Let’s Play Ball! In the land of the rising sun.
Throw a curveball in your things to-do list and see a baseball game in Japan.
Not a sports fan? Go purely for the entertainment, food, and drink. It’s a riveting outing with friends, family, and other sports fans. The stranger camaraderie is so exciting, boisterous and high energy. It will have you leaving with new found friends and wanting more.
So, how did baseball start in Japan?
Officially the Nippon Pro Baseball Organization (NPB) league, started in 1950. A considerable lifetime ago, in comparison to American Major League Baseball’s (MLB) start in 1869.
But, hold up (record scratch). Baseball in Japan has been traced back to 1872.
Turns out, an American professor from Maine, named Horace Wilson went to Japan to teach English and mathematics at Kaisei Gakko, (now known as Tokyo University). It was fortunate enough, that Horace packed a baseball bat and ball within his luggage.
During study breaks, he introduced baseball to his students as a way to promote health. Methinks, it was another teaching tactic for Horrace to speak English with his students whilst playing baseball (wicked smart, that Horace is).
A century and +years later, to the year of 2000. A few Japanese baseball buffs voyaged to Maine to track down a few members of Horace’s descendants.
Unbeknownst to Horace’s family, they had no idea that he was credited for introducing baseball in Japan.
Check out this NPR article describing their experience and how it led the Wilson family to Japan. They truly lived the Tom Waits, “I’m big in Japan” lifestyle. There’s also 6 minutes of audio, of the Wilson’s describing their experience.
Kazuo Sayama, a baseball historian, has written a book about Horace Wilson. Man Wilson Told The baseball In Japan For The First Time.
Sumo wrestling maybe the national sport, but baseball is indeed one of the most popular.
Who else paved the way for baseball in Japan?
According to the interwebs, there is no doubt many are credited to the beginnings of baseball in Japan. While Horace Wilson is recognized as the first to introduce baseball to Japan. Albert Bates, another American professor who also taught in Japan. Is known for organizing the first game in Japan.
But hold on! What about teams? It was Hiroshi Hiraoka who organized the first baseball team in 1878. Hiroshi journeyed to America to learn railway engineering in 1871. During his studies, he fell in love with baseball and was a pitcher, who threw mean curveballs for a team in Boston.
He returned to Japan with baseball equipment and organized the first Japanese baseball team, The Shinbashi Athletic Club. It is, Hiroshi Hiraoka, who is known as the founder of Japanese baseball.
While we’re on the fun fact train about Japanese baseball.
The first African American professional baseball player started in Japan, not in America.
And it wasn’t Jackie Robinson.
That honor goes to James Bonner.
In 1936, a 24-year-old James Bonner, from Louisiana signed a contract to play for the Dai Tokyo baseball team in Japan. Which was more than a decade before Jackie Robinson started to play, in the MLB in 1947.
Bonner had a stellar performance in the States as a pitcher. He once threw 22 strikeouts during one game.
So, it made sense that his salary contract in Japan was ¥400 yen a month. At the time, his salary was more than double the salary than the biggest Japanese pitcher, Eiji Sawamura (¥120 yen a month).
Sadly, Bonner’s contract ended one month after the season started. Unlike his pitching athleticism back in the States. His performance oddly took a turn for the worst. In Japan, he couldn’t control his pitches and returned to America shortly after.
Read more about, Where to find Nature in Tokyo
What’s the scene in today’s baseball in Japan?
There’s no crying in baseball!
But there are bento boxes, cheerleaders and beer girls!
12 differences between American baseball and Japanese baseball
1) There are 12 professional Japanese baseball teams, in comparison to the MLB, who has 30. Which makes sense, since America is vastly larger than Japan.
2) The number of innings. American MLB game will have an unlimited amount of innings to determine a winner.
In Japanese baseball, if the score is tied at 9 innings. It is only then, up to 3 additional innings will be played. Which can end in a drawl. However, this rule is not applied during the Japan Series beyond game 7. Where there is no innings limit.
3) There are whistleblowers.Literally. Staff blow whistles when a pop foul ball flies over the crowd to warn fans.
4) The fans. Being a baseball fan, come with certain responsibilities. Come dressed, accessorized and rally cries ready. While fans in the States come team jersey and hat dressed, as well. It’s the atmosphere created by the Japanese fans, that’s quite different from American baseball fans.
5) It’s the boisterous and electric energy through constant singing, that add to the positive spirit of game. The singing lasts throughout the whole game.
Fans belt out chants for each player when they are up to bat. And don’t expect it to be the same song, either. Each player has their personalized song and a celebratory anthem when they get on base or score a run. The interaction through song is a way for fans to show their support, unity, and comradery for their team.
Even if a team is losing with no chance of redemption. The fans stay loyal and strong in their cheering (maybe even more so to show encouragement and persistence).
6) Come accessories ready. Fans come equipped with the right accessories for particular songs. It seals the deal of being a crazed fan. I mean, enthused team supporter. Fans have brass instruments, Japanese taiko drums, small umbrellas, balloons, team towels, and small plastic kung fu bats. All ready in hand for the right song.
The fans at a Japanese ballgame are a show.
7) What about the heckling you say? The Japanese are very polite in general and so are baseball fans. There’s hardly any heckling, it’s a low brow kinda thing. Besides, there’s so much singing and cheering, it would be merely impossible to hear over the crowds constant singing.
If you don’t have a local team supporting paraphernalia. No worries, there are vendors set up outside the stadium that sell what you need so you don’t awkwardly stand out.
8) The entertainment. While mascots aren’t foreign to American baseball teams, cheerleaders are. Throughout the whole game, cheerleaders and mascots will come out, dance their choreography, or shoot out t-shirts from shirt launchers.
And there’s usually additional entertainment. There are performances by singers and dancers and even fire pyrotechnics, and fireworks to end some games.
9) Where to sit. The fans sit with their team fans. When the stadium fills up, it’s easy to see how the fans are clearly separated, and seated with each other.
10) You can bring in outside food and drink, into the stadium. Which is a nice surprise, not having to smuggle in your noms. That goes for adult beverages too!
While you can’t grab a few 12 packs at the 7-11 and expect to walk in. You can bring in a beer (or 2) that was purchased from an outside vendor. You’ll be asked to pour it into a designated cup that is provided at the entrance gates.
11) Let’s talk drink. Many vendors offer an array of drinks. Yet, upon entering a stadium, the most noticeable are the young women who walk around selling beer. Otherwise known as bīru no uriko or beer girl. These young women are amazing!
What may look like a Ghostbuster proton pack strapped to the backs of these women. It’s a mini-keg filled with delicious draft beer. Different types of beer are offered, and it’s distinguished by the uniforms the women wear.
While these ladies circle the whole stadium, they are always smiling. When pouring your drinks, they kneel, so they aren’t in the way of other spectator’s view of the game. How polite. One can only imagine how many steps they end up with after games. Legs and stamina of steel! Especially with the number of stairs these stadiums have.
Check out this clip of 2 women having their jet packs, I mean mini-kegs getting switched out. It’s said, this could happen around 15 times during a game and the change out is being described as having the speed of a crew member at an F1 pit stop.
12) Food. Oh the glorious food. Sure, there’s Western options and of course there are Japanese options too. Curries, bento boxes, or how about the oodles of noodle dishes such as udon and ramen? Yum!
When is baseball season in Japan?
Baseball in Japan starts in April, with a championship in October. The season is 8 months and Spring training is during February and March.
Where to catch a baseball game in Japan.
Tokyo, Chiba, Yokohama and Tokorozawa
The Tokyo Dome is home to the Yomiuri Giants and the Yakult Swallows’s home stadium is the Meiji Jingu Stadium . The Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame is also in the Tokyo Dome.
There are a few stadiums that are train rides from Tokyo. The Chiba Stadium, is home to the Lotte Marines team, in Chiba. The Yokohama Stadium, is home to the DeNA BayStars in Yokohama, and the Seibu MetLife Dome in Tokorozawa, is home to the Saitama Seibu Lions.
The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters can be watched at the Sapporo Dome in Hokkaido, Sapporo.
The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles’s home stadium is the Rakuten Kobo Stadium Miyagi in Sendai.
In Nagoya, catch the Chunichi Dragons at the Nagoya Dome in Aichi, Nagoya.
The Orix Buffaloes play at the Kyocera Dome in Osaka and the Skymark Stadium in Kobe, which is outside of Osaka. Orix Buffaloes.
Near to Osaka is the Hanshin Koshien Stadium, in Nishinomiya. Home to the Hanshin Tigers.
The Fukuoka Tohoku Softbank Hawks play in the Fukuoka Yahoo! Japan Dome.
You will find the Hiroshima Toyo Carp in the MAZDA Zoom-Zoom Stadium.
How to get tickets to a Japanese baseball game.
The professional baseball schedule is usually released in November, with more details released in January.
Japanballtickets.com is where you can buy tickets and have them delivered to your hotel concierge or Airbnb.
Ready to see a handful of games in different locations? JapanBallTickets can get you sorted. Check out HOW IT WORKS. Do note, there is a service fee. Also, the options are in English and the prices are in US dollars (no conversion math!).
There’s also an option to purchase directly from the team’s websites with options to pick up the tickets at a convenience store (such as 7-11), at the stadium or for you to print your tickets.
The best advice that is plastered over many sites, is to purchase tickets in advance!
Tickets can be anywhere from ¥800 (for children under 16). Or adults, from ¥1000 – ¥10,000 Which is $9 – $91. For more premium seats, expect to pay a few hundred US dollars for each.
I’ve been fortunate enough to attend 3 games at 3 different stadiums in Japan. And I honestly can say, I can not wait to go back for more.
While baseball is an all time American pastime, the Japanese twist on baseball definitely hits a home run.
Bonsai! Bonsai! Bonsai!!!