As our World Series begins, so does another on the other side of the world. Mike Kasdan shares his baseball memories from The Land of the Rising Sun.
This past weekend, I got news that my beloved Tigers had defeated their arch-rival Giants and were headed to the World Series for the first time since 2005!
Yes, yes. I realize that the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco are squaring off in the World Series that most of us are talking about. But I’m talking about the Japan World Series. The operative Tigers here are the Kobe, Japan-based Hanshin Tigers.
In 2008 and 2009, I lived in Kobe, Japan with my family, while working for Panasonic (then still called Matsushita) in Osaka.
I didn’t expect baseball to be such a big part of my experience living in Japan, but it was. Sure, there was the occasional Sumo Tournament. But the most beloved sport is baseball. And the Kobe area is the home of the Hanshin Tigers. We didn’t stand a chance but to fall for them.
Baseball is a bit different in Japan. It is colorful and loud. In Hanshin Tigers lore, there is The Curse of Colonel Sanders. Musical bands blare to non-stop raucous cheering while the Tigers are up at bat, as giant flags wave in the outfield. It is different. The concept of “wa,” i.e., team harmony is still paramount. Small ball – the bunt, the hit-and-run – is still very much alive. It was a different brand of baseball, and we fell in love with it.
What follows are a handful of baseball-related posts from my personal blog I kept while living abroad. They cover three different types of baseball experiences, ranging from high school baseball to industrial (company) league baseball to the pros.
As the “World” Series starts in the U.S., and the Tigers head to the Japan World Series, it feels like a good time to take a look back.
High School Baseball (Nagasaki, Japan)
Unlike in the U.S., high school baseball is the highest form of baseball. It’s pinnacle is the summer tournament, played in Koshien Stadium in Kobe. To try to understand its epic popularity, imagine the Little League World Series, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, and the World Series all put together. Over the summer, I traveled by myself one weekend to Nagasaki. I took in the famed “Peace Park,” but across the street, I heard the sound of baseball . . .
As it turns out, the Peace Park area is close to the Nagasaki Prefectural Sports Complex, a beautiful facility that includes a track, soccer fields, indoor olympic size swimming pools, and a huge baseball stadium called “The Big N.” There were lots of uniformed little leaguers running around, and I could hear something going on at the stadium. When I wandered over, I found a high school baseball tournament, and (taking a page out of our Hiroshima play-book) bought a ticket. It was a sparse but loud crowd, and I picked out a great seat on the third base line. Having just finished the superlative book You Gotta Have Wa, I was well educated about the elevated status that amateur baseball enjoys in Japan and of its Mecca, the Koshien Summer Tournament. The winner of this Nagasaki tournament was to represent the region at Koshien in August. This was serious high-quality baseball.
One of the highlights of my day was an older Japanese man, named Maeda, who sidled up to me and began to chat me up. He explained that he was a former baseball coach and English teacher, but had retired and now comes to watch high school baseball every day.
He was a true baseball man, and we spent a good part of the game talking about baseball in the U.S. and Japan. It was a true delight.
Industrial League Baseball (Osaka, Japan)
There are also company leagues that play competitive baseball. This is not your after-work pickup game. It’s more like independent league quality baseball. My work colleagues from Panasonic took me to check out the company team in the Osaka Dome one evening . . .
On Monday evening, we got to experience a different brand of Japanese baseball – the Japanese Industrial League. Panasonic (Matsushita Electric), owns an amateur baseball club that competes in this league against teams owned by many of the other large Japanese companies. Every summer, there is a large tournament, with the finals played in the Tokyo Dome. The Panasonic team is playing in the Osaka Region preliminary round, held at the Osaka Dome (大阪ドーム).
A co-worker of mine was good enough to translate an email that was sent to all employees urging them to go and take their families to cheer on the Matsushita team. Tickets were free and transportation was paid for. They just want those fannies in the seats. We took them up on that offer. (And we were without a doubt, the only gaijinthere).
The level of play is akin to the high minor leagues; many from this league are eventually drafted onto Japan’s professional teams. The atmosphere, however, is very similar to college sports, complete with raucous cheering and lots of team (company) spirit. They handed out Blue and Yellow Panasonic Fans to everyone on the Panasonic side (the first base line), which we beat and sang in unison. Much to Jacob and Lauren’s delight, there was a band, some guy whaling on a huge drum, and a mini-stage for the and male and female cheerleaders.
The two main cheers translated as “Beat NTT” and “Player X Get a Powerful Hit.” But set to music and in Japanese, it sounds much better! Every time we scored a run, it was like a 20 minute party, complete with insane cheering, including the waiving of flags and banners in Hiragana and Katakana (good reading practice!) and Kanji (below are the cheerleaders on stage unfurling banners with each syllable of MA-TSU-SHI-TA written in Katakana), pounding on our Fans, the singing of the company cheer, and the young band members taking a frenzied lap of our side of the stadium.
Lucky for us, the game itself was also very exciting. NTT got out to an early 3-1 lead, but Matsushita came back with single runs in the bottom of the 8th and 9th innings. Then in the bottom of the 10th, we pushed one more run across to win it on a walk-off bloop single. That’s how we roll at Matsushita baby.
Jacob was ecstatic with the come-back win. Lauren, who was dancing around with her eyes glued to the cheerleaders all game, also had a blast until she fell asleep on Ilena. She is only built for 9 innings.
The Pros: The Hanshin Tigers (Kobe, Japan)
The best baseball experience we had in Japan – and perhaps ever – was watching the Tigers at Koshien Stadium. Japanese league teams are allowed three non-Japanese players. Those players on the Tigers, from the U.S. or Australia or elsewhere, lived in our ex-pat community. Their kids went to school with our kids. And by their good graces, we often found ourselves with very good tickets to the Tigers games . . .
Well. We are officially Hanshin Tigers fans.
This afternoon (after a very nice Mother’s Day breakfast!), we went to our first Tigers game at Koshien Stadium. The tickets came courtesy of The Williams family; Jeff pitches for the Tigers, and his daughter is in Lauren’s class at school.
Koshien Stadium is the oldest and most famous of Japan’s ballparks. It often referred to as Japan’s Fenway Park. What a terrific place to see a game. Koshien is an old ballpark with a small feel to it. It has a mini “green monster” in centerfield, an old fashioned scoreboard, and green walls and girders. But it has been newly refurbished as of this year, giving it a clean new feeling.
The Tigers fans (torakitchi) have to be among the greatest sports fans in the world. The stands were packed on this sunny afternoon, everyone decked out in Tigers colors, with their thunder-sticks that are beat in unison to chants for each player when they are at bat. The chants are led by the band and flag wavers who sit in the bleachers. When the Tigers are at bat, it is constant energy and cheering for their favorite players, Kanemoto (clean-up hitting LF, now 40, but a productive player and major superstar for the Tigers over the years, recently getting his 2000th hit), Arai (number 3 hitter and run-producing 1B, an off-season acquisition for the Tigers this year; named Player Of The Month for the league in April), Akahoshi (speedy CF and lead-off man), and Toritani (slick fielding SS, among the league leaders in batting average this year).
We, of course, enjoyed the 7th inning stretch and post-game celebratory jetto fusen (the releasing of thousands of long balloons), after the singing of Rokko Oroshi (the Tigers’ fight song). On the train on the way home, Jacob was singing the only words of the song that we really caught – “Hanshin Tigers.” During the game, Jacob actually left us for a couple of innings and sat with the Williams family in the 3rd row behind the Tiger’s dugout.
In game action, the league-leading Tigers took this one, 3 to 1, relying on good starting pitching, timely hitting, and their famed “JFK” bullpen combination of Jeff Williams ジェフウイリアムス (LH setup man), Tomoyuki Kubota 久保田 (RH setup man), and KyujiFujikawa 藤川 (Closer). Today was Jeff’s first game back after being on the DL for most of the season. He pitched a scoreless 8th inning, showing off a filthy slider on a strikeout and inducing a double-play after giving up a bouncing ball single.
Along with Arai, Jeff was named player of the game (an honor which includes being interviewed on the field after the game – and all the fans stick around to listen to the interview and cheer!). Below is our picture of the on-field interview (see here for the Hanshin Tiger’s website version).
This was – without a doubt – our best baseball experience in Japan to date. And frankly, we can say that we prefer baseball at Koshien to baseball in the U.S. – smaller feel, more energy and excitement, the family-friendly atmosphere of the minor and independent leagues in the U.S., but the enthusiasm and fan-following of MLB.
Here are some notes about Japanese baseball (since we’ve now been to three different ballparks and four games):
- We love the beer girls; they are decked out in fluorescent green and orange uniforms, with kegs strapped to their backs. Hard to miss.
- One simple but great concept here in Japan (on the mundane side): Stadium employees walk up and down the aisles throughout the game with huge plastic bags for garbage. Everyone throws their garbage in. It really keeps the stadium clean.
- All the teams use English lettering for the player names on the backs of the uniforms. We don’t know why.
- The bands, cheering, flag waving, thunder-stick clapping is so much fun. It really makes baseball back home seem boring by comparison.
- The players are very fundamentally sound hitters. There is tons more small-ball here – working to manufacture runs. When a runner gets on with no outs, the next guy is almost always bunting him over to second.
- While not every player here could be a successful major leaguer, there is clearly talent here. For example, the Tiger’s closer Fujikawa definitely brings it. The superstars like Ichiro, Matsui, Matsuzaka, and now Fukodome (and a bunch of others) who have come overseas have certainly held their own in MLB. (There are now enough Japanese players in MLB for the local NHK sports to do a half-hour show on their daily performances.)
The Pros: The Hanshin Tigers Part II (Kobe, Japan)
Happy Memorial Day to all of our U.S. Readers! Although we don’t celebrate Memorial Day over here in Japan, Ilena and the kids were able to have a little picnic on Monday followed by an improptu swim in the fountains (while I was at work), and, later that evening, we were able to take in some Memorial Day baseball at Koshien Stadium. (Sort of, since Monday here was Sunday in the U.S., but whatever, you get the point). Anyway, thanks again to courtesy seats from the Williams’ family (3rd row behind the Hanshin dugout!), we enjoyed a terrific 2-1 extra innings victory by the Hanshin Tigers over the Seibu Lions in a great interleague play matchup of the respective League Leaders.
Although Jeff Williams didn’t pitch (he had pitched in the prior two games, the Tigers got some great starting pitching and then turned to the other 2/3 of their famed JFK bullpen (plus Watanabe, who got the win) and were able to squeak out a victory on a walk-off 2-out RBI single by Kanemoto in the 11th inning. (Incidentally, he beat the Lions Closer, Alex Graman, who was a former Yankee who never really panned out in the Majors).
We can’t help but continue to gush about Japanese baseball. We made fast friends with our outgoing (and increasingly drunk) Tiger-fan neighbors. The guy in front of us in the Yellow Tigers jersey had posters for every player and bought and downed a beer (literally) every half-inning. Every time we looked up it was like instant replay as he was chatting up the neon-clad beer girl and she was smiling as she poured another. Another of our buddies is the guy in the hat with the little stuffed Tiger on it. We all “conversed” in broken English and broken Japanese. And rooted like crazy!
Every time the Tigers had a batter up with a man in scoring position, which was often, the cheering and thunderstick combination of “Rasshai Rasshai (BOOM-BOOMBOOM) HEY! (BOOM-BOOMBOOM) HEY!” went up through the crowd, the home fans whipping themselves into a frenzy for every pitch. The coolest thing about the experience is the positive energy of the fans. They are so adoring. And there is no booing. Ever. They just love this team. And even though our friends were wasted, there was never any belligerence and they were friendly (and highly entertaining) throughout.
The only tough part about being a Tiger’s fan is that I can’t find a Jersey in my size. I’m dying for some gear, but the LL size in Japan just doesn’t quite fit comfortably across the shoulders. This is highly annoying.
Here are some pictures from the game. Shortstop, Toritani (No. 1):
My favorite player, Arai (1B, No. 25). He is off to a terrific start. He reminds me of a Japanese Andres Galaragga in his prime.
Kanemoto (OF, No. 6). The most popular of the Tiger hitters. Today’s “Hero of the Game.”
Here is the post-game on-the-field press conference with Kanemoto, flanked by the Tiger’s Mascots. The fact that EVERYBODY sticks around for the post-game press-conference and subsequent singing and cheering is really cool.
The Pros: The Hanshin Tigers, Part III (Kobe, Japan)
Back home, the Yanks are out of the playoffs for the first time in 13 years. While being in Japan hasn’t made us lose interest in New York sports, the mediocrity of this baseball season didn’t exactly have us rushing off to check the box scores everyday.
And we have really gotten into Japan League baseball, particularly of the Hanshin Tigers. Being friends with some of the players and their families has helped, as has their generosity with their tickets! The Tigers are a very likeable bunch too – steadfast RBI guy and longtime Tiger Kanemoto, quintessential lead-off man Akahoshi, young slugging first baseman Arai, slick fielding double-play combination Toritani and Hirano, and a stud bullpen. It also helps that Koshien is an amazing place to watch a ballgame, and their fans are among the loudest and the most devoted you will find anywhere.
This season, the Tigers got off to an amazingly hot start. Keyed by excellent starting pitching and relief work, and a great 1 through 5 in the lineup (including the Arai/Kanemoto 3-4 hole combination), it looked like they were going to run away and hide. In July they were up on the rival Giants by 13 games.
But since the Olympics, Hanshin has slumped badly. Arai hurt his back and disappeared, the pitching softened, and amazingly last week, the Giants swept the Tigers in a three game series and drew even in the standings. Now, with just the rain-out make-up games left, the Tigers and Giants are in a dogfightfor the Central League Pennant. Of late, the Tigers are back to playing better ball.
Today Arai finally returned, and in the bottom of the 8th led of with a single. Kanemoto followed with a home run, and it felt like the beginning of the season again. So, down the stretch we come…
The Pros: Yakult Swallows (Tokyo, Japan)
When we traveled to other cities, we got to see other teams. In Tokyo, the most popular and most winning team – Japan’s equivalent of the New York Yankees – are the Tokyo (Yomiuri) Giants. But when we visited friends in Tokyo, they took us to see another team, the Yakult Swallows, who played in a terrific outdoor park near a famous shrine. It was a perfect afternoon for baseball . . .
In Tokyo, we made our way to the Meiji Jingu area, not to visit the famous shrine, but to take in a baseball game at Jingu Stadium, a neat little outdoor stadium with the clearest big-screen scoreboard we had ever seen. (It is apparently also the only scoreboard in Japan that lists each players batting averages and HR totals during the game). It was a 6:20 start, and we got their at about 5ish. The skies were a perfect blue and the sun really started to shine. We picked up some noodles, edamame, and fried chicken outside the stadium as we filed on down the street with the late afternoon crowd.
The home-team Yakult Swallows were taking on the uber-famous Yomiuri (Tokyo) Giants. The game was a lot of fun. Lauren was a pip, and spent most of the game dancing in front of us. Jacob made friends with our neighbors, who tried to teach him the cheers. (Funny – the top gaijin player on Yakult is former major leaguer Aaron Guiel. I asked Bob and Maho to translate his cheer, because it sounded cool. Turns out it was English. Sort of: “GoGoRetsGo Ga-Eh-Ru” = Go Go Let’s Go Guiel.) In the actual game, the Yakult pitcher took a no hitter to the 9th inning, but the game was scoreless. With one out in the 9th, he gave up a double. He was left in the game. By the end of the inning it was 5-0 Giants. Heartbreaking. (Especially for Jacob, who had told us he was going to root for whichever team got to 4 runs first, but clearly was rooting for the home team).
One other funny thing from the game was that they handed out little bottles of bubbles to all fans. The kids were having fun blowing bubbles. In the 3rd inning, Bob translated a PA announcement requesting that no one blow bubbles during the game. (Well then, why hand out 40,000 bottles of bubbles!?) Of course, everyone listened. Except a certain set of blond children.
In the 7th inning of Swallows games, they do this funky umbrella song and dance. They also do it when they score runs (but since they didn’t score any, we only got to see this during the 7th inning stretch). We’ll leave you with this fun little video, of the famed Yakult Swallows Umbrella Dance.
After baseball in Japan, coming back home to baseball at Yankee Stadium was a big adjustment.
Back to a world when you cheer only when something good happened (instead of all the time). Back to a world with no balloons in the 7th inning stretch. Back to a world with no umbrella dance.
But back to a different world.
Photo Credits: Author