Baseball in Japan: Same Rules, Different Game

by Marc Pereira, ISA Student Services Advisor

Before studying abroad in Yokohama, Japan I was part of my college’s swim team. Life as a student athlete was something very familiar to me, as my career in swimming reached back to the second grade. The strictly regimented life of a swimmer came as second nature to me; waking up before the sun to get to morning practice on time, swimming countless laps each day, missing more than my fair share of social events due to practice and competitions, and not to mention the faint smell of chlorine that followed me everywhere I went. Swimming had always been a big part of my life, but that’s not to say I didn’t try other sports, like soccer, football, track and field, but none of them had the same appeal as swimming. Least of all was baseball.

I could never quite put my finger on it, but baseball never held my interest, whether I was playing or watching. My mind would always wander; it wasn’t exciting enough for me. So, when some friends invited me to a Japanese baseball game I was pretty apprehensive. I had never enjoyed the game before, and I wasn’t too keen on the idea of sitting in a hard seat and eating overpriced hot dogs while strangers shouted insults at the umpire. So, imagine my surprise when it turned out to be one of the best experiences of my time abroad! It was entirely different from anything I had experienced in the United States.

Known as “Yakyu” (野球/やきゅう), baseball is one of Japan’s most popular pastimes, much like in the United States. Introduced in the 1870s by an English professor, baseball quickly grew in popularity. By the 1920s Japan had multiple professional teams and was drawing audiences from all over the country. The rules of the game were, and still are, exactly the same as in the United States (with the exception of a smaller strike zone) so it would stand to reason that attending a game in Japan would be very similar to attending a game back in the states. However, there’s one key component that completely changes the experience: the audience.

As I sat in the audience I immediately felt a new energy in the air. There were some obvious differences that I noticed right off the bat, like the cheerleaders on the field, and how clearly defined the fan sections were. There is absolutely no mixing of the fans. If you like the home team, you sit with all of the home team fans. If you like the visiting team, you sit on the other side of the stadium. No exceptions. It’s really interesting to see. But that’s not the biggest difference. The most unique part of going to a Japanese baseball game is the coordinated cheering.

Japan_Audience

As soon as the game begins, a roar of voices can be heard filling the stadium, but it’s not a jumble of tones and mismatched words. Rather, it’s an organized cheer, with the fans all chanting, singing, and moving in unison. Lead by the cheer captain, a man dressed in bright colors who stands before the crowd, the audience carefully observes his hand signals as he waves his arms in the air to direct thousands of people to follow his lead. These hand signals instruct the fans which cheer is coming up next so everyone can be up to speed when it starts, but the interesting thing about this whole performance is the dedication of the fans. Everyone in the stands has these cheers memorized, what to say, when to stand, when to sit, they know precisely when to wave their left or right hand, the exact moment to make a fist, or clap. To an outsider the whole process can be confusing, but it’s truly a mesmerizing experience, and the enthusiasm is electric.

These cheers last the entire time that your team is bat, and each player has their own unique cheer. With so much to memorize, this shows just how dedicated the average fan is. However, once the other team is at bat it means that it is time to relax while the opposing fans take over cheering. It’s important to note that there is no heckling the other team at these games, unlike we’d expect at an American game. The fans sit patiently, eat, drink, and chat casually during this time, pausing only to give a polite clap if a player is struck out by their pitcher. Similarly, if the umpire makes a questionable call the fans don’t get upset about it. Instead, they simply accept it and move on with the game. It’s a very respectful experience that still manages to be incredibly exciting.

Cheer_Captain

The way that baseball is enjoyed says a lot about Japanese culture, both in big and small ways that can be observed in daily life. First, Japan is a collectivist culture, meaning that people generally focus on the group, rather than the individual, unlike the United States which is one of the most individualistic societies in the world. This explains why the Japanese baseball fans cheer as a group. It shows unity and creates a great sense of harmony and comradery with those around you. When you are a fan you belong to a particular group who has come together for the same reason. It also explains why the fans are patient while the other team cheers. Everyone is there to have a good time, and there’s no need to spoil that by sending negativity to the other team.

Collectivist values permeate the Japanese culture much deeper than just sports though. It’s something that is easy to see the workplace, school, clubs, or even on the street among strangers. This collectivist mind set means there are rules to follow and most things are done with the good of the group in mind. Japanese society is much more concerned about the “we”, not the “me”, unlike the United States where we are usually more interested in our own personal needs. This can be surprising for American students when they first arrive in Japan, but it offers a valuable learning opportunity to really embrace a new culture and become much more self-aware of how actions are perceived by others.

Tokyop_Skyline

To experience a Japanese baseball game most people can expect to spend at least ¥1,000 ($8.00) all the way up to ¥15,000 ($123.00) for a premium seat, which is usually a little bit removed from the more lively cheering section. Naturally, food and drinks are available at the field, but the audience is usually welcome to bring their own snacks and meals. It’s not uncommon to see people unloading a full meal from their bags while the other team is at bat. This can make the whole experience a really affordable one, so cost shouldn’t stop anyone from taking part in this once in a lifetime opportunity. ISA Offers programs in Tokyo, home of the Yomiuri Giants, so if the prospect of exploring sports in another culture is something you’d like to experience take a look at our programs.

My experience as a student athlete made me think that I fully understood most sports before arriving in Japan, but it’s amazing how spending some time abroad can shift your perspective on even the most basic things. Since my time living in Japan I’ve definitely developed a new appreciation for baseball and its players. But whenever I see a game in passing, I still can’t help but think “where’s the cheering section?”

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