JAPANESE BASEBALL: HISTORY, GANGSTERS, HIGH SCHOOL BASEBALL, FEMALE PLAYERS, LITTLE LEAGUE AND THE WORLD BASEBALL CLASSIC

JAPANESE BASEBALL

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Big win celebration
Baseball in Japan is known besuboru or yakyu (literally “field ball”). It is currently ranked as Japan's number one sport. Each spring, summer and autumn around 20 million Japanese baseball fans flock to stadiums across Japan to see the 12 professionals team in Japan's Central and Pacific Leagues. Millions more watch the game every night on prime-time nationwide broadcasts, and read about it in the country's half dozen sports dailies. In one survey, one out of every two Japanese, including the Prime Minister and the Emperor, said he or she was a baseball fan.

Baseball was introduced into Japan from the United States around 1873. As schools established their own teams for club activities, its popularity spread rapidly. Although professional baseball is Japan’s largest spectator sport, the game still has a strong appeal for amateurs, particularly at the high school and university levels. Many major corporations also sponsor their own amateur teams. In Japan’s two professional leagues, games are televised almost daily during the April to October playing season, and popular players stand out as national heroes. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

Links in this Website: SPORTS IN JAPAN (Click Sports, Recreation, Pets ) Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE BASEBALL Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE BASEBALL RULES, CUSTOMS AND FANS Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE BASEBALL TEAMS Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE BASEBALL PLAYERS Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE MAJOR LEAGUE PLAYERS Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; JAPANESE MAJOR LEAGUE PITCHERS Factsanddetails.com/Japan ; ICHIRO SUZUKI Factsanddetails.com/Japan

Good Websites and Sources: Good Photos at Japan-Photo Archive japan-photo.de ; Pro Yakyu Now japanesebaseball.com ; Japan Baseball Daily japanbaseballdaily.com ; BaseballGuru baseballguru.com ; Japan Times Baseball Page japantimes.co.jp ; PBS Documentary on Japanese Baseball wbgu.org/community ; Japan Visitor japanvisitor.com ; Links and Baseball Cards robsjapanesecards.com ; Japan orama japanorama.com ; Wikipedia article Baseball in Japan Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on Professional Baseball in Japan Wikipedia ; Pro Yakyu Forum, with Blogs and Discussions on Japanese Baseball japanesebaseball.com ; Sites That are a Little Old and Outdated But Still Have Good Info Jim Allen’s Japanese Baseball Page (old site) gol.com/users/jallen/jimball ; japanball.com ; Nisei Baseball niseibaseball.com ; Books: The Mining of Ichiro (2004), You Gotta Have Wa (1989) and The Chrysanthemum and the Bat (1977) by Robert Whiting.

Articles on Japanese Baseball: Negative Impact of Japanese Success in the Major Leagues time.com/time/world/ ; World Baseball Classic worldbaseballclassic.com ; Early Days of Japanese Baseball international-baseball.suite101.com ; New York Times article om Japanese Fans travel.nytimes.com ; Baseball Hall of Fame Timeline on History of Japanese Baseball english.baseball-museum.or.jp ; Academic Paper on Japanese Baseball /www.economics.hawaii.edu

Japanese Baseball Teams: Yomiuri Giants Official Site (Japanese Language) giants.jp ; Wikipedia article on the Yomiuri Giants Wikipedia ; Hanshin Tigers Page www2.gol.com/users/michaelo/Tigers ; Hanshin Tigers Official Site (Japanese Language) hanshintigers.jp ;Hanshin Tigers Fan Page wallpaperman.tripod.com/Hanshin_Tigers_page ; Hanshin Tiger Blog tigerdude.com/japan/tigers ;

Koshien Stadium is the home of the Hanshin Tigers, a major institution in Osaka. Try to see a game if you can. The park is nearly always filled and the fans are fanatic as Red Sox fans except they pound plastic thunder sticks and do organized cheers throughout the game and set off balloons en masse in the seventh inning. Koshein is Japan’s oldest extant stadium. Built in 1924, it also hosts Japan’s main high school baseball tournaments, spectacles in themselves that can be viewed for free in the spring and summer.

Japanese Besuboru versus American Baseball

Japanese baseball and American baseball have many similarities: a two-league system, an all star game, a draft system, and a post season best-of-seven championship series that takes place in October between the two league champions. Japan has its own Hall of Fame.

But there are also many differences. Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated wrote, in the Japan League "there are no agents, no multi-year contracts and wild-card playoff teams. Pitchers warm up in front of their dugouts, players know how to bunt, championship-series games are played in the daytime" and "there is no brawling on the field when a pitcher buries a fastball into the ribs of a hitter. Instead, the pitcher tips his cap in apology."

Robert Whiting wrote in Smithsonian magazine adds: "Spring training...begins in mid-winter. During the season, even pregame "warm-ups" are grueling displays of fighting spirit, Home-run hitters willingly bunt. Ace pitchers relieve. And there are so many on-field strategy sessions that contests last more than three hours---longer, on average, than in the United States."

The American Major Leagues is consider rougher and more aggressive with brush back pitching, out-off-ballpark power home runs. hard slides, collisions with the catch and double play bear ups. and

Japanese batters sacrifice bunt 2½ times more than American players. Japanese pitcher have better control and throw more curves, breaking pitches, forkballs and sliders and are less likely to throw inside, fearing easy home runs. Japanese expert Jim Allen wrote: “Japanese baseball is predicated in wining through obsession with details and quality control. As such, it sometimes has all the charm of an assembly line.”

Most Japanese clubs are financed by large corporations for promotional purposes. The Taiyo Whalers (later the Yokohama Blue Wave now the Yokohama Bay Stars ), for example, was created to help sell whale meat and other products made by of the Taiyo Fishery Company.

Early History of Japanese Baseball

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Before baseball came along there were no team sports in Japan: only individual sports like judo and sumo wrestling. Some people have suggested that baseball has remained popular in Japan because it is the most individualistic of team sports, focusing primarily on the one-on-one battle between the pitcher and batter.

Baseball was introduced to Japan in 1873 by Horace Wilson, a visiting American professor and Civil War veteran who taught English in Japan in the early 1870s and introduced the game to his students at what is now Tokyo University. The first formal Japanese team was organized by a railroad company in 1878. Baseball with a Japanese flavor took shape in the 1880s at the First High School of Tokyo, where players were encouraged to practice until they urinated blood and were forbidden to complain about injuries or pain. [Source: Robert Whiting, Smithsonian magazine, September 1986]

Baseball was popular in high schools and universities but it didn't really capture the imagination of the Japanese public until 1896 when a Japanese high school team beat a team of Americans 29-4 in Yokohama. Describing the momentous event one Japanese historian wrote, "Foreigners could not hope to understand the emotional impact of this victory, but it helped Japan, struggling towards modernization after centuries of isolation, over a tremendous inferiority complex it felt towards the west.

In a 1911 editorial entitled "The Evil of Baseball," one critic in a leading newspaper called baseball "a pickpocket's sport, in which players try to swindle their opponents...to steal a base."

Development of Professional Baseball in Japan

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At the beginning of the 20th century baseball was the most popular inter-collegiate sport in Japan and some university teams were playing games abroad. The rowdy student cheering groups---which included muscle-bound members of school judo clubs’sometimes became so violent that games were suspended.

Japan's first professional baseball team was formed in 1934, after a highly successful tour a U.S. Major-League All-Star team featuring Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The Americans won all the games but an 18-year-old pitcher named Eiji Sawamura made a big stir when he struck out Ruth, Jimmy Foxx and Gehrig in succession in a 1-0 loss.

The first team, the Yomiuri Giants, was put together and financed by Japan's leading newspaper Yomiuru Shimbun. Hanshin Railway and six other companies formed teams and the Japanese Professional League was established.

In the early days of baseball, umpires wore gaucho-style hakamas and the top batters in the league were awarded a salmon and large tub of soy sauce at the end of the season. To save money one stadium was built on an inexpensive piece of land that was so close to Tokyo Bay incoming tides often flooded the field. The present two league setup and the Japan Series was established in 1950.

In World War II, American terminology was banned and games were often were preceded by grenade throwing contests. In 1945 play was suspended altogether. Many players were drafted into the Japanese armed forces and a total of 72 Japanese professional players lost their life in the war.

Babe Ruth and the 1934 Tour of Japan

T. Rees Shapiro wrote in the Washington Post: “From their foxholes on Cape Gloucester in the South Pacific, U.S. Marines fighting Japanese forces in 1944 heard an unusual war cry from their enemies: “To hell with Babe Ruth!” Almost 10 years had passed since 500,000 Japanese crowded the streets of Tokyo to welcome the Sultan of Swat and 14 other all-star American baseball players taking part in a barnstorming tour of the country. Part diplomatic mission and part vacation for the players, the 1934 tour was organized as a way to bring the two baseball-loving countries closer together during a particularly rough period. [Source: T. Rees Shapiro, Washington Post, June 8, 2012]

As baseball historian Robert K. Fitts recounts in his admirable and deeply researched new book, “Banzai Babe Ruth,” in 1934 the world was edging closer to war. A naval treaty among the United States, Britain and Japan was on the brink of failure. The Japanese army was conducting exercises in preparation for combat. Who better to ease tensions than America’s ambassadors of the baseball diamond?” Earlier, “several American players had visited Japan to promote the sport, but no roster was more star-studded than the team that arrived in Tokyo on Nov. 2, 1934. [Ibid]

Led by Cornelius McGillicuddy, the venerable manager of the Philadelphia Athletics known as “Connie Mack,” the team featured nine future Hall of Famers. Besides Ruth---who took 20 pieces of luggage on the trip, including one bag carrying nothing but cans of chewing tobacco---the lineup featured New York Yankees first baseman and slugger Lou Gehrig, and Athletics home run king Jimmie Foxx. The Americans played 18 games against their rivals, the All-Nippon team, composed of many of Japan’s top players, while tens of thousands of Japanese fans cheered in the stands. But there was more to this trip than baseball, Fitts writes. It’s also a “tale of international intrigue, espionage, attempted murder.”

In particular, one player stood out from the others on the U.S. roster. He was Moe Berg, a journeyman catcher from the Cleveland Indians. Born in Harlem, Berg was a graduate of Princeton University and Columbia University Law School. He was an odd pick for the team, Fitts writes, because he was not really all-star material. One teammate quipped that Berg could speak a dozen languages but could not hit in any of them. His inclusion seems even more suspicious in retrospect, considering his later role as a spy in the Office of Strategic Services, the World War II forerunner of the CIA. It’s also interesting to note that Berg took along his 16-mm Bell and Howell movie camera and made short films of important Japanese installations. “Many now believe that this trip was his first mission as a spy,” Fitts writes. Berg may not have been the only spy, either. According to Fitts, many of the players were shadowed on the streets of Tokyo while their bags were searched back in their hotel rooms. [Ibid]

But the Americans almost suffered far worse fates than shuffled suitcases. During the tour, ultranationalist Japanese soldiers were planning a coup to return full executive powers to the emperor. Had the plot not been discovered before it started, Fitts believes, the Americans surely would have been caught in the crossfire. [Ibid]

Mack later called the 1934 tour “one of the greatest peace measures in the history of nations.” But the goodwill eventually wore off. Fitts points out that several All-Nippon players went on to serve in World War II. Among them was Eiji Sawamura, a pitcher whose strong arm aided his grenade-throwing in the Japanese army. His transport ship was destroyed by a U.S. submarine; as Fitts writes, he was “killed by the creators of the game he loved.”

Book: Baseball, Espionage, & Assassination During the 1934 Tour of Japan by Robert K. Fitts (University of Nebraska. 319 pp. $34.95

Japan Beats Tennessee For 2012 Little League World Series Title

A Japanese team from Tokyo beat an American team from Tennessee to claim the 2012 Little League World Series title. Reporting from South Williamsport, Pa., Genaro C. Armas of ESPN wrote: “Arms outstretched in the air with a smile from ear-to-ear, Noriatsu Osaka couldn't contain his glee. Neither could his teammates from Tokyo after Osaka's third home run of the game put an exclamation point on Japan's 12-2 victory over Tennessee in five innings in the Little League World Series title game. The 12-year-old Osaka added a triple for good measure, too, to top off his 4-for-4 afternoon. In a symbolic gesture, Japan's players jogged the traditional postgame victory lap carrying the flags for both their home country and the United States. "We had such a great time in Pennsylvania and we really played a good game today. It was kind of a, `Thanks,'" Osaka said through an interpreter. [Source: Genaro C. Armas, ESPN, August 26, 2012]

Starter Kotaro Kiyomiya struck out eight in four innings and added an RBI single for Japan. The game ended in the fifth after Osaka's third homer made it a 10-run game. We thought we played the best in the tournament so far, especially to win by the 10-run rule in the finals," said 12-year-old Rintaro Hirano, who homered in the fourth to make it 10-1. A day after pounding out a 24-16 win over California in the U.S. title game, the Goodlettsville, Tenn., sluggers could only muster two hits---solo shots by Brock Myers and Lorenzo Butler. [Ibid]

There were so many highlights, including five home runs off Tennessee pitching. That was more than enough offense for 13-year-old ace Kiyomiya, who had a fastball clocked in the high-70s, The right-hander with the hitch in mid-delivery pitched like a big-league ace in allowing just one hit. [Ibid]

The Kitasuna league all-star team from Tokyo won Japan's eighth Little League title and second in three seasons. While his players danced around in delight after the game, skipper Yoichi Kubo teared up. He kept his composure after managing a team that won the World Series in 2001, "but I was crying this time when we won this game as world champion," he said. [Ibid]

Gangsters and Japanese Baseball

The Japan League once had a gangster and gambling problem. In 1969, pitchers with the now defunct Nishitetsu Lions were believed to have thrown games at the request of gangsters. After a succession of players were given lifetime bans, the Nippon Professional baseball Organization incorporated regulations banning unfair practices and ties with people that habitually gamble in baseball. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun]

After that , criminal organizations tried to control seats in baseball stadiums. In 2003, gangsters who joined private baseball fan clubs occupied nonreserved outfield seats and sold them to ordinary fans. Mobsters even used violence at some stadiums. In 2003, all 12 professional baseball teams jointly established a council to sever ties between criminal organizations and professional baseball teams.

A declaration that gre out of the effort, the first of its kind in Japanese professional sports, called from an end to ties between gangsters and baseball and banned players from having contacts with mobsters. In 2005, rules were drawn up to keep criminal organizations out of stadiums and fan clubs.

Amateur Baseball in Japan

In terms of participation, baseball is the most widely played sport among male elementary schoolchildren and junior high school students (for safety reasons, both use a rubber ball, the same size as a regular baseball). Competitions are generally limited to the local level. [Source: Web-Japan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan]

“High school baseball attracts nationwide interest. Twice each year, during the spring and summer, the best high school teams in Japan compete at Koshien Stadium, in Hyogo Prefecture, where the tournaments have been held since 1915. After elimination rounds, in which more than 4,000 teams participate every year, the top teams from all of Japan’s 47 prefectures vie for the national championship. Tournament games from Koshien are broadcast nationwide on NHK television and radio.

Hordes of classmates and players’ family members travel to Hyogo to attend the games. In the course of each tournament, as many as 1 million spectators fill the stands. Back in the hometowns of teams competing in the finals, it is not unusual to see business activity and even traffic on the streets come to a halt while people gather in front of their television sets or tune in to the radio. Many of Japan’s most talented high school players forego entering university and are recruited directly by professional teams. As a result, the ranks of top-level professionals are to a large degree made up of former heroes of Koshien tournaments. [Ibid]

“University baseball also has a large following. The so-called “Big Six” teams--- Hosei, Keio, Meiji, Rikkyo, University of Tokyo, and Waseda---enjoy an enthusiastic response among their students and alumni. The annual game between Keio and Waseda university teams is a famous rivalry that dates back to 1903. Among the university players who went on to have brilliant careers as professionals are Nagashima Shigeo of Rikkyo University, Tabuchi Koichi of Hosei University, and Egawa Suguru, also of Hosei University. [Ibid]

“Many corporations have their own amateur teams, and a nationwide corporate tournament is held annually. They use metal bats and have adopted the designated hitter rule. Top players on these teams are often drafted by professional teams in early rounds and are expected to make a significant contribution the following season. Japan’s amateur teams compete in regional and international events, such as the annual collegiate series between Japan and the United States. Following baseball’s introduction as an Olympic event, Japanese teams have taken part, winning a silver medal at the 1996 Games in Atlanta. [Ibid]

Japanese High School Baseball

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fans at a Koshien game
There is great interest in high school baseball in Japan. The spring and summer All-Japan High School Baseball Tournaments at Koshein Stadium in Nishinomiya, between Osaka and Kobe, are nationally-televised events with huge audiences. The 90th tournament was held in 2006.

The Koshien tournament is the biggest sporting event of the summer. Watched with the same enthusiasm in Japan as the NCAA basketball championship in the United States, it is played in front of sell out crowds and draws more television viewers than any other sporting event. Qualifications begin with 4,000 teams. Some games have screaming and emotional crowds of more than 50,000 people.

Tokyo-based Waseda Jitsugyo won the championship at the 88th Koshien summer tournament in 2006. In the final they played defending champions Komadai Tomakomai to a 1-1, 15-inning draw. In the first replay in 37 years Waseda Jitsugyo prevailed the next day and won its first ever title. The big star of the tournament in 2006 was Waseda Jitsugyo pitcher Yuki Saito. He was famous for pulling out a blue handkerchief to wipe away sweat during the game---a move that entranced Japanese women---and eraned him the nickname “Handkerchief prince.”

In one game in 2008, Kawamoto technical high school gave up 66 runs to Shunshukan in the first 1 1/3 inning, at which point Kawamoto forfeited and Shunshukan was credited with a 9-0 win.

Japanese High School Baseball Players

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Koshien players
Japanese baseball expert Robert Whiting said, “The level of high school baseball in Japan is the highest in the world, There is a constant stream of talent coming up.” They are especially good at the basics. At the Koshein high school tournament teams bunt a lot.

The training and lifestyle can be quite rough. It is common for older baseball players on high school and college teams to haze younger players, sometimes quite brutally, and coaches to harshly punish players for making mistakes such as requiring them to shave their heads. One high school coach in Wakayama was suspended after he kicked two players after they made mistakes during a practice game.

In 2005, one of the to high school team was yanked from the Koshien tournament because of reports of physical abuse and smoking by the players. The decision was based on reports of 11 players smoking in a dormitory and six older players beating up on a first year player.

Japanese Women’s Baseball

Some girls ply on youth teams. A couple of women have pitched for university baseball teams but have not had much success. In June 2001, two women pitchers even faced one another in the prestigious Tokyo Six Universities League.

In December 2005, Chukyo Women’s University baseball club made history by becoming the first woman’s team to be admitted into a college baseball association. The club played against men’s teams in the lowest division and thumped.

Girls baseball is becoming increasingly popular. The sports is increasingly being offered in high school and as a club sport. Japan won the Women’s Baseball World Cup in 2008. In Japan, according to the Women’s Baseball Association, more than 3,000 females were playing hardball or softball baseball in 2010. The first professional women’s baseball league game was held in 59 years in Kyoto. Over 2,600 people came to watch the Kyoto Astro Dreams play. Venus league high school game draws sizable crowds.

Eri Yoshida, Female Pro Baseball Pitcher

Eri Yoshida, the teenage female knuckleballer, began playing for the Chico Outlaws of the independent Golden Baseball League in April 2010. She performed respectably in her debut, throwing to some former Major Leaguers. She pitched three innings, giving up four runs on four hits and hit an RBI single in her only at bat in a 8-6 win over Tijuana. She hit one batter in a 47-pitch outing.

Yoshida was the first woman to play pro baseball in the United States since American Ila Borders did in 2000 when she appeared in a game against Tijuana in May 2001. The U.S. Baseball Hall of Fame collected the jersey and ball used by Yoshida in her debut. Yoshida said her goal is to make it the Major Leagues.

Yoshida is only 1.55 centimeters tall and weighs only 51 kilograms but she throws a mean side-armed knuckleball. She first made headlines when she became the first female pro player in Japan, pitching for the Kobe Cruise 9 in the Kansai Independent League. She also pitched for the Yuma Scorpions in the Arizona Winter league.

Yoshida’s presence has boosted the fortune of the Chio Outlaws and the Golden Baseball League, which was founded in 2004. Since her arrival fan attendance and merchandise sales has increased markedly not only for the Outlaws but for other teams in the league. Her No.2 shirt is a hot seller mostly among “little girls.” Not everyone is enthusiastic about her though. Some have dismissed her as a circus, novelty act. She finished the season 0-4. [Source: Reuters Life!]

In November 2008, when she was a 16-year-old high school student, Yoshida was signed by an independent league team, Kobe 9 Cruise, making her the first woman with the opportunity to play professional baseball in Japan. Yoshida, whose main pitch is a side armed knuckleball, was selected in the ninth round of the amateur draft. She was the first woman drafted by a men’s professional baseball team.

Japanese Little League Baseball

Japanese teams are often in contention at the Little Leagues Series in Williamsport Pennsylvania but the series gets more attention in the United States than in Japan. In 1998 an American team from Toms River New Jersey defeated a Japanese team from Kashima, Japan in a thrilling game in which the American team won with a game-winning two-run home run in the final inning to win 12-9.

In 1999, the Far East team from Osaka won Little League World Series by defeating a team from Phoenix Alabama 5-0. The star for the Osakan team was Kazuki Sumiyama, a pitcher who threw 19 strikeouts and batted .615 in the championship and semifinal game.

A Japanese team won in 2001 and 2003 too. A team from Chiba made it to the final in 2005. A team from Kawaguchi made it to the final in 2006. At the 2007 Little League World Series Tokyo Kitasuna from Japan played a team from Curacao in the international final/.

Japan Wins Little League World Series in 2010

A team from Tokyo won the Little League World Series in August 2010, defeating a team from Waipahu, Hawa1i 4-1 in the final. the Hawaiian team had scored 29 runs in three previous games but came up short with only four hits (all singles) against Tokyo’s pitching. Tokyo’s Konan Tomori had a home run and three RBIs. Teams from the United States had won the five previous times.

AP reported: “The Little League aces from Japan ended the United States--- five-year reign as World Series champions. The team from Tokyo limited Waipahu, Hawaii, to four singles and got a homer and three runs batted in from Konan Tomori to take the Little League World Series title with a 4-1 victory Sunday. A team from Japan won the championship for the first time since 2003. [Source: AP, August 29, 2010]

“Hawaii, which had scored 29 runs over its previous three games, came up short at the plate against Japan, its only run coming on an error off a sacrifice bunt in the fourth. But reliever Ichiro Ogasawara worked out of a second-and-third jam to end the inning with a strikeout and a groundout. Ogasawara pitched the final three innings, striking out three and getting his third save. Japan starter Ryusuke Ikeda got the win after striking out five and allowing four hits over three innings. Fittingly, Japan’s players gravitated to the mound after the game to scoop up bags of dirt to take home as mementos, as family members watched proudly from the first-base stands. After exchanging handshakes at the plate with Hawaii’s players, the Japan team got another souvenir---a banner that read “2010 Little League World Series Champions.” The Japan players finished the tournament a perfect 5-0.” [Ibid]

“Hawaii starter Cody Maltezo, who had not pitched in about a month, held Japan to four hits over five and two-thirds innings, and Noah Shackles’s fine stop of a hard bouncer at third probably saved two runs from scoring in the third. Pitching and defense were Japan’s forte; the team had a 1.92 earned run average entering the final game.” [Ibid]

Japan Second in 2011 Little League World Series

Japan---represented by a team from Hamamatsu City---made it to the final in the 2011 Little League World Series but lost in the final game. The United States' Huntington Beach, California squad has won the final game over Japan 2-1 on a walk-off hit by first baseman Nick Pratto that scored Eric Anderson. That's the first walk-off win in a LLWS final since Georgia's 2007 victory over Japan. In the third inning, Japan LF Kaito Suzuki opened up the day's scoring thanks to an error, followed later than inning when California catcher Hagan Danner popped a solo home run. California starter Braydon Salzman finished with a three-hit complete game, while Japan's ace, Shoto Totsuka, made it through four and two-thirds innings before yielding to Kazuto Takakura.

Japan defeated Venezuela to make it to the international final. AP reported: “Seconds after the ball left his bat in the third inning, Yoshiki Suzuki raised his right arm in celebration and admired his opposite-field blast just over the left-field wall...Then he did it again in the fifth... His two homers led Japan to a 9-6 win over Maracay, Venezuela. Japan made it the World Series final by beating Mexico in the international final.

Japanese Olympic Baseball and Minor League Baseball

Japan has had what it the Japanese regard as poor results in Olympic baseball. It won a silver medal in 1996 and no medal in 2000. Even though it was loaded with talent from Japan’s professional leagues at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, it could only manage a bronze medal after losing to unheralded Australia in the semifinals. In the bronze medal game, Daisuke Matsuzaka shut out Cuba for eight innings, leading Japan to a 6-3 victory. He allowed only four hits against a formidable Cuban team.

At the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the Japanese team again was loaded with professional players from the Japan League that left their home teams in Japan to play in the event. Japan lost to South Korea 6-2 in the semifinals, dashing its hopes for a gold medal. Japan lead through seven innings. South Korea went ahead with an eighth inning two-run homer by Lee Seung Yeop, who also plays in the Japan League. South Korea played Japan twice, both times securing come from behind victories. Japan went home without a medal after losing to the United States---a team made up of 23 minor leaguers and one amateur---8-4 in the bronze medal game and finished without a medal.

The Samurai Bears were the first all-Japanese team to play in an American baseball league. Made up mostly of players in their 20s, they played in the Golden Baseball League, formed in 2005, without a permanent home. Rookies were only paid $700 a month and veterans earned $3,000 a month at most. The team was idea of the organizers of the Golden League. The Bears endured long bus rides and a grueling 90-day schedule because their love of baseball. The team lost most of its games and finishe din last place.

There are corporate teams.

Japan Wins the World Baseball Classic in 2006

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Japan beats the U.S. in 2009
In March 2006, Japan won the inaugural 16-nation World Baseball Classic in San Diego California. For a while there it looked as if Japan was going to be eliminated before the medal round after losing twice to South Korea---a team inspired in part by comments by Ichiro that losing to South Korea was the most humiliating experience of his life---and once to the United States. The latter was partly the result of a blown call by the plate umpire who overturned a correct call by another umpire that a Japanese player had properly tagged up and scored from third base (the plate umpire said he took of early, but replays showed he clearly didn’t).

But thanks to Mexico’s victory over the United States 2-1 Japan arose Lazarus-like to advance to the semifinals even though it had a 1-2 record in the group because the United States and Mexico were also 1-2 and Japan was given the semifinal berth because it gave up the fewest runs. After this the offense picked up after Ichiro was moved from lead off to the middle of the order. Ichiro was the only Major Leaguer who played. Matsui didn’t play.

Japan defeated South Korea 6-0 in the semifinals. Japan’s starter Koji Uehara of the Yomiuri Giants pitched seven scoreless innings. Ichiro was 3 for 4 with an RBI, quieting Korean fans who had been booing him. Slumping Kosuke Fukudome hit a pinch hit home run, inspiring a five-run seventh inning that proved decisive. Cuba defeated the Dominican Republic 3-1 in the other semifinal.

Japan defeated Cuba 10-6 in the finals. Tournament MVP Daisuke Matsuzaka had four strong innings; and the entire team showed excellent hustle and skill. Japan got off to a 4-0 lead in the first inning thanks to some wild pitching by the Cubans and lucky ground balls that resulted in infield singles. Japan stretched their lead to 6-1 with two more runs in the fifth. Fukudome sealed the victory with bases-laded two-run single in the ninth. Ichiro batting at No. 3 and cleanup up hitter Nobuhiko Matsunaka each scored three times.

The early lead by Japan proved to be impossible for the Cubans to overcome even though the Japanese gave the Cubans opportunities by dropping the ball in several crucial situations late in the game. . Matsuzaka told The Daily Yomiuri after the game, Cuba “always have these intimidating hitters. But to me I didn’t really have that kind of image on mind. I was never scared to pitch against them. I also head they had really good fastball hitters and my best pitch is also a fastball, so I really wanted to overpower the Cuban hitters...that how I pitched.”

The World Baseball Classic was widely viewed as the first time that national teams with their full rosters of talent were able to battle one another because of the Major League’s refusal to let its best players play in the Olympics.

Japan Wins the World Baseball Classic in 2009

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Japan’s World Baseball Classic (WBC) team in 2009 was coached by Yomiuri Giants manager Tatsunori Hara. The team included Major Leaguers Ichiro and Kenji Jojima of the Seattle Mariners, Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Boston Red Sox, Akinori Iwamura of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Kosuke Fukudome of the Chicago Cubs and star Japanese league players like Yu Darvish, Shinosuke Abe and Norichika Aoki. Hideki Matsui wanted to play but couldn’t because of concerns about his knees. Kazu Matsui wasn’t invited to play. Several member of the South Korea team played on Japanese League teams.

Japan won the World Baseball Classic in 2009 with a 5-3 win over rivals South Korea in a 10-inning thriller. Ichiro came through with the clutch hit that won the game in the tenth inning---a two-out, two-run single. The run was scored by a runner on second base. First base was open. Many wondered why the South Koreans didn’t intentionally walk him. This came after Japan blew a one run lead in the ninth on poor pitching by Yu Darvish.

Japan won the classic, outscoring opponents 50-16 with 80 percent of their hits being singles. The team stole 11 bases, had a team batting of .299 and team ERA of 1.71. A sacrifice bunt, a sacrifice fly and a stolen base contributed to four their runs against South Korea in the final.

Japan and South Korea were grouped together in Pool A and ended up playing each other four times in the tournament. In their first game Japan won 14-2 in a game in which the mercy rule was invoked ending the game after seven innings. In the second game South Korea bounced back with 1-0 win. In the quarterfinal South Korea scored three runs off Darvish in the first inning and won 4-1 to advance to the semifinals.

After losing to South Korea in their third game Japan advanced to the semifinals by shutting out Cuba for the second time in the tournament. Japan won 5-0 behind excellent pitching by starter Hisashi Iwakuma and an a costly outfield error by Cuba. In the game Ichiro finally came alive with single and triple. He had been hitless in first 12 at bats. In the semifinals Japan defeated the United States 9-4 behind strong pitching by Matsusaka and a five run forth inning in which an RBI triple by Akinori Iwamura was the key hit. Japan won the first game against Cuba 6-0 behind six scoreless inning of pitching by Matsuzaka.

Matsuzaka was voted the tournament’s most valuable player again with a 3-0 record the same as 2006. Most of the players were given $40,000. The television audience for the games reach 37.8 percent. Japan’s victory did not come without its costs to the Major League teams some of the players played for. Ichiro missed the first dozen or so games of the season with a bleeding ulcer and Matsuzaka went on the disabled list after two starts with shoulder trouble and missed much of the 2009 season.

Image Sources: 1) 6) 7) Japan Zone, 2) 3) Amazon, 4), 5) Japan Visitor

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated January 2013

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