Sports and Training Coming to Japan: Baseball

Sony Walkmans, Toyota cars, and Nintendo video games are all Japanese exports that Americans have come to know and love.

But in Japan, there is an American import that inspires more passion than all of those: baseball.

Officially, Japan’s national sport is sumo wrestling. But baseball is unquestionably number one in the people’s hearts. The Yomiuri Giants, Japan’s most popular professional team, play to standing-room crowds nightly–not only in their hometown of Tokyo, but all across the country. Organized rooting sections, led by cheerleaders and bands, rival those seen at U.S. college football games. And every summer, the whole nation tunes in to the national high school basball tournament–one of the biggest amateur sporting events in the world.

Some people find it surprising that Japan is taken with such a quintesentially American game. But the Japanese approach baseball with their own methods, psychology, and strategy. The result is a game that looks the same and is played with identical rules, but is uniquely Japanese–a mirror of the Japanese soul and mind. “I don’t know whether the Japanese system is better or not,” said Bob Horner, a former Atlanta Brave who played one season with Toyko’s Yakult Swallows. “I just don’t understand it.”

Japan first took to baseball in the late 19th century, when it began importing Western technology, methods, and ideas as part of an all-out effort to catch up to the U.S. and Europe economically. At the time, the Japanese had no team sports; sumo wrestling and martial arts, such as kendo and judo, were their main athletic activities. In fact, no word for “sports” existed in the Japanese language, so they took the English word and made it suppotsu.

The team concept of baseball was perfect for the Japanese, whose society puts the group ahead of the individual. At the same time, the game’s pitcher-versus-batter confrontation retained the one-on-one form of competition the Japanese liked about sumo wrestling and the martial arts.


From the outset, the Japanese saw the game differently from Americans. Suishu Tobita, known as the “God of Baseball” in Japan for his success as a manager in the early 1900s, brought a martial-arts philosophy to the diamond. The game, he said, should be a quest “to attan the truth, just as in Zen Buddhism.”

Japan’s greatest home run hitter, Sadaharu Oh, used a samurai sword to practice his batting stroke. During games, he would imagine that his bat was a sword cutting the ball in half. (Oh hit 868 home runs in his career, surpassing the records of U.S. stars Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth.)

Most Japanese players, like the Japanese people themselves, believe that success is linked above all to hard work. From high school to the pros, teams train year-round, with pitchers throwing more than 100 pitches a day, even when their arms hurt.

Many American ballplayers who go to Japan think the Japanese train too hard, causing injury and fatigue. Professional leagues in Japan limit the number of gaijin (foreigners) to two per team, in part because the talents of American players still exceed those of the Japanese. Out of respect for their talent, the Japanese often excuse American players from participating in rigorous workouts. But when Americans question the value of such hard practice, the Japanese reply, “If Americans trained harder, they would be even better.”