Many players from Japan's professional league have signed as free agents with Major League teams to play in the United States. Nomo Hideo, a former star pitcher of the Kintetsu Buffaloes, joined the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995. Nomo was nicknamed “Tornado” for his unique delivery and voted the National League Rookie of the Year. Subsequently, other Japanese professional baseball players have flourished in the Major Leagues, including Ichiro of the Seattle Mariners, Matsui Hideki of the New York Yankees (2003--2009), Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (2010), and Oakland Athletics (starting in 2011), and Matsuzaka Daisuke of the Boston Red Sox. Recently some young high school or college graduates have been scouted directly by American teams. Elsewhere, the Japanese national team has won consecutive championships at the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classic, an international baseball competition.

There are two ways a Japanese player can enter the Major Leagues: 1) by waiting for nine years until he becomes a free agent; or 2) by asking his home club to be "posted," which means he is auctioned off to the highest bidder with the home team pocketing the money. The latter is somewhat like the transfer fee system in European soccer.

As of 2008, 32 Japanese players had played in the Major League with 15 of them playing in 2008. By some estimates there about 50 players in Japan that are good enough to play in the Majors. Japan had 11 players in the Major League in 2004. Some Japanese players have hit better in the Major Leagues than they did in Japan. Hideki Matsui, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Ichiro Suzuki vie with each other for the top spot as Japan’s favorite athlete.

Japanese baseball expert Robert Whiting told the Washington Post, “The really good players in Japan all want to go to the major leagues because of the money, the prestige and all the hassles of playing in Japan. In Japan, you have to carry your own bags, travel by train and stay in second class hotels. You also have to put up sometimes with abusive coach and excessive practices.”

In 2010, 12 Japanese players returned home for another go in the domestic leagues after experiencing the American Major Leagues. Several of them are thought to have managerial aspirations. The next trend may be the implementation of American ideas by Japanese managers who learned them as players in America.

Also see Japanese Major League Pitchers, Separate Article

Good Websites and Sources: Japanese Ball Players japaneseballplayers.com/en ; Baseball Reference (Do a Search) baseball-reference.com ; Successes and Failures seattle.mariners.mlb.com ; Hideki Matsui on mlb.com mlb.mlb.com/team/player ; Hideki Matsui Baseball Museum hideki.co.jp/top/english ; New York Times on Matsui’s Exit to the Angels nytimes.com ; Matsui, World Series MVP nytimes.com

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

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

First Japanese Player in the United States

The first Japanese player to play in the Major Leagues was a left-handed reliever named Masonori Murakami, who was called out of San Francisco bullpen in the eight inning of a games against the New York Mets on September 1, 1964. "As I walked to the mound," he recalled, "I tried not to get to nervous, so I hummed the song Sukiyaki, which was very poplar in the states at the time...The day before I was playing in Fresno with 200-300 people. The next day I was played in New York for 40,000 people."

Murakami was signed out of high school to play for the Nakai Hawks. In 1964, after a year spent mostly in the Japanese minors he was dispatched to play in the U.S. for the Single-A minor league team Fresno Giants. Later he told Jim Allen of the Daily Yomiuri, “I never thought about playing the majors. I was just enjoying playing minor league ball.” While playing in Fresno the San Francisco Giants purchased an option on him for $10,000.

Murakami said, “On August 29th the manager Bill Werle said, “mashi, your’re going to go up to the majors.” On the 30th the Fresno owner handed me a United Airline ticket from Fresno to San Francisco to Kennedy Airport and gave me the address of the Roosevelt Hotel in New York.” Murakami said he expected someone to meet him at the airport but no one was there. No one had heard of him at the hotel either but he was eventually able to find a room but was too afraid to go out on the streets of New York and ate at the hotel restaurant.

Murakami pitched in nine games, striking out 15 batter in 15 innings in 1964. He returned to the Giants the next season and went 4-1, with eight saves and a 3.76 ERA and 85 strikeouts in 74 innings. He returned to Japan in 1966, citing “giri” (“obligation”) and “ninjo” (“humanity”). After his departure it would take 30 years before another Japanese player would play in the Major League.

The first Japanese to play as a professional ball in the United States was Goro Mikami, an infielder known by the name of “Jap Mikado.” In 1914 and 1915, he played for a barnstorming team called the All Nations, so called because its players were a mix of Mexican, Cubans, African Americans and Native Americans. They toured the United States and played local teams in a fashion not unlike that of the Harlem Globetrotters.

Foreign Players in the Major Leagues

Opening Day rosters in 2012 featured 243 players born outside of the U.S. Major League Basebell reported: “This year's percentage of 28.4 marks the third highest of all-time and is up from 27.7 in both 2010 and 2011. The 243 players born outside the United States came from a pool of 856 players (749 active 25-man roster players and 107 disabled or restricted Major League players) on April 4th rosters and represent 15 countries and territories outside the U.S. The 28.4 percent trails only 2005, when 29.2 percent of Opening Day players were foreign-born, and 2007, when 246 players - 29.0 percent of all players - were born outside the U.S. In addition, this year's 243 foreign-born players rank as the second-most in history, trailing only the 2007 high of 246. Last season, 234 out of 846 players were foreign-born, totaling 27.7 percent. [Source:Major League Baseball]

The Dominican Republic again leads the Major Leagues with 95 players born outside the U.S, which is the second-most the nation has produced on Opening Day rosters, behind its 99 in 2007. Venezuela ranks second with 66 players, its highest total ever on Opening Day rosters. Canada ranks third with 15 players, followed by Japan (13); Cuba (11); Puerto Rico (11); Mexico (9); Panama (7); Curaçao (4); Australia (4); Nicaragua (3); Taiwan (2); Colombia (1); Italy (1); and South Korea (1).

The Kansas City Royals, the hosts of the 2012 All-Star Game, have the most foreign-born players with a total of 13, followed by the Colorado Rockies and the New York Yankees, who each have 12. Three Clubs - the Milwaukee Brewers, the New York Mets and the Mariners - each have 11 foreign-born players. The Yankees have players from seven different countries and territories outside the United States: Canada, Curaçao, the Dominican Republic, Japan, Panama, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.

Japanese Players in the Major Leagues

Through the 2011 season, 38 Japan-born pitchers had appeared in the major leagues. There were nine in 2011.

In 2012 the Mariners and Rangers had three Japanese players each. The Mariners had Ichiro Suzuki, pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma and second base Munenori Kawasaki. The Rangers had the pitchers Yu Darvish, Yoshinori Tateyama and Koji Uehara. In 2011, Tateyama and Uehara played in the division series in 2011 but were left off the Texas Rangers World Series roster.

On Japanese players in the Major Leagues, Ichiro told AP, "You look at other countries, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, they have a lot of stars that perform at this level, and when you compare Japan to those countries, we're not there yet. That's what I look forward to saying in the future.'' On Muneroni Kawasaki’s constant shouting, Seattle Mariners’ Brendan Ryan said, “I don’t know if they’re softball chants or, “We want a hot dog, we want a coke,” stuff.

As of 2008, 32 Japanese players had played in the Major League with 15 of them playing in 2008. By some estimates there about 50 players in Japan that are good enough to play in the Majors. Japan had 11 players in the Major League in 2004. Some Japanese players have hit better in the Major Leagues than they did in Japan. Hideki Matsui, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Ichiro Suzuki vie with each other for the top spot as Japan’s favorite athlete.

Impact of Players Leaving Japan

Japanese have been pleased that their players could find success in the Major Leagues but are also worried about robbing the Japan League of talent. Already the television audience and stadium attendance for Japan League is declining. After Ichiro left the Orix Blue Wave the team’s attendance figures went down 47 percent.

Japanese baseball fans watch Major League broadcasts with Japanese players on television in the middle of the night and ignore Japan League games that are during prime time. The activities of Japanese players in the Major Leagues are given top billing on the evening news and reports about the Japan League are given almost as if they were an afterthought.

Mariners and Yankee T-shirts are more visible of Japanese city streets than Yomiuri Giants of Hanshin Tigers ones. So many Japanese visit Seattle, Los Angeles and New York to see the star players that stadiums there have signs in Japanese.

To prevent a loss of talent, Japanese Professional Baseball is considering a rule that would penalize any player who plays abroad or in a corporate league by requiring them to not play for two or three years should they decide to play baseball in Japan’s top leagues.

Japanese High School Sensation Otani Says He Wants to Play in the Majors

In October 2012, fireballer Shohei Otani of Hanamaki Higashi High School, who once threw a 99mph fastball in a high school game, said he had decided to forego playing in Japan and start his pro career in the major leagues. "Playing in the United States has been a dream since I entered high school, so I decided to play there," Otani said at a press conference Sunday at the school in Hanamaki, Iwate Prefecture. "I'll start with the minor leagues, but I'll make the majors [in the future]." [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, October 24, 2012]

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Should the 18-year-old right-hander be succesful in his drive to play in the major leagues, he would become the second Japanese player to do so without having first played professionally in Japan. Right-hander Junichi Tazawa joined the Boston Red Sox in 2008 from Nippon Oil of Japan's corporate league. The 1.93-meter Otani has drawn notice for his fastball, which has been clocked at 160 kph, but has also distinguished himself at the plate. Batting left-handed, he smashed 56 home runs during his high school career.

"I admire both Japanese and American professional baseball, but I have stronger feelings toward the major leagues," Otani said at the press conference. Surrounded by about 60 reporters, Otani talked in a detached but smooth manner about his decision to seek a career in Major League Baseball. His facial expression suggested the steeliness of his determination.

MLB teams sent scouts to watch Otani pitch and have enthusiastically followed his progress since he entered high school. Otani submitted a document to the Japan High School Baseball Federation last month expressing his intention to become a professional baseball player. At the time, he said he would like to play either in Japan or the United States. Otani met with scouts from the Los Angeles Dodgers, Texas Rangers and Red Sox. Four other clubs reportedly had been in contact with him. Several Japanese pro teams reportedly planned to choose him as their first pick in the NPB draft but decided against because of his apparent determination to play in America.

Will More Young Japanese Players Want to Play in the Majors Rather Than Japan?

In October 2012, after Otani said he wanted top play in the Majors, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “More and more high school and other amateur Japanese baseball players are expected to make a pitch for the major leagues after potential top draft pick Shohei Otani said he wanted to pursue a baseball career in the United States. A major reason for Japanese baseball talent opting for an MLB career is money. In 2009, the Washington Nationals gave pitcher Stephen Strasburg a major league record four-year contract worth $15.1 million. He was drafted by the Nationals as the first pick in the first round. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, October 23, 2012]

In contrast, NPB in 2007 set the cap on a rookie's contract at 100 million yen ($1.2 million), with incentives up to 50 percent of the total contract. Some observers have argued that if a major league team offers a contract of more than 100 million yen to a player, Japanese teams should offer, in exceptional cases, contracts exceeding this. However, this idea has not been realized. Others argue that a surge in contract money due to a "money war" between Japan and the United States would lead to players picked in the draft to feel they had been treated unfairly.

There are big differences in how Japanese and American scouts are regulated in Japan. Japanese scouts must be registered with the NPB and contact with players and people close to them is tightly restricted. They are able to talk directly with high school students only after the National High School Baseball Championship, played at Koshien Stadium in August, and university students from September 1. MLB teams have been improving their overseas scouting networks and many have resident scouts in Japan. The Texas Rangers watched former Nippon Ham Fighters pitcher Yu Darvish for several years before acquiring him, and many teams frequently send scouts to Japan to check out promising players. Like NPB teams, they do not have easy access to student players due to Japan Student Baseball Association regulations. However, even if they violate the rules, there is no punishment.

What about rules between Japan and the United States about player acquisition? There is a "gentlemen's agreement" to exercise restraint on amateur players who are subject to each country's draft. However, such an agreement may violate the U.S. Antitrust Law in terms of "unreasonable restraint of trade." As a result, the agreement has not been formally documented.

Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) is considering changing the rules governing players who skip the Japanese draft to play in the Major Leagues. Under the current system, a player who leaves cannot play in the Japanese league for up to three years after their M.L.B. contract ends.

Japanese High School Sensation Otani Stays in Japan Afterall

Two months later Otani changed his mind a decided to stay in Japan. Ken Belson wrote in the New York Times, After Otani said there was zero chance he would stay in Japan, only the Nippon Ham Fighters chose him in the Japanese high school draft in October. The Fighters had an exclusive negotiating window through the end of March and wasted no time trying to persuade Otani to start his career in Japan. Representatives from the team visited Otani’s home and high school in Iwate Prefecture, in northeastern Japan, and met with Otani’s parents. The Fighters promised Otani that he could wear No. 11, the same number Yu Darvish wore for the team before he left for the Rangers. [Source: Ken Belson, New York Times, December 9, 2012]

In early December, the Fighters announced that Otani, 18, would join the team, which plays in Sapporo. “I want to give back to the people that helped me up until this day and to the people from my hometown by having them see me pitch in Japan,” Otani said in a news conference, according to Sanspo, a Japanese sports newspaper. “I will do my best to become the type of player that kids can look up to.”

The Fighters apparently persuaded Otani that by becoming a star in Japan first, instead of starting out in the minor leagues in the United States, he was better positioned to play in the major leagues. They showed Otani statistics to back up their points, underscoring how much success Darvish had with the team before he left for the United States in 2011.

“If Otani can be 50 to 80 percent as good as Darvish, the Fighters will do well, with an extra kickback coming one day when they post him to the MLB,” said Ira Stevens, who runs ScoutDragon, a data service that tracks Japanese baseball players. “I believe Otani really does not understand how hard it would be for him to make it to the MLB via the minor league system, fresh out of high school in Japan.”Otani’s decision, though, has not come without controversy. Other teams that decided not to draft Otani because he repeatedly said he did not want to play in Japan felt spurned.

In December 2012, The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Otani still wants to play in the major leagues. He just decided the best way to get there was to spend some time in Japan first. "At first, I thought going as soon as possible would be the best way to play for a long time at the top level in America," Otani said at a press conference, accompanied by Fighters manager Hideki Kuriyama. "But I changed my mind [after the negotiations]." The Fighters, armed with a 25-page report detailing issues facing young athletes going overseas, convinced the former star pitcher at Iwate's Hanamaki Higashi High School that his best chance of a future major league career would be to develop through the Japanese system. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, December 11, 2012]

The report brought up examples from different sports, as well as the case of a Korean baseball player who experienced hardship after going to the United States straight out of high school. "There were things I didn't know," Otani said. "The material really made me change [my perception]." The Fighters sweetened the deal by offering Otani uniform No. 11, which was worn by ace Yu Darvish before he left the team to join the Texas Rangers after the 2011 season.

Team management cited the cases of Darvish, who also joined the Fighters out of high school, and the young pitchers who helped fill the gap after he left as more proof that their methods are effective. Otani had declared before the pro baseball draft in October that he would pursue a contract with a major league team. After the Fighters pulled a surprise and drafted him as their top pick anyway, he stated he would not sign with them. But the Fighters made their pitch in a series of negotiations that eventually paid off.

Seattle Mariners and Nintendo

Nintendo owner
Hiroshi Yamauchi
The majority owners of the Seattle Mariners is Nintendo. Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi attended his first Mariner's game ten years after he purchased the team but has encouraged the team to pursue Japanese players such as Ichiro.

Yamauchi bought his share of the Mariners in 1992 when there was talk of moving the team to another city. He said he did as a gift to Seattle, the home of Nintendo America. In a move that smacked of jingoism Yamauchi was allowed to buy 60 percent of the team but was only granted a 49 percent voting interest so his American partners could keep control of the team , a rule that was eliminated in 1996.

In 2004 Nintendo owner Horishi Yamauchi sold his shares in the Mariners but remains its CEO.

Televised Major League Games in Japan

More than 550 Major League baseball games a yearare shown on television in Japan. Most games follow the Big Three: Ichiro Suzuki with the Seattle Mariners, Hideki Matsui with the New York Yankees and Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Boston Red Sox. Yankee home games come on just after everyone has left for work. Mariner homes games come on just before lunch. The evening news reports how many hits Ichiro and Matsui got, with the game result being an afterthought.

About 300 are shown without commercial interruptions, allowing viewers to watch their favorite players sitting around between innings. Even so Japanese baseball players are rarely caught in camera spitting, picking their noses and scratching their crotches as American players are. Occasionally they are caught unzipping and undoing their pants and tucking in the shirts which is not a big deal to do in public in Japan.

Japanese-language advertising for tractors, weight-loss massages and eyeglasses can be found in stadiums in Seattle, New York, Boston and Tampa Bay. The signs are often placed behind the batter’s box and show up in games that otherwise are commercial free in Japan. Marketing researchers have studied stadiums and the Japanese players who play to figure out the best spots and times to place ads. Komatsu, a bulldozer maker, spent big money for well-placed ads in Yankee Stadium. Dandy House, a company that specializes in hair removal, spent less to have their ads placed in the stadiums of second tier Major League teams that the Yankees, Mariners and Red Sox play.

American Major Leagues in Japan

Between 2000 and 2008 three opening day game for the Major League were played in Tokyo. In 2000 the Cubs and Mets played each. In 2004, the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays played their opening two games in Japan. It was the first time Major League regular season games were played in Japan. Seattle and Oakland were scheduled used to open the 2003 season but the games were scrapped because of the Iraq war.

The Boston Red Sox beat the Oakland As on Opening Day for the Major Leagues in 2008 in Japan. in a 10 inning, 6-5 thriller with a tying run in the 9th inning and winning run in the 10th. Matsuzaka was the starter for th Red Sox. He looked nervous and gave up two runs in the first inning before settling down and putting in four scoreless innings. Matsuzaka originally said he was going to miss the game because his wife was expecting their first child around that time but in the end his son arrived a week early and he was able to make the game.

Red Sox and As players were promised $40,000 for playing and were given of 50 percent cut of the revenues generated from the two game. The Boston Red Sox showed up in Japan after a brief strike. They threatened not to come to Japan until all the staff, coaches and trainers received the same amount of pay they did. A deal was worked out and they came.

The Japanese market is very important to Major League baseball. It accounts for 60 percent of its foreign earnings.

Mariners Defeat Athletics, 3-1, in Major League 2012 Opener in Japan

The Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics open the 2012 Major League season in Japan with a two-game series at the Tokyo Dome on March 28 and 29. The teams also played exhibition games during the trip. Seattle and Oakland had been scheduled to play there in March 2003, but the series was scrapped because of the threat of war in Iraq. This was the fourth Japan opener, following the New York Mets and Chicago Cubs (2000), the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay (2004), and Boston and Oakland (2008).

Jim Armstrong wrote on Huffington Post, “Ichiro Suzuki looked perfectly at home, putting on the kind of show that made him so popular in Japan. Too bad most fans across America couldn't follow along. Suzuki got four hits and plenty of attention as the Seattle Mariners beat the Oakland Athletics 3-1 in 11 innings in the Major League Baseball opener. A capacity crowd of 44,227 lit up Tokyo Dome with camera flashes every time Suzuki came to bat. He drew a standing ovation when he took his position in right field in the final inning. [Source: Jim Armstrong, Huffington Post, March 28m 2012]

"It was very special to open in Japan," said Suzuki, a star for nine seasons in Osaka with the Orix Blue Wave. "I wanted to have fun and give the fans something at this special time and wanted to share a special moment with them." "The festivities for opening day were awesome, the detail, the time they put into it. I loved every minute of it. I love being in Japan," he said.

Dropped from leadoff to third in the batting order as he started his 12th big league season, Suzuki singled in the first when be beat shortstop Cliff Pennington's throw after his grounder over the mound was deflected by Oakland starter Brandon McCarthy. Suzuki singled on a grounder to shortstop in the fourth, singled to center in the sixth and had an RBI single to center in the 11th.

MLB and the players' association are using the series to assist rebuilding in Japan following last year's earthquake and tsunami. A group of players and coaches traveled to the disaster zone to conduct a baseball clinic. The rest of the big league teams start to get going April 4, when the renamed Miami Marlins open their new ballpark against the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals. In the meantime, the A's and Mariners will resume playing spring training games this weekend.

A lot of big leaguers arriving early at camp wanted to enjoy it, too, but couldn't. The game began at 6:09 a.m. EDT and was televised live only to the Seattle and Oakland markets. The MLB Network showed it on tape delay at 9 a.m. — the game already was in extra innings when the nationwide telecast carried the first pitch. "I got here at 5:15 in the morning and went in to turn on the game and couldn't find it anywhere," Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez complained in Kissimmee, Fla., where the Braves hosted the New York Yankees in an exhibition."I tried everything, MLB, ESPN, and I still don't know who won. I got here early to check it," he said.

In Tampa, Fla., Yankees manager Joe Girardi kept switching channels and seemed a bit frustrated he couldn't find the game on his clubhouse office TV. Hours later in Peoria, Ariz., San Diego manager Bud Black and some of the Padres tuned in before their spring training game. Asked whether he watched, Houston Astros closer Brett Myers turned sarcastic. "Was there a game on?" he said.

Some were quite angry about the season starting Japan. Michael C. Jones wrote in Yahoo!, “In two games that no one in the United States seemed to know about, the league once again decided to officially start its season overseas in Japan. Many have defended and even lauded the decision by MLB, but it's a bad idea to begin the first meaningful games for any team in America's pastime overseas Some have argued that the fanfare in Japan was huge, and that the small number of fans that would come to Oakland don't do opening day justice. Others have said that Japan is such a large part of the global baseball market and that the league needs to reach out.

Those arguments are disingenuous. Effectively, MLB is saying there aren't enough fans to fill the O.com coliseum in Oakland, so they don't deserve to see their team play the first home game that matters. Fans in Seattle and Oakland had to wake up at the early hours of the morning if they wanted to see their teams play live on opening day. To me, that goes against everything that's right about baseball, where the game is synonymous with American sports. Opening day is almost a national holiday, and fans shouldn't have to experience it outside the confines of the country at ridiculous hours. [Source: Michael C. Jones, Yahoo!, Apr 1, 2012]

Image Sources: 1) 5) 8) Japan Zone, 2) Matsui, 3) Japan-Photo.de file sharing 4) 6) 7) 9) 10) 11) 12) 13) Wikipedia

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.

Last updated January 2013

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