Though recently outpaced and displaced in terms of popularity by football and basketball, baseball remains the official game of the American imagination.
The “national pastime” holds firm as a fount of folk wisdom and popular mythology — even if the Chicago Cubs’ recent World Series win exorcised the last standing curse in American sports.
For many outsiders, the sport is a mind-numbing metaphor for American exceptionalism. I remember a grumbling Italian friend capturing the common sentiment: “American football, OK, there is action and violence, but baseball … they are always standing, and you think soccer is boring?” Others poke fun at the audacity of calling the professional championship the “World Series,” especially when the only international team hails from not-so-far-off Toronto.
Of course, as many a defensive baseball fan will note, the game is international, perhaps surprisingly so. As the 2017 Major League Baseball season kicked off this month, nearly 30% of the players on opening-day rosters hail from outside of the United States.
The majority of these athletes come from the historical U.S. sphere of influence in the beisbol-crazy corners of Latin America and the Caribbean: the Dominican Republic provides the highest number, followed by Venezuela and an ever-increasing number of players who defected from Cuba. A handful come from less expected nations, such as Brazil and the Netherlands. Nine hail from Japan, a number that seems low at first glance, especially considering the quality of Japanese ballplayers.
After all, two weeks ago, the Japanese national team took the bronze medal in the World Baseball Classic, perhaps a disappointing finish for the nation that took gold in the first two iterations of the tournament in 2006 and 2009. (Japan is the clear leader in the medal table, having also taken bronze in 2013.) The bronze medalists came tantalizingly close to the championship game, losing 2-1 in the semifinal to eventual champions team USA in a true pitcher’s duel.
And they did it with only one of those aforementioned nine MLB stars on their 30-man roster: Houston Astros outfielder Nori Aoki, the elder statesman of the team at 35. The remaining 29 players were the cream of the crop from the only professional baseball league that holds a candle to the MLB in terms of prestige, size and revenues: Nippon Professional Baseball.
What is the geopolitics of sports?
So how did we get to this point, with Japan as a standard bearer for the most American of sports? This was actually one of the first questions that emerged when we began entertaining the idea of a column dedicated to the geopolitics of sports — a semi-joke that became a recurring quip, encapsulating the sort of questions and issues we could tackle in this space: “You know, how did Japan get baseball? That sort of thing.” The answer to this question — at least the brief version I can offer here — is an exemplary tale of how ideas travel across cultures, take root and find a life of their own.
The early innings
Depending on who’s keeping score, we can trace the pre-history of besoboru or yakyu (”field ball”) to either the Meiji Restoration or the American Civil War. In 1868, some 15 years after Commodore Matthew C. Perry “opened” Japan, the Tokugawa shogunate gave way to the restoration of imperial rule and the initiation of the Meiji period. A time of widespread and rapid reform and modernization, the early spirit of the era was captured in the “Imperial Oath of Five Articles,” a statement of five provisions to guide the new direction of the nation. The fifth provision, committing to an international search for knowledge in service of the state, eventually led to the arrival of legions of foreign advisers and educators, including the Americans who would bring baseball with them.
But before baseball could become Japanese, it had to become the American pastime. Though various bat-and-ball games have been recorded as far back as the colonial era, baseball as we (more or less) know it emerged in 1845, with the New York Knickerbocker Base Ball Club and its formulation of the “Knickerbocker Rules.”
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At midcentury, baseball was seen as a relatively civilized sport: a middle-class, mostly urban alternative to the rough-and-tumble world of animal baiting and bare-knuckle boxing that defined early American sport. The game had its early fanatics, but it wasn’t until the Civil War that baseball became firmly entrenched in the culture, superseding cricket and the dying strains of similar games such as town ball. At military encampments on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, the sport left the cities and crossed socio-economic lines; Americans have been chomping on peanuts and shouting “play ball!” ever since.
But the Civil War did more than spur the love of the game in the hearts of American advisers to Meiji Japan. As Sayuri Guthrie-Shimizu notes in her excellent “Transpacific Field of Dreams,” it also provided the post-war social networks necessary for one war veteran to deliver baseball across the Pacific.
In 1870, Horace Wilson, a Union vet originally from Gorham, Maine, found himself in San Francisco employed in the family business of another Union veteran. This job led Wilson to a position with the Japanese Consular Office and eventually to Japan itself as an oyatoi gaikokujin, as the foreign government advisers in Meiji Japan were known. As an oyatoi, Wilson was a high school math and English teacher at Tokyo’s Daigaku Nanko, where he would introduce baseball to the students — and eventually the nation — in 1872. Wilson was the first, but other Americans were not far behind. Within a year, fellow teachers Edward Mudgett and Albert Bates had brought the game to other institutions in Tokyo.
Beyond the high schools, baseball’s evangelists included Christian missionaries throughout the country and a corps of American agricultural experts in Hokkaido. Many of these men espoused the nascent ideology of “muscular Christianity,” the belief that a strong body and rigorous physical practice were paramount to resisting the corruption of modernity and urban life.
Though a decidedly American mentality, the linkage of body, mind and spirit resonated with contemporary Japanese perspectives on the spiritual merits of physical discipline. This ideological convergence might also help to explain the appeal of baseball to another group credited with fostering the development of Japanese baseball: the children of patricians or the recipients of government scholarships. Young Japanese men studying in places such as Philadelphia and Boston returned home with a passion for the game, and sometimes, the equipment needed to play it.
Fits like a glove
From these beginnings, besoboru quickly took hold, a means for the locals to challenge themselves and their American influencers; records indicate that games between students and Americans residing in the area were played by 1876. In what must be one of the earliest examples of the “glocalization” of culture, the Japanese were quick not just to embrace baseball, but to make it their own.
In “You Gotta Have Wa,” his classic treatise on Japanese baseball, Robert Whiting notes that early Japanese coaches were quick to infuse the foreign game with the sense of moral purity and self-discipline that undergirds martial arts like kendo. Whiting relays a fantastic (if unverifiable) anecdote that some practitioners felt a batter who moved to avoid being “beaned” by the ball had failed to demonstrate sufficient courage.
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As the game was imbued with local norms, Japanese physical education teachers (themselves trained by American oyatoi) spread the diamond gospel throughout the country in the 1880s. By the end of the century, organized baseball teams were a fixture in the nation’s high schools, academies and universities.
Notably, the academic sport system in this period displayed a level of organization and cohesion that school sports in the United States had yet to achieve. By 1905, starting with Waseda University, Japanese teams were taking trans-Pacific trips to tour and compete against American opposition on their home turf. Today, high school baseball in Japan remains a rare example of serious interscholastic sport outside of the United States or Canada; the annual high school championship is a major affair, a nationally televised tournament that is the Japanese equivalent to March Madness.
In an effort to make sense of the appeal of baseball to the Japanese public, Whiting suggests that the sport ultimately “suits the national character.” He points to how baseball intertwines the individual battle with the collective effort: A pitcher and batter square off as in karate or Sumo, yet the end goal requires sacrifice, a detachment from the self. The deliberate nature and slow pace of the game provide another layer of appeal, likened by Whiting to the methodical reputation of Japanese businessmen and the drawn-out storytelling of Kabuki theater. While this perspective may be oversimplifying things a bit, the reality is that baseball has had a grip on the Japanese imagination and sporting public for almost 150 years.
As in the United States, media and business interests helped to legitimize and grow the sport. At the turn of the 20th century, Japanese newspapers debated the moral and nationalistic merits of embracing a foreign game; by the end of the century, over a dozen sports dailies picked apart the statistical minutiae of every pitch and swing.
In 1884, Albert Spalding, a globe-trotting baseball proselytizer and sporting goods magnate (yes, that Spalding), sent a gift of equipment to the team at Sapporo Agricultural College in an effort to make inroads into the growing Japanese market. Following suit, the Reach All-Stars — the first professional team from the United States to tour Japan — came in 1908 on a promotional junket for Reach Sporting Goods Co. The following decades saw many similar tours, underwritten by promoters and marketers, featuring American stars such as Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig and even Babe Ruth.
Despite the success of these commercial endeavors, baseball in Japan remained amateur until 1936, when the Japanese Baseball League was founded. Reorganized as Nippon Professional Baseball in 1950, the league has always been a decidedly professional and big-budget affair, with each of its 12 teams owned by a corporate parent.
The popular Yakult probiotic drink company owns Tokyo’s Yakult Swallows; Nagoya’s Chunichi Dragons are owned by the dominant regional newspaper, the Chunichi Shimbun; the Yomiuri Giants (the Yakult Swallows’ cross-town rivals in Tokyo) are Nippon Professional Baseball’s version of the New York Yankees, having won the league title a record 22 times.
From the Union Army vet to the national team that doesn’t need to draw on talent from the best league in the world, this, in short, is how Japan got baseball. Beating Major League Baseball to the punch by two days, Nippon Professional Baseball just kicked off its 2017 season on March 31. For any fan around the world who experiences (off)seasonal depression from late October through March, it is finally time to “Play ball!” Or perhaps: “Pure boru!”
This article was published with the permission of Stratfor, the Austin, Texas-based geopolitical-intelligence firm.
Tolga Ozyurtcu, Ph.D., is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education at the University of Texas at Austin. As a faculty member in the Sport Management and Physical Culture and Sports programs at UT, he teaches classes on the history, sociology and philosophy of sport, as well as on the administration of sport organizations and businesses. His research takes an interdisciplinary perspective on the relationship between sport and mass culture.