Baseball in Japan
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Baseball is one of the most popular sports in Japan. It was introduced to Japan in 1872 by Horace Wilson, who taught at the Kaisei School in Tokyo. The first baseball team was called the Shimbashi Athletic Club and was established in 1878. Baseball has been a popular sport ever since. It is called 野球 (やきゅう; yakyū) in Japanese, combining the characters for field and ball.
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Hiroshi Hiraoka, an engineering student who was exposed to baseball during a period of study in the United States, introduced the game to his co-workers at Japan’s national railways upon his return in 1878. He and his co-workers created the first baseball team, the Shimbashi Athletic Club, and dominated other teams which popped up in Japan. However, it was not until the team from Ichiko (also known as the First Higher School of Tokyo, now a part of Tokyo University), the country's most prestigious prep school, started play in 1886 that the sport began to take hold in Japanese culture. In 1891, Ichiko challenged the "whites only" Yokohama Athletic Club to a match-up on the diamond, only to have the request refused, as the Yokohama squad refused to play against non-Caucasian players. As a result, the team from the Christian missionary school Meiji Gakuin offered to play Ichiko and subsequently handed them a decisive defeat. Humiliated, Ichiko began developing an intense training philosophy wherein players would train to the point of complete physical exhaustion for the improvement of the team. This training ideology would serve as the foundation of the Japanese game well into the 20th century. In 1896, the Yokohama Athletic Club (fielding a team composed mainly of sailors) finally agreed to play against Ichiko and were defeated 29 to 4. It was the first recorded international baseball game in Asia.
After the 1896 victory over Yokohama Athletic Club, universities began adopting the sport and it quickly spread throughout Japan. The university teams began to travel to the United States as well as host American university teams in Japan to play and learn from their American counterparts. Waseda University was one of the first teams to cross the ocean to improve their skills; in 1905, the Japanese government funded the Waseda team’s tour of the United States, where it played college teams from around the country. Other universities in Japan made similar trips, and American university teams in turn traveled to Japan to play in a trend which would continue into the 1930s. Waseda and Keio University began a fierce rivalry (the Sokeisen) in 1903, which has been going on for over a century (with the exception of 1905-1925, when it was banned because of overly rowdy behavior). By 1925, four other major universities had created teams, leading to the formation of the Tokyo Big6 Baseball League.
Before 1908, only amateur players competed in the games between United States and Japanese teams. In that year, a team composed of American minor and major league players, the Reach All-Americans, played teams from several countries, including Japan. The Chicago White Sox and New York Giants visited Japan on a similar international tour in 1913. In 1920, Major League Baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis supported former major leaguer Herb Hunter’s efforts to send a team of major and minor leaguers to Japan for a series of games and coaching clinics with university teams. The success of the tour led to seven additional Hunter-led excursions of major and minor league players to Japan, which culminated in what is possibly the most notable series of match-ups between American and Japanese teams to date, the All-Star tour of 1934. During this 1934 series, a team of Japan’s finest players, assembled by Yomiuri Shimbun owner Matsutarō Shōriki, were outplayed in all 18 of their games against Major League All-Stars. However, in one of the contests, pitcher Eiji Sawamura gained status as a national hero and baseball legend by striking out Hall of Famers Charlie Gehringer, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Jimmie Foxx in order in a 1-0 loss. Shōriki kept his team together after the tour, and after a series of exhibition games throughout the United States and Canada in 1935, the team declared professional status in 1936 and became the Yomiuri Giants, the first team to join the new Japanese Baseball League.
Nippon Professional Baseball
The professional baseball association is called Nippon Professional Baseball. Japan has two leagues, as in the United States. The Central and Pacific Leagues each consist of six teams. The Pacific League uses the designated hitter style of play. The pro baseball season is eight months long with games beginning in April, and a Championship held in October. Teams play 144 games, as compared to the 162 games of the American major league teams.
Corporations with interests outside baseball own the teams. Historically, teams have been identified with their owners, not where the team is based. However, in recent years, many owners have chosen to include a place name in the names of their teams; seven of the 12 Nippon Professional Baseball League (NPB) teams are currently named with both corporate and place names. Maruha Corporation has taken this one step farther by completely dropping its name from its NPB team, the Yokohama BayStars.
The Japanese first professional league was formed in 1936, and by 1950 had grown big enough to divide into two leagues. The Central League included the established teams, and the Pacific League was made up of new teams and players. Both leagues had 6 teams and adopted a playoff system, much like the American one. The contest between the league winners was named the Japan Series.
Differences from Major League Baseball
The rules are essentially those of Major League Baseball, but technical elements are slightly different: The Nippon league uses a smaller baseball, strike zone, and playing field. The Japanese baseball is wound more tightly and is harder than an American baseball. The strike zone is narrower "inside" than away from the batter. Five Nippon league teams have fields whose small dimensions would violate the American Official Baseball Rules.
Also unlike MLB, game length is limited and tie games are allowed. In the regular season, the limit is twelve innings, while in the playoffs, there is a fifteen-inning limit (Games in Major League Baseball, by comparison, continue until there is a winner; the 2002 All-Star Game, an exhibition game, was a notorious exception.) Additionally, during the 2011 NPB season, an inning occurring three hours and thirty minutes after the first pitch was the final inning, due to power limits imposed because of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.
A team cannot have more than four foreign players on a 25-man game roster, although there is no limit on the number of foreign players that it may sign. If there are four, they cannot all be pitchers nor all be position players. This limits the cost and competition for expensive players of other nationalities, and is similar to rules in many European sports leagues' roster limits on non-European players.
In each of the two leagues, teams with the best winning percentage go on to a stepladder-format playoff (3 vs 2, winner vs 1). Occasionally, a team with more total wins has been seeded below a team that had more ties and fewer losses and, therefore, had a better winning percentage. The winners of each league compete in the Japan Series.
Strike of 2004
In September 2004, the owners and the NPB met to discuss the merger of two teams. Prior to this, the Japanese Professional Baseball Players Association (JPBPA) had decided to strike on weekends for the remainder of September. They held talks with the owners and with the NPB. The owners offered to help the players by reducing the "entry fee" to join the league; they guaranteed that the Chiba Lotte Marines and the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, both of the Pacific League, and the two leagues would remain; the Central League would have six teams, and the Pacific League would have five. They also put the merger of the Buffaloes and Blue Wave on hold.The players decided to strike, as there was insufficient time left in the season to hold discussions. On 18 and 19 September 2004, the professional Japanese players struck for the first time in over seventy years. The fans supported the players, which made the owners review the idea of finding another team for the following season. On September 23, 2004, the players and owners reached an agreement: the Tohoku Rakuten Eagles would enter the league at the beginning of the 2005 season, and the leagues would adopt inter-league play, which would make the game more appealing, and would help the Pacific League gain exposure by playing the more popular Central league teams. In December 2004, SoftBank, an internet service provider, purchased the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks to help with finances in the Pacific League.
High school baseball
In Japan, high school baseball (高校野球 kōkō yakyū?) generally refers to the two annual baseball tournaments played by high schools nationwide culminating in a final showdown at Hanshin Kōshien Stadium in Nishinomiya. They are organized by the Japan High School Baseball Federation in association with Mainichi Shimbun for the National High School Baseball Invitational Tournament in the spring (also known as "Spring Kōshien") and Asahi Shimbun for the National High School Baseball Championship in the summer (also known as "Summer Kōshien").
These nationwide tournaments enjoy widespread popularity, arguably equal to or greater than professional baseball. Qualifying tournaments are often televised locally and each game of the final stage at Kōshien is televised nationally on NHK. The tournaments have become a national tradition, and large numbers of students and parents travel from hometowns to cheer for their local team. It is a common sight to see players walking off the field in tears after being eliminated from the tournament by a loss.
Amateur baseball leagues exist all over Japan, with many teams sponsored by companies. Amateur baseball is governed by the Japan Amateur Baseball Association (JABA).
Japan has won the World Baseball Classic twice since the tournament was created. In the 2006 World Baseball Classic, they defeated Cuba in the finals and in 2009 World Baseball Classic they defeated South Korea in 10 innings to defend their title.
- Sport in Japan
- Japan national baseball team
- Asahi (baseball team)
- Baseball awards#Japan
- List of Japanese baseball players
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