Time was when baseball was the American pastime. It may still be in name, but recently football and basketball have broken away to the top of the American psyche. Baseball is still a major sport, but it no longer holds the urgent, most relevant place in the nation’s heart.
Hop the Pacific Ocean to Japan. Here, baseball has deep roots and a culture unto its own. The major leagues see the fruits of Japan’s baseball culture with the yearly all-world exports that come to America. The culture that is spawning these talented ballplayers runs deep. It’s baseball, but it’s also not an exact copy of the American version. It’s not even called baseball for starters. It’s YAKYU. It has its own rhythm, tradition and strict belief system born out of the Japanese spirit.
Japan has made the game of baseball their own. Transforming it into its national sport on its terms.
Baseball is everywhere. Walk down the streets any day of the week and you’ll notice packs of young ballplayers, in full uniform and helmets traveling around like rabid baseball gangs. With bat bags and gear in tow, they travel in full team packs. They head to and from practice. They stop and take shadow cuts in the alleys. They worship the game. A visual reminder of how pervasive the game is.
On the subways, people of all ages wear the hats of their favorite Japanese league teams. Young school kids hang stuffed team mascots from their backpacks. On game day, people will fully gear up in uniform, hat, holding tenants or plastic team bats. More baseball worship throughout the city.
On Saturdays, working men and women turn out to the local ballparks, in full uniform, to play the game. Here they use a rubber ball and sometimes play double or triple headers. These fully uniformed men and women, looking like pros, glide by on their bikes or scooters, racing to assemble at the fields. Many of them play for corporate, company sponsored teams. They play other companies. Coming together over baseball.
Locals stand and populate the bleachers, watching the hyper local leagues play their games. The talent level is amateur, but it’s full on baseball. Minus the hardball. But they keep at it, weekend after weekend. Holding onto the game in their way. Going through the routines. Swinging bats and limbering up before the game. Watching the previous game finish up. Communing with the gods of baseball. Or Yakyu rather.
In summer, the nation turns its psyche towards Koshien—the all Japan high school baseball tournament that dominates all media. Stars here become legends that endure for decades. Baseball in Japan rewards its followers with immortality.
As I pass by these Saturday games and observe them from the outside of the fence, I tip my cap to their diligent diamond worship. In a country where sport doesn’t hold the same cultural significance as it does in the west, there is something deeply significant with Japan’s connection to baseball. The inspiration and nostalgia moves me. All hail the national pastime. To Yakyu, the vehicle which transports the Japanese spirit. And every weekend, it gains a head of steam, rounds third and heads for home.