-ness.”  Fukuzawa’s articles reached only a few intellectuals. 

It took another thinker, Saki Takutami, to carry the same sort of message to a wider audience with his 1886 best seller, The Japan of the Future, in which he counselled Japanese not to “ape the west” but rather to hold precious, “our special qualities.” 

By the late 1880s, this contrary movement had gained considerable momentum.  Shortly after Saki’s book came out, Naka Chomin published an even more popular work of fiction: A Discussion of Three Drunkards on Government.  In it he mercilessly ridiculed Japanese who mimicked all things western and who held westerners and their ways as always superior.  He made it clear that the defense of Japan required society not only to modernise but also to preserve and promote its native values and practices. 

Younger intellectuals gathered around Chomin’s and Saki’s arguments.  They founded the Society for Political Education and promoted the case for Japanese-ness in their house organ, aptly named, The Japanese.  Largely though their efforts to define Japanese-ness, they assembled the by-now familiar Japanese canon, consisting of such pre-Perry writings as The Tale of Genji, The Book of Five Rings, The Tale of the 47 Ronin, The Way of Self-Reliance, Love and Suicide at Sonezaki, and others. 

Through all these writings they promoted Japanese values, including what came to be called bushido.  By 1896, these efforts began to turn the popular tide.  That year’s Imperial Rescript on Education for the first time asserted the need to preserve Japan’s culture.

These intellectuals hardly noticed baseball.  But as popular media began to pick up their  themes, baseball, with its American look and origins, became an easy target.  All the attention it had won as part of the earlier movement toward westernisation and modernisation began to work against it.  Newspapers of the day described the game as a kind of entry drug to decadence and the antithesis of things Japanese. 

This popular criticism reached a peak in the Tokyo Asahi Shimbun’s 1911 spread entitled “The Evils of Baseball.”  There, the editors worried how practice sessions distracted young people from their studies.  The acts of pitching, throwing, and batting were characterised as “unnatural.”  

The article speculated that the movements could do lasting “physical harm.”  The editors fret about how much money was wasted on “fancy uniforms” and that baseball encouraged “vulgar ways.”  The editors were sure that games were frequently followed by parties at which alcohol was consumed.

Baseball responded less with rhetoric than with clear demonstrations of how Japanese it had become.  In this way players and enthusiasts argued forcefully if inadvertently that the game was not at all tainted by its western roots, that on the contrary, it was an exponent of not a threat to Japanese-ness. 

In doing so, they gave the game its seemingly contradictory combination of characteristics.  Baseball at once held an association with the modernisation that Japan embraced to defend itself and yet was in every way an expression of the ancient culture, values, and the disciplines that set Japanese society apart in this world.  This was a marvelous trick.  Few things in any society can claim both tradition and the future, the past and the modern.  Japanese baseball was magical.

Part of this elevation emerged from those who supported the game.  The SAC’s founder, Hiraoka Hiroshi, was, after all, the son Japan’s aristocracy, a descendent of the daimyos and samurai singled out by the protectors of Japanese culture as the stewards of Japan’s ancient legacy. 

So also were the high placed people to whom Hiroshi taught English and recruited as baseball enthusiasts.  More prestigious still was Tokugawa Satotaka, a direct descendent of the last shogun, an historical figure of great interest to those extoling the nation’s cultural inheritance.  Satotaka had become such a baseball enthusiast that he had used his own wealth and influence to organize the Hercules Club that challenged the SAC.  He even built the club its own stadium. 

Apart from the impeccable social credentials of many baseball supporters, the game gained purchase among the cultural traditionalists by how it was being played.  Those who observed practice at the Ishiko School and elsewhere – be they associated with the Society for Political Education or simply casual passersby – could not help but notice the influence of traditional Japanese bushido-like disciplines. 

There on the diamond they could see the earnest, grueling and self-sacrificial behaviour that they imagined samurai exhibited during their martial exercises.  Ishiko pitchers, for instance, imposed on themselves what they called the 1000-fungo drill, which demanded 1000 pitches in a workout.  The boys, far from the decadence and vulgarity of which critics’ spoke, approached the game in a manner extolled in the pages of The Japanese and elsewhere in what was at the time rapidly becoming the Japanese canon.

As is so often the case in issues of national identity, a singular incident secured for baseball, however modern and western, a clear link to all that is uniquely Japanese.  That incident was the great contest between the boys of the Ishiko School and the “arrogant Americans.”  It began in 1890, when the school’s team had repeatedly triumphed over every other school and also all the adult baseball clubs.  Ishiko decided to take on the Americans and the outcome, though hardly noticed before the fact, electrified Japan.

The school administration approached the Yokohama Cricket and Athletic Club (YCAC), which was then the centre of western culture in Japan.  This exclusively western establishment whose grounds were off limits to Japanese, was rumoured to house the best baseball team in Asia. 

To the Japanese who noticed, especially those extoling traditional Japanese values, the YCAC symbolised the west’s claims to military, economic, and cultural superiority, the things that had humbled Japan so thoroughly some forty years earlier and why Japan had decided to modernise in the first place. 

At first the YCAC rejected all overtures from Ishiko.  The Americans’ reasons could not help but inflame Japanese sensibilities.  There would be no contest, the Americans claimed, because of the “diminutive physique” of most Japanese and their “lack of manly vigour.”  To Japanese and especially the boys at the Ishiko School, this was tantamount to claiming greater bushido for westerners.

By this time, Horace Wilson had long gone from the school and from Japan.  Another American on the faculty, William Mason, was, however, highly impressed by the Ishiko team – not least its “manly vigour” – and used his connections to press the issue.  No doubt he challenged the “manly vigour” of the YCAC members by daring them to demonstrate the superiorities they claimed for themselves. 

Of course, there is no telling what he said.  The negotiations occurred behind closed doors.  However Mason may have argued, he did prevail, and a match was set for May 23, 1896.  Play would occur in the precincts of the YCAC.

The club broke its own rules just to allow the Ishiko boys through the gate.  They were met, eyewitnesses described, with “jeers” and “taunts.”  Play began in the early afternoon.  The sun was strong.  No doubt the heat and humidity of a Yokohama summer was already evident.  As the game progressed, the once “jeering” Americans became quiet. 

Indeed, as one inning followed the other, the Americans – players and onlookers alike but especially the players – must have wanted things to end as quickly as possible, or if not that, then last forever so there would never be a final decision.  But the game did end.  After nine innings of play, the final score was 29 runs for Ishiko, 4 for the YCAC.  It was a route.  All the samurai-like discipline had triumphed.  The 1000-fungo drill had paid off.  Everyone in Japan noticed.

There were, of course, rematches.  The Americans now were hot to prove themselves.  These only served to confirm the reality established on May 23.  On June 5, the teams met again.  Onlookers at the YCAC field were much more subdued this time, and the American players were more businesslike.  Ishiko won 32 to 9.  The Americans called for yet another rematch. 

This one came off on June 9.  For this game, the YCAC team had recruited some of the best players from several U.S. Navy ships then anchored off Yokohama.  This time Ishiko had only a 16-run advantage.  For the fourth game in the series, the Americans included a one-time professional who had played for Baltimore and was then serving on Admiral Dewey’s flagship, Olympia.   With his help, the YCAC eked out a victory, besting Ishiko 14 to 12.

Though the Americans had won one game, it matter little to the Ishiko team or Japanese people generally.  The point was made.  Japanese values and practices had conquered in a contest of modernity.  The news thrilled Japan.  Congratulatory telegrams poured into the Ishiko School. 

Japanese baseball had secured its magical status – modern and unmistakably Japanese.  More schools began to field teams, and media coverage became much more positive.  In 1897, the Tokyo Technical College, the precursor to Waseda University, organised its team.  Kyoto Imperial University soon followed.  Specialised baseball magazines proliferated.  The Asahi Shinbum eventually ceased worrying about the “evils of baseball” and soon thereafter became a major sponsor of large-scale high school tournaments.  In that enthusiasm, Waseda’s team met Keio University’s for the first time and began a rivalry that has persisted to the present day.

During the Second World War, Japan’s military government did indeed suppress all things western, even teaching English.  But baseball continued.  Despite its origins, it was simply too popular.  Besides, it was more Japanese, at least in Japanese eyes, than just about anything else, thoroughly associated in the popular imagination with bushido.  The Waseda-Keio challenge continued as well. 

In 1943, however, the war did impose, not because of any government ban but rather because the army and navy decided to call up college students.  Both universities were confronted with the prospect of losing their students.  It speaks loudly to baseball’s special place that the administrations of both schools could think of no better way to say farewell than with one last game.  It took place on October 16.  Waseda won. 

At the conclusion, without a hint of awkwardness or contradiction, the entire stadium rose from cheering Mr. Wilson’s game to sing the patriotic song, “Umi Yukaha” (When Sailing Away).

Whatever one thinks of Japan’s wartime government, the response of the Japanese people during that trying time shows how fully Japan had adopted the game into its culture.  Today, when Japanese people attend a game, they celebrate their team, of course, and, like Americans in a similar setting in the States, they enjoy time with friends outdoors in the sun.  But also, Japanese, intuitively at least, celebrate how this game combines the best of Japan’s modernisation – the peer of any nation – with all that distinguishes Japan and that its people hold dear.

Bio: Milton Ezrati, intrigued by Japan since his first visit decades ago, is author of Kawari: How Japan’s Economic and Cultural Transformation Will Alter the Balance of Power Among Nations and most recently, Thirty Tomorrows: The Next Three Decades of Demographics, Globalisation, and How We Will Live.       

One thought on “Guest Post: Japanese Baseball: Fun, Modern, Sacred

  1. Thanks for the inciteful and interesting look at Japanese baseball and the way it is regarded in Japan. “Americans, when they adopt something foreign, often feel a tension between their identity and the new practice as if somehow indulging it makes them less American. Not so the Japanese. ” That’s a great observation!


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