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Nippon Professional Baseball: Home of the Japanese “Boys of Summer”

Meiji Jingu Stadium (Photo by Jun Sakahira, Stripes Japan)


Ask your friends what the national sport of Japan is, and while many of them will tell you the right answer (sumo, of course), some may say “it should be baseball.”

Baseball, also called “Yakyu” (literally: field ball), is one of the most popular games in Japan, although it is not a national sport. Today, you can't get away from baseball in Japan. In less than 150 years, we have almost turned an imported sport into our national sport.

Sports can involve a lot of politics and religion: if you mention a particular team or player, be prepared for a discussion that could quickly become heated.

The Nippon Professional Baseball League (NPB) is the league when it comes to baseball in Japan. With 12 teams spread from the northern mainland of Hokkaido to the southern mainland of Kyushu, many of Japan's major cities have their own team. And the loyalty and devotion of the residents of these cities to their teams is usually as high as can be.

The history of baseball in Japan dates back to 1871, when foreigners living in Yokohama played against the USS Colorado teams at what is now Yokohama Stadium. Baseball then spread among the Japanese through American teachers and residents, and the first professional baseball association was formed in 1920. After that, professional teams gradually formed, starting with the Tokyo Giants in 1934, the Osaka Tigers in 1935, and the Nagoya Dragons in 1936.

Today, just like the National and American Leagues of the MLB in the USA, the NPB has two leagues – Central and Pacific. The Central League is traditionally more popular than the Pacific League because the two most popular teams, the Giants (Tokyo) and the Tigers (Hyogo), belong to the Central.

Many say that the Giants' popularity has dropped significantly recently. The team has always been the most popular, and most manga and animated films about professional baseball in Japan usually feature Giants heroes. The team is compared to the New York Yankees, and it is often said that there are two types of Japanese – pro-Giants and anti-Giants.

I'm not a baseball fan myself, but I was born and raised in the Kanto Plains, so I've been a Giants fan since I was a kid, like most of my friends. I proudly wore a G-marked T-shirt and baseball cap, cried when Shigeo Nagashima retired from the Giants in 1974, and was overjoyed when batter Sadaharu Oh hit his then-record 756th home run in 1977.

Since Hideo Nomo's historic success with the Dodgers in the mid-1990s, star players like Ichiro, Hideki Matsui and Yu Darvish have taken their world-class skills to the MLB one by one. The NPB has become a kind of minor league for the MLB, and the players who have been successful in the US have become even bigger rock stars in their home country.

I can't forget the enthusiastic moment when Japan, led by Shohei Ohtani, won the 2023 World Baseball Classic against the USA. Since the WBC was founded in 2006, Japan has now won three of the five tournaments.

While there are many similarities between the NPB and the MLB, there are some drastic differences that are immediately apparent when you walk into a Japanese stadium. For one, the fans become cheerleaders in the stands while their team is at bat. Each player has a unique song and every fan knows the lyrics to sing along to. And second, the cold beer that is conveniently served at your seat is served by a petite Japanese “beer girl.” This is a stark contrast to the tall and loud “beer men” who shout “Beer here!” in the US.

Visit your nearest baseball stadium and see these differences for yourself. Prepare to cheer for your team by watching on YouTube, and be sure to grab a cold biru to wash down the bento box.

(Photo by Jun Sakahira, Stripes Japan)

(Photo by Jun Sakahira, Stripes Japan)

Do you need tickets?

To get tickets, you can visit a team's official website. Most teams offer QR code tickets, so be sure to select this option when purchasing tickets. Once you've reserved the seats you want, there are several options, but often you can pay and pick up your tickets at most local convenience stores. There is also the option to pick up tickets at the stadium on the day of the game, but be aware that games often sell out, especially on weekends.

Some teams use dynamic pricing; prices vary based on demand. Typically, the earlier you book tickets, the cheaper they are. All teams except the Tigers and Carp (who sell the entire season before the season starts) typically start selling tickets two months before the actual game date. (For all September games, usually starting on a certain day in July)

NPB NOTES

  • The record for the best batting average in a season is not held by Ichiro, but by the American Randy Bass, who achieved a batting average of .389 in 1986. Ichiro's best performance was .387 in 2000.

  • Former Mariners and Reds outfielder Wladimir Balentien hit 60 home runs in 2013 – the season record.

  • Until that record was broken in 2015, former Cubs outfielder Matt Murton held it with 214 hits in a season.

  • Another former Cub, Tuffy Rhodes, was named MVP of the Pacific League in 2001 for the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes. Rhodes hit 55 home runs and scored 131 runs.

  • The nearly 100-year-old Meiji Jingu Stadium, home of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows, is not only named after the Meiji Shrine – it is actually the property of the famous shrine.

What you need to know

  • Stand when your team bats (in the outfield cheering area, not mandatory but expected)

  • Each player lets out a cheer when it is his turn to bat

  • The Giants are equal to the Yankees

  • The rivalry between Giants and Tigers is therefore Yankees and Red Sox

  • Games can end in a tie after 12 innings

  • In the 26-man squad, 4 foreign players are allowed (no more than 3 pitchers or 3 hitters)

Heckling like a local – by Shoji Kudaka

A loud and violent crowd can have a big impact on a baseball game in Japan.

Just like in the U.S., cheering and heckling are a big part of the game experience at baseball stadiums across Japan. While Koshien Stadium is notorious for its harsh hecklers, all stadiums experience heckling in some form.

Of course, the voice of fans can help inspire a player to perform well, but often it can also depress him mentally. Sometimes the nasty hecklers can even lead to fights between players and fans.

Groundless insults or swear words only spoil the game experience, but baseball needs humorous hecklers and friendly cheers.

Join in the fun the next time you go to a game and use these Japanese phrases to sound like a season ticket holder.

1. Kattobase! (Beat it!) A very common phrase to cheer up batters. Most likely the batter's name comes next. Sometimes fans sing this phrase together.

2. Gambare! (Come on! / Let’s go!) A versatile phrase to keep your fingers crossed for anyone in a difficult situation.

3. Hetakuso! (You suck!) An accusatory word with a certain coarseness. It's pretty self-explanatory.

4. Saiko! (You are the best!) A good way to praise a player for something. You would probably say his name first and then add this sentence.

5. Fuzakreru na! (You can’t be serious!) This expression is usually reserved for a referee whose decision you completely disagree with. Use this expression often enough and you'll become a John McEnroe.

6. Shikkari Shiro / Majimeni yare! (Pull yourselves together!) Another expression to express displeasure, but with a more didactic tone. Perfect for a scene in which an inexperienced player does something stupid.

7. Mattemashita! (We've been waiting for you!) This would be a good statement whether it is a high-profile rookie making his debut or a veteran player making a comeback.

8. Oh, Hitori! / I'm an idiot! (One more batter! / One more pitch!) At big games like the Japan Series, fans chant this phrase when there are only two strikes left and two outs in the 9th inning.

9. Kanekaese (I need a refund! / I want my money back!) A harsh term to condemn a sloppy performance that does not meet professional quality. This can also be used for players or teams that do not give their best.

10. Kuraitsuke! / Akirameruna! (Don't let them off the hook! / Don't give up!) A versatile expression that can be meant both positively and negatively and is used regardless of whether your team is up or down in the game.

11. Bibiruna! (Don’t be afraid! / Be a man!) The first thing a cowardly player might hear from the stands.

12. Iizo! (That's what I mean! / Well done!) Because only if you stay positive and maintain the good mood can you make your gaming experience optimal.