In the spring and summer, the whole of Japan is passionate about a baseball competition that is neither professional nor even university. This is baseball in high school, in a country where this sport imported from the United States in the 19th century is almost a religion.
It is not surprising that baseball, absent from the Olympic Games since 2008, returns – as an additional sport – from tomorrow to the Olympic program for the Tokyo Games: it is by far the most popular in the Japanese archipelago. the children in all the towns and villages treat themselves every weekend under the watchful eye of their parents and passers-by. More than a century after the sport was introduced by an English teacher from the United States, Japan made baseball its own. In Japan, “all children” play baseball, “explains Itaru Kobayashi, a former Lotte Marines player from Chiba (a suburb of Tokyo) who became a teacher at Oberlin University in the Japanese capital. The sport “was invented in the United States, but we fell in love with it,” he adds.
Baseball was first introduced as a school sport in 1872 by Horace Wilson, a teacher in Tokyo, but became popular thanks to a game in which a high school team from the capital beat a group of foreigners in 1896. This victory made headlines in Japan, igniting a wave of passion for the sport and other encounters against American teams. “These matches were symbolic because the Japanese were behind (the Americans) in so many ways, such as trade and industry,” said Robert Whiting, a baseball expert who lived in Japan for decades. “The message was: if we can beat the Americans at their own game, we can certainly catch up with them in other areas,” he says.
A professional league developed in the 1930s, but it was after World War II (where Japan was defeated by the United States) that baseball became the national pastime, and especially amateur baseball was worshiped for. Its “purity” because it is not moved by money. This flame is still glowing, as was recently proved by the crowd of fans and cheerleaders gathered for a match in Tokyo 6, a league at six of the capital’s main universities. Fumihiko Kaneko (31) had arrived four hours before, even though he had a ticket: “I have been a fan since my childhood. But by far the most important event in baseball is the final of the two-year baseball tournament in high school, nicknamed the koshi, named after the stadium in western Japan where the final clash takes place. Koshi has previously attracted up to 50% of viewers in the archipelago, and the sound of the radio broadcast is as typical of the Japanese summer as the kikada song.
This fervor also creates a less festive aspect, with long-standing concerns about the intensity of training and the pressure on young players. “I not only have fond memories of baseball,” said Takuya Honda, who practiced it for twelve years at school but was never able to participate in the koshi. Itaru Kobayashi thinks the sport is particularly suitable for Japan, because it is “like a ritual”, and is characterized by “uniformity and obedience to orders”. “Work as a team, be united by the team. We love it, he says. The creation of the first professional football league in the 1990s raised fears of the popularity of baseball. But after a brief decline, it started again, especially thanks to the aura of the stars from Shohei Ohtani, who played for the Los Angeles Angels in the prestigious Major League Baseball (MLB).
The Olympic tournament takes place in Fukushima (northeast of Japan) to draw attention to the reconstruction of the region after the disaster in March 2011. But from a more patriotic point of view, a match in particular will fascinate the country, according to Mr. Kobayashi: Japan-USA. For Japanese baseball, he believes beating the United States, “Japan’s rival for a hundred years”, will be “the ultimate goal”.
Ayaka McGILL / AFP
In the spring and summer, the whole of Japan is passionate about a baseball competition that is neither professional nor even university. This is baseball in high school, in a country where the sport imported from the United States in the 19th century is almost a religion. It is no wonder that baseball, absent from the Olympics since 2008, is making a comeback – as a sport. …