Japan’s Great American Pastime

An announcer and the Tokyo Yakult Swallows mascot, Tsubakaro, address the fans at Meiji Jingu Stadium during their game with the Hanshin Tigers.

Whether you are a sports fan or not, there is no denying that how we enjoy sporting events says something about us as a people: When we cheer for our favorite player or tell our friend that his favorite team stinks, we are also telling others about ourselves. Our favorite players tell people what qualities we admire, and our favorite teams can say something about our loyalty or some special connection to the place where we are from. After all, how many OSU Beavers fans do you know from Eugene? Probably not as many as you know from Corvallis.

Japan has two national sports, and I was lucky enough to see them both in my first two weeks here in Tokyo. Sumo wrestling is the official national sport of Japan, but the most popular sport in Japan is by far baseball. How could the same nation be so in love with two completely different sports? What does this tell us about Japan?

Little League Baseball is a big time hobby for many Japanese children. American style baseball is by far Japan’s most popular sport, and games like this one are how baseball superstars like Ichiro Suzuki got their start.

Three sumo wrestlers leave the stadium, after their matches are over with.

We’ll begin with sumo wrestling. Professional sumo tournaments began in 1684, during Japan’s Edo period, which lasted from 1603 to 1868, and was important for Japan’s cultural development. During that time a few very important things happened in Japan. Under the rule of a man named Tokugawa Ieyasu, Japan closed its borders to other nations, developed very strict social rules, and grew its economy. After years of bloody war under previous rulers, Japan finally had a long period of peace – and because of isolation from other countries and a newly wealthy merchant class, many Japanese spent their time enjoying the arts. This period is when many of Japan’s traditional arts and sports became reinvented or revitalized, and it was then that the rules and traditions of sumo began to take shape.

I’m very lucky to have had many great teachers in my life, and one of my very favorite teachers is Portland State University Professor of Japanese Language, Drama and Literature, Dr. Larry Kominz. It’s thanks to him that I know everything that I do about Japan’s Edo period, because that’s his area of speciality – especially when it comes to Japan’s kabuki theater. Dr. Kominz is in Tokyo right now doing research, and I was lucky enough to have him take me along to both the sumo wrestling match and the baseball game that I attended. Study hard and be nice to your teachers, kids – you never know what kind of crazy things can happen!

Dr. Larry Kominz has been one of my favorite professors at Portland State University, and for the past few weeks he’s been my guide to Japanese sporting culture.

In sumo, each wrestler tries to force his opponent outside of a circular ring, either by throwing him, pushing him, or lifting him up off of his feet. Here’s a short video clip of sumo wrestlers in action:

When I went to see sumo myself, I was amazed at how much history was in front of me – for instance, before beginning a match, wrestlers still throw handfuls of salt into the ring to purify it, just as they have for hundreds of years. This practice is part of the shinto religion, which is important in sumo’s history. In fact, all of the things that you saw in that video that made you wonder “why are they doing this crazy stuff?” are very important rituals that have been preserved and passed down throughout the centuries. So why are these rituals important?

The many changes that Japan went through during and after the Edo period have influenced what you might call two different ideas about what Japan is: One idea of Japan is that it is very traditional, and another is that it is very modern. But the reality is that Japan is both very traditional and very modern at the same time. It would be much easier to think about one version of Japan: Samurai and geisha, or businessmen and anime. This more complex idea of Japan, as a place that is both modern and open to the rest of the world, while also being traditional and closed off, is harder to think about, isn’t it? But it’s the only explanation for why the people who love the traditions of Japan’s own  national pastime (sumo) would go this wild for America’s national pastime (baseball).

The song that these fans are singing is just one of the dozens of songs that I heard them sing that night. In fact, each player has his own song that fans sing, with a little help from the man you see in the red shirt, who gives them cues on what to sing. I’ve been to many professional baseball games in America, and I can tell you that I’ve never seen fans like this before – these people are absolutely crazy for baseball.

A Tokyo Yakult Swallows fan waves the team flag, even while his team is losing very badly. This game wasn’t very well attended, because the season is almost over for the Swallows, but the fans still went wild.

Just like in America, many fans wear baseball caps and the jersey of their favorite player.

Even though the game was not a close one (the Swallows lost 12-0. Ouch!), the feeling in the stadium was electric. The fans never lost hope, and never lost their excitement for supporting their favorite players, even if that player was having a terrible night. Japanese baseball games are also very exciting because the action moves much faster than in American baseball. The pace is high, and when they do take short breaks, cheerleaders and mascots come out to dance and shoot t-shirts into the crowd out of a cannon.

Play ball!

During the Edo period, Japan began its long fascination with preserving and restoring its national arts and traditions, whether they be literature and poetry, tea ceremony, or sumo and martial arts. During this closed period, without any contact with the outside world, Japan became like someone who stops looking out their window and instead looks into a mirror. This focus on Japan as a “traditional” place is part of why the strange rituals of sumo are so important today – they remind the Japanese of an important part of their history and their cultural identity.

But the reality is that both before and after Japan’s “closed period,” which ended in 1868, the nation admired and borrowed from many other cultures. The Japanese admiration for American style baseball is only one small example of Japan’s status as a nation that is fully involved in multicultural exchanges of art and sport. When going to the stadium to enjoy their own take on America’s national sport of baseball, Japanese people are reinforcing the other idea of Japan that we talked about – the idea of a “modern” nation that is open to the world, and open to the changes that come from being a part of it.

Both sumo and Japanese baseball are incredible experiences that I hope all of you will have one day. I intend to experience them both again before my time in Tokyo is up.

* A note about comments: I just wanted to thank you for all of your comments last week! From now on, I’m going to try something a little different. You guys leave all of your comments just like before, but instead of responding to them all online, I’m going to make a short video and post it every Friday morning, Portland time. That way, you guys can all watch a short video where I answer your questions and respond to comments.

Enjoy, and keep the great questions coming! Don’t be afraid to ask any questions that you guys have. Was my blog confusing? Did I use some words that you didn’t understand, or skip over things that you thought needed more attention? This is your opportunity to tell me what you want! I can’t fit everything into the blog, but if you tell me what you want to know and what you’re interested in, I can sure fit it into my video response to your comments. Thanks guys, you’re doing great.

**Correction: I’ve corrected two things in this post since it was originally made. I corrected the date of the “opening of Japan,” which is 1868, but was originally listed as 1858. I also corrected the final score of the baseball game, which was 12-0. Originally, I reported that it was 10-0, which was the score when we left the game.

I’m writing this note because in journalism, it’s important to admit when we make mistakes, and to correct any inaccurate information that we give to readers. Thanks for reading!

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About Josh

Part-time journalist & student of communication studies.
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14 Responses to Japan’s Great American Pastime

  1. Maisie says:

    It’s very interseting how a country can be considered tradition and modern, but i guess that in japan they blend nicely. It would be cool to still have similar culture than that of your grandparents, in class we watched a video about japan and just like you it talked about how japan is very modern and high tech while still having that sense of being old fasioned.I was wondering where sumo wrestling evolved from it was interesting to watch but i would not want to spend more than a few minutes watching it. It is funny how an American pastime can be so popular in Japan, a country completely different from our own. Another question; do you know what the people were saying in those chants at the baseball game?
    P.S. It is very cool of you to be helping us learn about Japan and it is cool to get a veiw from someone actually in Japan

    • autofact says:

      Maisie, thanks for the great comment. In ancient times, Sumo was held at the imperial court, and representatives from each province were required to come and participate in a “test of strength” that became sumo wrestling.
      Just like different states and cities have football and baseball teams that they send all over the place to represent the people from their home, sumo wrestlers represented people from their part of Japan, in the beginning. Watching sumo is very relaxing, and between matches you talk with you friends, walk around the stadium and grab snacks or drinks, and even buy cool merchandise. I bought some nice postcards to send back home.
      I will have to watch the video of the baseball chants again and see if I can translate any of it! Mostly they are yelling the names of the players, but they also yell other things. I’ll look into it!

  2. Greta says:

    I think it’s cool that people still partake in traditional sumo wrestling matches and keeping much of there traditions. As for the modern aspect, I really like the robots and cute stuff, all the little charecters and dolls are super kawaii!

    • Greta says:

      Also, what are some of your favorite new words you have learned recently. I think it would be really cool to get to learn a whole new languge and be able to use it like you are.

      • autofact says:

        Greta, since I’ve come to Japan I’m keeping a journal of new vocabulary words, and I’d say that I’m adding about 20 new words to it each day, at least. Here are a few of my favorites so far:
        厳し (Kibishi) – Strict, stern. I hear this one all the time walking around campus. “Kibishi sensei da yo,” (The teacher is strict!) is something you’ll hear a lot at a Japanese university.
        高田馬場 (Takadanobaba) – Who in the class thinks that they can say this three times fast? How about even one time fast? Takadanobaba is a part of Tokyo near my school, and there is a big train station there that we all go through each day. Most people call it simply “baba,” but I like to use the full name, because it’s got a neat meaning. The name literally means “high-rice field horse place.” Can you guess why? Well, Tokyo is near the ocean, and hundreds of years ago when people first started to move up to the higher plains, there was high Tokyo and low Tokyo, which was closer to the sea. And the “horse place” part? Takadanobaba was a popular place for samurai to practice traditional archery during the Edo period, and Japanese archery was traditionally done on horseback. So there you go!
        I’ll add more fun words for you guys later!

    • autofact says:

      Greta, thanks for the comment. I haven’t seen any robots since coming to Japan (well, not that I know of), but you’re right about all of the kawaii stuff – it’s everywhere! In fact, everywhere you go, from grocery stores to the police station, there are cute little characters and stuffed animals. The police have their own cute mascot, just like phone companies and just about everything else.
      Have you ever wondered why these mascots and ‘cuteness’ are so important in Japan?

  3. Justin says:

    Japan’s culture has changed throughout the years. They’ve advanced into the modern age from the feudal times. Have you noticed any traditional events/clothing during your trip?

  4. Rebecca says:

    I don’t really like baseball and in fact have no particular liking to any sort of sport at all… maybe I should take up Sumo wrestling? Ha ha… actually, are there women sumo wrestlers? It doesn’t seem like it, but all sorts of sports are being adapted for female players.
    Also, I like the video about the fans. What are they saying? I have heard some pretty weird songs and chants for sports teams…my brother’s high school basketball team has possibly the worst chant in the history of all sports. For any who wonder, ‘Mighty Cleveland High’ does not rhyme with ‘Mighty Cleveland High’.

  5. Shock000 (Gabe) says:

    I like cheese, and dodgeball , and cheese, and dodgeball, and cheese…

  6. Shock000 (Gabe) says:

    Tradition of Japan mixes with new tools to make life easier.

  7. Edil says:

    Sumo wrestling sounds fun to watch live! It’s similar to wrestling here in America. The baseball game also sounds really fun to watch. I was wondering, what teams were playing? Not that I would know any baseball teams in Japan but, i’m curious.

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