Olympics 2020: baseball, national religion in Japan

Olympics 2020: baseball, national religion in Japan

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Tokyo (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 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, is making a comeback, as an additional sport, from Wednesday on the Olympic program for the Tokyo Games: it is by far the most popular in the Japanese archipelago where children of all cities and villages dedicate themselves to it every weekend under the attention of parents and passers-by.

More than a century after the introduction of the sport by an English teacher from the United States, Japan made baseball its own.

In Japan, “all children said baseball,” Itaru Kobayashi, a former Lotte Marines player from Chiba (a suburb of Tokyo) who became a teacher at Oberlin University in the Japanese capital, told AFP.

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 Tokyo teacher Horace Wilson, but became popular thanks to a game in which a high school team from the capital beat a group of foreigners in 1896.

– “Beat the Americans” –

The victory made headlines in Japan, igniting a wave of passion for the sport and other encounters against American teams.

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“These matches had symbolic significance because the Japanese were behind (the Americans, editor’s note) in many aspects, 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 sums up.

A professional league developed in the 1930s, but it was after World War II (when 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 driven by money.

This flame is still burning, as the crowd of fans and cheerleaders recently gathered for a match with “Tokyo 6”, a league of six of the main universities in the capital.

Fumihiko Kaneko, 31, had arrived four hours earlier, even though he had a ticket. “I’ve been a fan since I was a kid.”

– “Uniformity and obedience to orders” –

But by far the most important event in baseball is the final of the two-year baseball tournament in high school, nicknamed Koshien, named after the stadium in western Japan where the final clash takes place.

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Koshien has previously gathered up to 50% of viewers in the archipelago, and the sound of the broadcast on the radio is as typical of the Japanese summer as the song of the kikadas.

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 attend Koshi.

Itaru Kobayashi believes this 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”.

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 (northeastern Japan) to highlight the reconstruction of the region following the March 2011 disaster.

But from a more patriotic point of view, a fight 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”.

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