Robert Whiting, Contributing writer
The 100th National High School Baseball Tournament gets underway on Sunday at historic Koshien Stadium near Kobe. Organized by the Japan High School Baseball Federation in association with the prestigious Asahi Shimbun, the tourney is the largest sporting event in Japan, on par with the World Series and the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in the United States, in terms of popularity. Forty-nine teams from around the country will vie for the national championship in a single-elimination competition lasting two weeks. Crowds of up to 50,000 fans per day will attend, while each and every game will be telecast live, nationwide, by NHK to an audience of millions.
Visitors to Japan might wonder why a schoolboy tourney draws so much attention, overshadowing everything including MLB and NPB games and those of any other sport.
For one thing, it is a highly symbolic event for the Japanese as it takes place during Obon holidays, the Buddhist festival of paying respect to departed souls, a time when cities empty out and workers take leave to return to familial hometowns and to visit and honor ancestral graves. With the massive postwar shift of the Japanese population from rural to urban industrial areas, the Koshien tourney became one of the few remaining ways Japanese have of displaying regional loyalties. Each Koshien entry has won intensely contested regional and sub-regional tournaments in a specific prefecture, territory or metropolis of the country.
For another, it is the closest thing Japan has to a national festival. Banner-waving supporters are bused in from all over the country, sporting colorful happi coats festooned with regional badges, while bringing with them samples of local cuisine. As former Number Magazine editor Masahiro Okazaki once put it, “Koshien is a ‘universal Japanese experience.’ ”
Still another reason for the tournament’s popularity lies in the long history of amateur baseball in Japan, which dates all the way to the late 19th century, beginning decades before Japan’s first professional league was established in 1936.
Baseball was introduced to Japan in 1872, by an American professor of English named Horace Wilson at Kaisei Gakko, a precursor to the University of Tokyo, invited to Japan along with dozens of other engineers and scholars from around the world by the Meiji government, to help the nation modernize after two-and-a-half centuries of feudal isolation.
The Japanese liked baseball because it was their first group sport. Most athletics in the pre-Meiji era were individual undertakings like kendo, jujitsu and sumo. It gave Japanese a chance to exercise their famed group proclivities on an athletic field. As with the rice-planting culture, everyone had a position, everyone had a role. At the same time, the Japanese also found the one-on-one battle between pitcher and batter similar in psychology to sumo and the martial arts. The Ministry of Education deemed the imported sport good for the national character and encouraged the game to be played on the high school and college level.
Baseball became the national sport in Japan in 1896 after a team from First Higher School of Tokyo (also known as Ichiko), an elite prep school for students aged 18-22 headed for Japan’s prestigious Imperial University, soundly defeated a team of Americans from the Yokohama Country and Athletic Club, in the first formal games ever played between Japan and U.S. squads.
Their victories were headline news all across Japan. As one Japanese historian later wrote, “Foreigners could not hope to understand the emotional impact of this victory but it helped Japan, struggling towards modernization after centuries of isolation, overcome a tremendous inferiority complex it felt toward the more industrially advanced West.”
Pitcher Kotaro Moriyama threw a shutout against the Yokohama team and inspired a saying: “To be hit by Moriyama’s fastball is an honor exceeded only by being crushed under the wheels of the Imperial carriage.”
Equally important was the way the Ichiko squad had won. Most of the players had come from samurai families and, unlike at other schools, they applied the principles of the martial arts — endless training, development of spirit, self-sacrifice — to their game. They practiced every single day of the year, in the rain or snow or extreme heat. During school vacations they went to intensive baseball camps. Team captain Jitsuzo Aoi swung the bat 1,000 times a night in the team dormitory. The Ichiko regimen was known as Bloody Urine, for it was said (with some hyperbole) that the players practiced so hard they urinated blood at the end of the day.
The Ichiko way
As the popularity of the game grew, the Ichiko way of baseball became the model at most other schools as well. Keio-Waseda games at the turn of the century drew crowds of over 60,000 and warring cheer groups became such a problem that their games were banned for 20 years starting in 1905.
The National High School Baseball Summer Championship Tournament was originated in 1915 by the Asahi Shimbun, which preached that the game was good for Japanese youth because it taught them to cooperate as a unit, among other things, and to be physically and mentally fit. That first tournament involved only 10 teams and was played in the suburb of Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, in a park that seated less than 15,000. But its popularity mushroomed and larger accommodations were soon required. In 1924, it was moved to newly constructed Koshien Stadium, a mammoth structure that held over 60,000 fans with up to 50 rows of seats and was modeled after the Polo Grounds, home of the New York Giants. It was the largest stadium in Asia.
Since then, the summer tournament has been held annually at Koshien except during a four-year break during World War II when the field was reserved for grenade-throwing practice and the stadium’s infield roof, nicknamed the Iron Umbrella, was torn down and used in the war effort.
Professional baseball surged in the postwar era but high school baseball retained its magical pull, thanks to the heroic Iron Man performances of some of its participants, who overcame great adversity with stoutness of heart.
Takehiko Bessho pitched the final game of the 1941 tournament with a dislocated left arm bound in a sling. What’s more, Sadaharu Oh pitched Waseda Jitsugyo High School to victory in the spring tourney in 1957 despite a painful ruptured blister on his pitching hand that caused blood to drip from his fingers.
In 1998, Daisuke Matsuzaka delivered a 250-pitch, 17-inning effort one day after hurling a 148-pitch complete game. He appeared in relief the next day and then pitched a no-hitter in the tourney final the day after that. It is considered one of the greatest performances in the history of Japanese sports. Famed film director Masahiro Shinoda has declared Koshien players to be “Japanese gods.”
Observers have called the high school game in Japan an “ode to fighting spirit,” a “celebration of the purity and spirit of Japanese youth,” and a stirring display of magokoro, or utter devotion to a cause. Evidence to that effect is everywhere, and not just on the mound. Shaven-headed youths march lockstep into the stadium, regional flags held proudly aloft, and make a fierce vow to uphold the spirit of the sport. Games, played in furnace-like temperatures, feature a profusion of maniacal head-first slides, batters streaking wildly to first base on ordinary walks and teams dashing madly on and off the field between innings. Students play with such intensity that the losers unashamedly break into tears.
In the stands, rival cheer groups in black school uniforms, yelling through plastic megaphones, wage a vocal battle as intense as the one on the field. Mini-skirted pom-pom girls and student brass bands add their all-out support. By midday, temperatures are so brutal that majorettes’ batons and the players’ metal bats become too hot to handle if left in the sun.
Olympian standards of decorum are also on view. Dubious umpiring calls go unchallenged. Hit batsmen receive an apologetic bow from the pitcher and the sacrifice bunt is laid down at every conceivable opportunity. At the end of each contest, the participants immediately dash to home plate, where they line up, remove their caps and bow deeply to one another. In post-game interviews, students answer questions with the ramrod deference of military academy plebes. Such behavior, school officials will tell you, is part of the participants’ education.
A grueling regimen
For the athletes, the tourney is the culmination of a grueling regimen of training that reflects the Ichiko ethos, one that is evident in most high school sports clubs in Japan, Players train all year several hours a day. They are forbidden to have girlfriends. Junior members must perform such edifying tasks as scrubbing floors or cleaning toilets. A famous story involves Kyojin star Kazuhiro Kiyohara who made the starting lineup as a sophomore and hit a home run in his very first game. He rounded the bases and came back to the dugout with a broad grin on his face, only to be slugged by the team captain, a senior, who warned him not to get a big head.
Playing in a Koshien tourney can be a ticket to success. Those who don’t get lucrative pro contracts after graduation can still get good positions as well-paid employees of corporations that maintain teams in Japan’s semi-pro industrial leagues. Moreover, just the fact that a man has appeared in Koshien means he will be honored for life in Japanese society.
In the past, concerned individuals have made suggestions to make the summer tournament less of an ordeal. Some have proposed moving the locale to Hokkaido where summers are cool as a way of avoiding the sauna bath heat of Osaka, a heat island which is about 4 C hotter than it was more than a hundred years ago when the tourney first started. But surveys show that players, coaches, parents, supporters and all other groups would rather keep the tourney right where it is despite the heat. The prestige of playing in Koshien Stadium is too great to surrender.
Americans who know about Koshien have called the Japanese system “child abuse.” U.S. sports doctors, for example, maintain that the pitching required of team aces in the Koshien tourney is bad for the arm. The California Interscholastic Federation, for example, limits a pitcher to no more than 30 outs a week, roughly 120 pitches. However, here too, Japanese officials have steadfastly refused to change the system, save for recently adding an extra day to play the quarterfinals.
The above-referenced surveys support their decision. For everyone, from the man on the street to the governor’s office, winning at Koshien is simply too important. You will also hear people say that without those great displays of endurance and suffering the tourney would lose its meaning.
The current record holder for pitches thrown in a summer tournament, Yuki Saito, logged 948 pitches over two weeks in 2006, leading his school, Waseda Jitsugyo High School, to the championship. Saito later suffered arm trouble and thus far has had only a mediocre career in the pros. But he insists that he has no regrets. “I won Koshien,” he was quoted as saying. “There is nothing higher.”
Said the well-known writer Masayuki Tamaki, “Koshien is basically a big festival. It’s like Gion. Only its dedicated to spirit and guts. I doubt it will ever change.”
Best-selling author Robert Whiting has written baseball classics “You Gotta Have Wa” and “The Meaning of Ichiro.”