At the Tokyo Games, baseball has returned to the Olympics after a long break. The American sport is very popular in Japan, but it is interpreted like nowhere else.
“The players must behave like gentlemen on the field.” This statement is one of the first things that comes to American reporter Robert Whiting’s mind when he thinks of Japanese baseball. those Sportwhich has been more popular than any other in the East Asian country in recent decades, is played very differently here than in its country of origin United States. The same rules of the game apply in both countries. “But that’s where the similarities end,” Whiting writes in his book Baseball Samurai Style.
After 13 years of abstinence, the static game with big gloves and hard bats and balls is once again part of the Olympic program. In Japan No other competition is anticipated by the public as much as this one. Also because the American professional league MLB does not come second to the best players, the otherwise superior USA is considered beatable, Japan is therefore a hot candidate for the gold. But a tournament victory would mean much more to the host country than a gold medal. It’s also about a kind of culture war in sports in general.
In sports such as sumo, judo and karate, Japanese athletes bow before and after a match
Anyone who has observed Japanese athletes or teams, regardless of the sport, will always notice their fair play. In Japanese sumo, judo and karate, athletes bow before and after a fight. In tennis, Japanese players hardly ever complain about referee decisions. At the National Football Museum in central Tokyo, an entire section is dedicated to fair play awards won by Japan’s national teams of both genders. “We pride ourselves on playing fair,” the museum says.
This is especially important in baseball. After all, Japan is primarily competing here with the United States, which popularized the sport in the East Asian country about a hundred years ago. After Japan was destroyed in World War II by two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and several air raids on other major cities, the victorious USA issued a new constitution that forbade the country from maintaining an army. To this day, the United States is Japan’s big brother in terms of defense policy. Many in the country feel this is a humiliation.
Japan’s professional league is considered the second strongest in the world
This is one of the reasons why people stare across the Pacific in unarmed combat, in sports. The game, which is the national sport in both countries, repeatedly reveals the differences between the countries. For example, in Japan’s professional league, which is considered the second largest in the world, the code of honor dictates that players behave properly. And what is at most an expression in the US is taken at face value here: “If you make a mistake,” says Robert Whiting, “you take your hat off and apologize.” After all, Japanese players have to be role models for society as a whole – which is hardly expected as much from US players.
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In recent decades, several sports journalists and sociologists have wondered why baseball has become so popular in Japan that entire newspapers have specialized in it and the country’s largest media company, Yomiuri, has invested in record champions. Yomiuri Giants. And one reason is presented time and time again: No other sport emphasizes the interplay of individualism and collectivism, i.e. individual performance and performance as a team, in the same way.
Baseball has a duel in every game situation. The pitcher wants to throw the ball in such a way that the batsman cannot hit it and eventually has to stop. However, if the hitter manages to hit, he can go from base to base or even hit a home run. These individual situations are always implemented at the service of the collective. “You sacrifice yourself for the team,” says Jun Ikushima, a sports reporter at TBS, one of Japan’s leading television and radio stations.
The group Sacrifice Five has generally been well received in Japan
In Japan, a sacrifice made for the troops is generally well received. In companies, making collective decisions is at least superficially necessary. Lonely attitudes are not welcome in any country. Also in baseball, aging US stars who wanted to shine in Japan’s professional league for a few more years have hit their heads again and again. Anyone who no longer wants to train as hard or warm up with other players will soon be demoted to reserve. Such a failure of foreign stars is then not analyzed without satisfaction in the media. In contrast, anyone who makes it to the United States from Japan is looked upon with great pride as a prodigal. In early July, Shohei Ohtani, under contract with the Los Angeles Angels since 2018, made baseball history when he was selected to the All-Star Game as both a hitter and a pitcher. In addition to Ohtani, the Japanese Yu Darvish and Yusei Kikuchi were among the best. The media’s enthusiasm for this was so great that the controversies surrounding the Tokyo Olympics took the spotlight for a few days.
However, these three top Japanese players are not at the Olympics – and the US MLB is not stopping them either. This makes baseball a little less spectacular in the context of “Tokyo 2020”. But if Japan continues to cruise through the tournament as comfortably as it has so far and actually wins the gold medal next Saturday, it can at least be said that everything went well.