A Brief History of the Rise of Baseball in Japan

April 21, 2009


Grant Eckert asked:

Sometime between 1867 and 1873, an American professor, Horace Williams, at what is now Tokyo University, is credited with introducing baseball to the country of Japan. Williams came to Japan to teach English and American History, but his sports interest is what has impacted Japan the most. Fellow American Albert Bates, teaching at Kaitaku University, organized the first baseball game in Japan.

The first Japanese baseball club, the Shinbashi Athletic Club Athletics, was organized in 1878 by a former U.S. student who was a fan of the Boston Red Sox. By 1896, the skill of the still amateur players was demonstrated during the first international baseball game played between Ichiko team from Tokyo’s First High School and an American team organized at the Yokohama Country and Athletic Club. The Japanese had challenged the Americans to the game and were not taken seriously. The American spectators jeered and booed the Japanese at the thought that they could beat Americans at their ‘national pastime.’ The Japanese team soundly defeated the Americans.

During the years between 1903 and 1934, amateur baseball in Japan was wildly popular. University teams were vying with each other in the Sokeisen, between Waseda University and Keio University; and at the Summer Koshien or National High School Baseball Championship as well. The National High School Baseball Invitational Tournament or Spring Koshien began in 1924. Many senior high schools in Japan participate in the National High School Baseball Championship and or the National High School Baseball Invitational Tournament. The tournament is named after Koshien Stadium which was built in 1922 and is the oldest of the Japanese stadiums. The stadium seats 55,000 people and still has grass, unlike most other stadiums in the country which have astro-turf.

Professional baseball in Japan can be traced back to 1920, although the first professional league was not organized until 1936, consisting of six teams. The first professional team was created by Shouriki Matsutarou and is now known as the Yomiuri Giants. The current highest Japanese professional competition is Nippon Professional Baseball, created in 1949 consists of four leagues. The year 2005 marked the foundation of the Shikoku Island League. Japan fielded a franchise known as the Tokyo Dragons as part of the now defunct Global League in 1969. An effective minor league in Japan is formed by corporate sponsorship of employee teams that play in local leagues and for a national championship.

There was a professional women’s baseball league as well. Beginning in 1952, the women’s teams took part in semiprofessional leagues until early in the 1970s. The Japan Women’s National Team took silver medals at the Women’s Baseball World Cup in both appearances.

Japanese youngsters in the Little League World Series have won five of the championships and have placed second three times. As of 2007, the Japanese championship team will not be required to win an Asian regional competition, but will proceed directly to the Little League World Series.

The Big Six University League was the organizational structure for baseball in Japan from the 1900’s through the 1930s. Now, at the university level, the All-Japan University Championship is an annual competition for school teams.

In the search for stronger competition, a Japanese team from Waseda University traveled to the United States in 1905. Three years later, the baseball team from the University of Washington returned the visit and played in several games that became the pattern of international interest in the sport of baseball. 21 American college teams made the trip to Japan and several Japanese teams made the return journey to the United States. Professional players from the United States, including Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb, also toured and played exhibition games in Japan.

In 1934, during Ruth’s visit, 75,000 spectators jammed into the Koshien Stadium to see the MLB stars. Internationally, the Japan national team has won three Olympic medals, two Intercontinental Cups, and captured medals in six Baseball World Cups. The outstanding star quality of the Japanese baseball players has now made many Americans newly aware of the history of Japanese participation in the American national pastime. In particular, activities of Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, and other players from Japan who have been playing in the major leagues have heightened interest in the history of the sport in Japan.

Intense nationalism in Japan in the years previous to World War II saw some major changes in baseball in Japan, but following the War, the interest in baseball play resumed and has been an integral part of Japanese life ever since.

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