The cultural difference between Japan and United States are exemplified in the differences in baseball in the two countries. Baseball was imported to Japan in 1872. Baseball is commonly called ‘yakyu’ (野球) in Japanese, combining the characters for field and ball. The sport is not only named differently but played differently in Japan, both physically and mentally. The sport became Japanized due to very different social customs and culture, but the rules are still the same.

Since Japan has a culture of losing, saving and giving face the refereeing of the game takes this fully into account, and is thus more flexible and loose in umpire decision-making. In contrast, umpiring of the game within the United States is made according to one set of black and white rules. In order for Japan and the United States to ‘play’ together on an even field they need to determine a joint set of rules and conduct, which is difficult to do!

Professor William Kelly of Yale provides a clue to help solve this problem: “America has a ‘dry’ business mentality – the ability of the individual is everything, Japan’s ‘wet’ group mentality” can be exemplified by seeing the players as samurai warriors “who serve the group and in return for which their status is guaranteed for life.” In this light, the umpires are weak members of the warrior clan, who cannot adopt a resolute attitude towards the clan’s players. This is an example of the culture phenomenon that the Japanese strive for, wa, a form of group harmony.

Japanese baseball history
In 1934, Lefty O’Doul got together a group of All-Star players from America and brought them over to Japan. Players included Earl Averill, Lou Gehrig, Lefty Gomez, Babe Ruth, Earl Whitehill, and more. Japan’s version of the dream team lost all 18 games that they played against the Americans.

Differences In The Games

The following details sound foreign to an American baseball fan because the cultural differences between Japan and the United States provide for a completely different feeling during a game. For instance, in Japan schoolgirls are ushers and whistles are blown to warn spectators of foul balls. No one fights for these foul balls because the person who recovers the ball readily hands it to the usher who returns it to the home team. There is also no brawling on the field like in American baseball.

Other rules that are different in Japan include the maximum number of gaijin or foreign players that are allowed on the 25-man game roster of each team. This used to be two, but has been increased to four team members. This number is quite small compared to the number of foreigners on American teams. In addition, in Japan the strike zone is bigger, pitchers throw more breaking pitches, and batters have a much shorter, more compact swing. Japanese players are neither as large nor as swift as Americans. On average, the Japanese ballparks are smaller and some infields are all dirt. The Japanese strike zone is irregular; a strategy that sees the best hitters sacrificing runs. Finally, the Japanese use a slightly smaller ball and their games can end in a tie.

The concession food stands at Japanese baseball games are also completely different, selling curry and rice in addition to hot dogs and beer. Vendors also sell shots of whiskey throughout the game! Japan’s baseball games consist of mid-game redressing of field and garbage pickup throughout the stands. Everything about the game and grounds is fastidiously clean and tidy.

Japanse baseball park
Yakisoba (thin, grilled noodles), yakitori (chicken skewers) and steaming hot takoyaki (grilled octopus) may not sound like standard baseball fare, but if you walk into any Japanese ballpark, you’ll more than likely have a nosh on one of these dishes, or at least see them at every concession stand.

All the Japanese teams are owned by major companies and are essentially a form of corporate promotion. One prime example is the Hanshin Tigers that was named after the American Detroit Tigers baseball team. The team is owned by the Hanshin Electric Railway and is a sentimental favourite within the Osaka region. To an owner of an American team game receipts and sponsorships are an all-important financial imperative, and thus winning is everything. In contrast, Japan’s teams are simply corporate subsidies, with financial considerations of winning not the top priority; what’s vital is team spirit, fan interaction and positive corporate image.

Baseball was imported from America and customized to mesh with Japanese culture. Things work through consensus and compromise, not through confrontation.

Differences In Players

The salaries of the players in America and in Japan are vastly different. In the U.S. enormous salaries and highly favourable conditions are negotiated by sports agents, with salaries vary according to the player’s skill and popularity and the agent’s negotiating abilities. In Japan, the team generally sets the salary level and though variations for different players can occur, the team salary packages are usually similar and much lower than American counterparts.

In addition, the life of the Japanese player is very different from the life of a player in the U.S. The Japanese rookies or junior players live in dormitories, and all players have one month off a year and an extra week if their team wins the championship. They must undertake compulsory practice for hours each day, have daily briefings and film recognisance of other teams and plays. Some teams ban smoking, drinking, and prohibit growing beards and moustaches. However, again in contrast to the U.S., these Japanese players can have a job with their team or owning company for life. Traditionally life employment has been the norm in Japan, with the Japanese today still not changing jobs as often as people in the United States. Japanese players are part of a ‘family’, whilst in the U.S. the use of sports agents destroys such filial loyalties. The contract negotiations in the United States must include an agent, because it is the money that runs the player’s game and what team they are on. The team loyalty within Japan has never existed in the U.S.

There is a love –hate relationship that the Japanese public have with foreign baseball players (gaijin) in Japan. On the one hand these gaijin are not looked upon favourably because of their individualism; their flashy manners are a “grievous sin” for team-spirited Japan. According to a Japanese proverb: “The nail that sticks up, shall be hammered down”. The Japanese feel that it is important to not place personal interests above those of the team. In addition, most gaijin are only in Japan for the money and American players are often viewed as lazy. Cromartie, an ex-American player in Japan, calls Japanese baseball “work ball” since among other reasons, there is no such thing as a day off in Japanese baseball.

On the other hand North American players are popular with fans because of their power – they hit home runs and draw in fans. Old-school traditional fans are at odds with a new generation of fans today that admire the strength of American power hitters.

American baseball player in Japan
Warren Cromartie, Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, 1984-1990. During this time in Japan, Cromarie hit .321 with 171 home runs and 5598 RBIs. He was three-time All Star and also made the season-ending Best Nine team three times.

Fan Clubs

The Japanese baseball fan clubs, oendan, also illustrate the huge differences between Japanese and American baseball. The fans sit in the bleacher sections and unreserved outfield bleachers. Stereotypically Japanese fans are hysterical groupies, with “maniacal and monotonous collective cheering”. The truth is that the cheering in the stands is the mood maker and a way for the fans to feel connected to the game from far-flung seating. For instance, each player has his own musical ‘batting march’ that is chanted by the fans from the time he steps in the batter box until the end of his bat. There is also a reward chant if the player gets on base or scores a run. Trumpets, bugles, whistles, Japanese taiko drums, Western base-drums, flags and banners accompany such chants. In addition, the fans’ arsenal includes pre-game chants, opening player name calls, “Lucky seventh” inning fight songs and balloons. After victories, the fans voice their hitting marches, shout their banzai cheers and their pride fully sing the team’s anthem.

Japanese baseball park
Seventh inning stretch is the moment of the match. All the Hanshin Tigers fans blow up balloons into the air. It gives you a buzz!

Thus there is an electrifying stadium atmosphere at Japanese ballgames. From rally balloons and crazy mascots to pretty uriko (beer girls) who run up and down the stands delivering beers to customers straight from kegs strapped to their backs. There is no experience quite like a professional Japanese baseball game, so even those who aren’t already baseball fans should catch a game in Japan at least once.

Japanese baseball
Girls called Uriko come and sell draft beers, drinks and ice cream in the stands. This is one of the difference between America and Japan.

One American professor suggests that the cheering at baseball games is not only a mood setter but also a call to the gods. He advocates that the fundamental rhythmic pattern of the cheers is reminiscent of the agricultural song cycles of medieval times, appealing to the gods for fertility and harvest. Chants were once messages to the gods, and today are seen as a call to both players and gods for success and victory.

Fan support is central to Japanese baseball. It can be compared to the U.S. collegiate cheering seen at Gridiron football matches. Japan’s fan clubs originated in the mid 70’s and developed their eccentric style during the late 1980’s. Key influencers were the popularity of several of the original coaches and managers, the spread of television, double-digit economic growth and the proliferation of sports dailies. All these developments increased professional baseball’s appeal to a national audience of viewers and readers.

The fans are devoted to their clubs and their teams, but they are quick to criticise if any expectations are not met. This exemplifies the Japanese demand for instant gratification. These fanatics seek intensified meaning and pleasure from their baseball games. This is evidence as fans give lots of money, time and energy to the sport. As ‘agents of disruption’ the fanatics can influence games outcomes, player careers and owning corporation profits. As fan clubs are often in the less expensive outer field seating, the infield audience can be compared to the fans at the U.S. ballparks. They add their voices to the fan clubs only at suspenseful moments and during important games.

Japanese baseball fan
The fans are incredibly well organised with cheers incorporating dance movements with chants.

Baseball Work Ethic

The Japanese work ethic is based upon the belief that if one tries hard enough, no goal is unattainable. All this is learned early on. Junior and senior high school baseball teams practice almost every day throughout the year, both morning and night, in the dead of winter and in the gruelling heat of the Japanese summer. The teams grind their moulded or metal cleats into the ground, sprinting hard no matter what season it is. Even the most liberal of high school baseball coaches still uses training methods that would be condemned in other baseball playing nations.

Coaches in the U.S. will say that there is no reason to dive headfirst into the first base unless the runner is trying to beat an errant throw. A runner who sprints through the bag is faster than the one trying to reach it through the air. As former Chicago Cub analyst Steve Stone frequently pointed out, Olympic sprinters don’t dive toward the goal as they draw near it because it is faster to be propelled by one’s feet. Yet Japanese ballplayers love to dive into the bag on close play. Why? Because it looks good. Diving into the bag makes it seem as if the player is trying extra hard. A player who dives into first is showing his coaches, teammates and fans that he has the proper spiritual approach to the team and the game. Diving makes the uniform dirty, shows the coach and the rest of the team that he the runner is giving it his all as well as offering further excitement for fans.

Japanese high school baseball
Japanese high school baseball players often charge down the first base line to slide into the bag to show his coaches, teammates and fans that he has the proper spiritual approach to the team and the game.

Young players are trained to wait and be patient, to not think and to sacrifice. This demand for sacrifice has probably taken its toll on baseball’s popularity. Certainly, the current popularity of soccer can be seen, at least in part, as a reaction to the demand for self-sacrifice common in Japanese sports such as sumo, judo and of course, baseball. These games are to be lived, not just played, whist the modern game of soccer celebrates individualism as well as the team. The majority of middle-aged and older sports fans in Japan seem to prefer baseball to soccer, but soccer commands a growing allegiance from Japanese youth. While it is still common to see boys and even grown men at the local park playing catch these days, one is just as likely to spot kids kicking a soccer ball around after school.

But it is a little early to start tolling Japanese baseball’s death knell. Being a deeply embedded part of modern Japanese culture may give baseball a conservative, dowdy image but it also gives the sport certain advantages. Media attention, of course, is one such advantage. Japanese professional baseball has been around since before the War, and has been the main focus of the Japanese sports scene since the Occupation. Just as in English, a plethora of baseball terms has permanently entered the Japanese language, and the nationwide high school tournament at Koshien Sadium is the Japanese equivalent of American football’s Super Bowl. A player who stars in this tournament, even if he fails as a pro, needs to do nothing else in life to prove his worth: he has already made it!

A steady diet of Japanese professional baseball may not be to the liking of American fans, but if one has even a smidgen of interest as to how one game can evolve in different directions, a visit to a Japanese baseball park is certainly worthwhile. It might seem strange that this quintessentially American game plays such an integral role in Japanese sport, but as Japanese baseball commentators are fond of pointing out, there is little in common between Japanese yakyu and American baseball.

Koshien National Champion Tournament
For high school baseball, team spirit is important and having the same short haircut, being inconspicuous as a person is highly promoted. The custom is hard to break in Japan and a long hair baseball player just “doesn’t look like a baseball player”.
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