An American game of baseball typically includes a wild crowd trying to catch every foul ball, an abundance of hot dogs, and a winner and a loser. In Japan, baseball games feel very different. Fans throw back the foul balls to the home team to show respect, fast food menus include bento boxes and sushi, and games may end in a tie.
On a recent trip to Japan, I attended the game between the Tokyo Yakult Swallows and the Chunichi Dragons on April 7 at the Jingu Stadium in Tokyo. Attending this game was a culture shock!
Baseball is the biggest sport in Japan. The Nippon Professional Baseball league has 12 teams across the country, far fewer than the 30 in major league baseball. The teams in Japan are owned by and named for large companies —for example, the Rakuten Eagles, Softbank Hawks, and Hanshin Tigers — unlike in the US, where teams are named after cities and typically owned by individuals.
One of the more remarkable traditions in Japanese baseball is oendan, the baseball fan club. Each team has its own oendan. You have to write an application to be accepted into it.
“Horns are blowing, fans are cheering like in a soccer game,” said Tony Barnette, the pitcher of Yakult Swallows, who was also a former player for the Arizona Diamondbacks. “It is much louder than an American Baseball game. In the States, when something good happens, fans get loud. But here, it is loud from the first pitch to the last pitch.”
Although the temperature was nearly 46˚F at the Swallows-Dragons game, loyal fans came bundled up in their jackets. The oendan for both teams had designated sections and sat on the opposite sides of the stadium. They led the cheer and have a specific chant for each player. Almost all of the chants repurpose Japanese pop songs with lyrics changed to incorporate the players’ names. I enjoyed watching the fans as much as the game.
People were singing and chanting throughout the game. They were also banging mini hollow baseball bats to make noise. “Fans will come out and support us no matter what,” said Barnette. “When I am on the mound, it builds me up.”
I was especially amazed by the politeness of Japanese fans. In America, heckling the other team while they are at bat is a sport in and of itself! But in Japan, when the Dragons batted, all the Swallows fans kept quiet, and vice versa.
The games in Japan end after the 12th inning, even if there is a tie. Most stadiums don’t have big parking lots and people commute to the games by subway. If the games were to go late and end after the subway shut down, people wouldn’t be able to get home.
As I walked around the stadium, I saw few hot dogs and beers. Instead, there were udon noodles, sushi, bento boxes, and sake. Along the aisles were beer girls wearing neon colors and carrying kegs on their back.
Believe it or not, they also have a mid-game trash pick-up where people walk around and collect trash to keep the stadium clean.
The salaries of the Japanese players are a lot lower than the MLB players. The players don’t ask for very high salaries because they believe that will place their interests ahead of the team. Also, the players/coaches rarely leave their team even if they are offered more money because this is considered disloyal.
While baseball is huge in both U.S. and Japan, the cultural differences in such a recognizable sport are amazing. I can’t get the chants out of my head. “Go, Go. Let’s Go!”