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Baseball in Japan: Are we watching the same game?

December 19, 2012
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(This is the final piece in a three-part series about the University of Michigan’s deep engagement with Japan.)

Baseball is huge in Japan, but the game has developed in such a unique way that sometimes it hardly resembles the American version. One of the best experts on the differences between Japanese and American baseball is Brad Lefton, who in 1992 earned a master’s degree in Japanese studies at U-M. ForPhoto of U-M alumnus Brad Lefton, who writes about Japanese baseball. two decades, Lefton has been working as a bilingual journalist covering baseball in both countries for the New York Times and other major publications. He recently returned to U-M to give a lecture, sponsored by the Center for Japanese Studies, about baseball in Japan.

Below are edited excerpts from Lefton’s talk, “Are we watching the same game?”

The history of baseball in Japan:

“Baseball came to Japan in the 1870s, shortly after the county was open to the rest of the world. It was brought by Americans who were coming to some of the port cities as teachers and merchants. They would play baseball among themselves, and then they started to engage the local Japanese in this American game. Then by the 1890s, there is already evidence that baseball was being played at the collegiate level in Japan.”

Japanese baseball photo, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.“It wasn’t until 1936 that the professional league was established in Japan. Baseball existed in Japan for 65 years before the professional league was created. This is completely different from the way the game developed in America. Here we have evidence of the first published rules of baseball in 1845, and in the 1870s there are already professional leagues beginning. So the history of our game is very much as a professional sport. But the history of baseball in Japan is very much as an amateur sport.”

Animosity between the college and professional game:

“There is a history of great animosity between the professional game and the amateur game in Japan. In Japan, where you went to school is so important to your identity and status. Yet professional players are forbidden from going back to their schools and teaching baseball to the students. You can’t give back in that way. The rules have been relaxed recently, but there is this deep-seated animosity that has grown over the years between the professional game and the amateur game.”

Baseball as a year-round sport:

“In Japan, you train at baseball year round. We don’t have that history in America of training year round as amateurs. If you’re a great athlete as a kid, you play football in the fall, then you go to basketball in the winter, then you go to baseball in the spring and you play baseball until football two-a-days start in July. In Japan, they have a tradition of training for baseball year round.”

The Japanese fascination with the pitcher-batter match-up:

“There’s a part of the game in Japan that doesn’t exist for us, and that is this fascination between the pitcher and the batter match-up. It’s unbelievable that we can be great baseball fans in America, but we don’t look at the pitcher–batter match-up as they do in Japan. In Japan, you can name any great pitcher and fans will immediately give you a batter that they most enjoy watching that pitcher challenge. If you say (Hideo) Nomo, they say (Kazuhiro) Kiyohara. If you take the great home run batter Sadaharu Oh, they’ll say (Yutaka) Enatsu. If you say (Daisuke) Matsuzaka, they say Ichiro (Suzuki).”

“I went to Matsuzaka’s catcher, Jason Vertitek, and I interviewed him about the questions he receives after a Matsuzaka game, and he acknowledged that the questions he got from the Japanese are so much different than the ones from Americans. The Japanese always want to know: Why did you call 15 change-ups today and only five the last time. And what was the meaning of the curve ball as the third pitch to this batter? And the Americans are only interested in the results. Why did he give up a homerun today?” (See Lefton’s New York Times’ story about the subject here.)

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