Sports and Training Coming to Japan: Baseball

Sony Walkmans, Toyota cars, and Nintendo video games are all Japanese exports that Americans have come to know and love.

But in Japan, there is an American import that inspires more passion than all of those: baseball.

Officially, Japan’s national sport is sumo wrestling. But baseball is unquestionably number one in the people’s hearts. The Yomiuri Giants, Japan’s most popular professional team, play to standing-room crowds nightly–not only in their hometown of Tokyo, but all across the country. Organized rooting sections, led by cheerleaders and bands, rival those seen at U.S. college football games. And every summer, the whole nation tunes in to the national high school basball tournament–one of the biggest amateur sporting events in the world.

Some people find it surprising that Japan is taken with such a quintesentially American game. But the Japanese approach baseball with their own methods, psychology, and strategy. The result is a game that looks the same and is played with identical rules, but is uniquely Japanese–a mirror of the Japanese soul and mind. “I don’t know whether the Japanese system is better or not,” said Bob Horner, a former Atlanta Brave who played one season with Toyko’s Yakult Swallows. “I just don’t understand it.”

Japan first took to baseball in the late 19th century, when it began importing Western technology, methods, and ideas as part of an all-out effort to catch up to the U.S. and Europe economically. At the time, the Japanese had no team sports; sumo wrestling and martial arts, such as kendo and judo, were their main athletic activities. In fact, no word for “sports” existed in the Japanese language, so they took the English word and made it suppotsu.

The team concept of baseball was perfect for the Japanese, whose society puts the group ahead of the individual. At the same time, the game’s pitcher-versus-batter confrontation retained the one-on-one form of competition the Japanese liked about sumo wrestling and the martial arts.

SWORD PRACTICE

From the outset, the Japanese saw the game differently from Americans. Suishu Tobita, known as the “God of Baseball” in Japan for his success as a manager in the early 1900s, brought a martial-arts philosophy to the diamond. The game, he said, should be a quest “to attan the truth, just as in Zen Buddhism.”

Japan’s greatest home run hitter, Sadaharu Oh, used a samurai sword to practice his batting stroke. During games, he would imagine that his bat was a sword cutting the ball in half. (Oh hit 868 home runs in his career, surpassing the records of U.S. stars Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth.)

Most Japanese players, like the Japanese people themselves, believe that success is linked above all to hard work. From high school to the pros, teams train year-round, with pitchers throwing more than 100 pitches a day, even when their arms hurt.

Many American ballplayers who go to Japan think the Japanese train too hard, causing injury and fatigue. Professional leagues in Japan limit the number of gaijin (foreigners) to two per team, in part because the talents of American players still exceed those of the Japanese. Out of respect for their talent, the Japanese often excuse American players from participating in rigorous workouts. But when Americans question the value of such hard practice, the Japanese reply, “If Americans trained harder, they would be even better.”

Japan Is A Healthy Society

Its interesting to point out that although Japan is a very healthy nation, working out and fitness plans are not prevalent.  A poll showed that 40% of the population doesn’t exercise at all and 20% considered walking as their exercise. From my personal experience, I see asian Americans in the gyms all the time and some are well built.  So this points to the culture not being very into fitness, but not saying they don’t have it in them.  What the Japanese people are well know for is Martial Arts and other stress reducing exercises.  I spoke to an online personal trainer from eFitness Trainers and he explained the benefits of popular Japanese exercises such as yoga, martial arts, and Tai Chi.  He explained that they target more mental health, balance, and strength instead of size and sports training like we do in America.  I hope to visit more gyms and workout facilities in Japan and report more on the differences between Japanese and American fitness.

Japan is a very healthy society, but when people do get sick they spend a long time in the hospital, largely because of traditional cultural beliefs about nurturance and the importance of bed rest.  Specific prevention programs in the areas of substance abuse are not traditional, in that these problems are not common in Japan. However, there are perceptions that the frequency of such behaviors is increasing, and efforts to cope with them are being undertaken especially in major cities such as Tokyo. Student behavior in public places is sometimes monitored by parents, who warn students about the attendant hazards.  Because carious teeth were observed in more than 90% of students, mass screening for dental diseases is one of the most important components of the school health program. The health teacher must assemble the data on body weight, height, blood samples, and the results of mass screening to discover signs for such conditions as obesty, orthostatic dysregulation, scoliosis, and anemia.