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A statue honoring the birth of Japanese baseball stands in front of Bachelor Hall in Chiyoda Ward.

A statue honoring the birth of Japanese baseball stands in front of Bachelor Hall in Chiyoda Ward.

Introduced to Japan nearly 150 years ago, baseball has woven itself into the fabric of its adoptive culture to an extent rarely seen elsewhere.

From the Little League World Series to the World Baseball Classic, the Major Leagues to Nippon Professional Baseball, the crossover of talent and exchange is unprecedented in any other sport.

International play can be traced back to the very beginning of professional baseball in Japan, when American all-stars—including such greats as Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Ty Cobb—toured Japan to play against their counterparts. In recent times, Japanese players such as Hideo Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki, and Daisuke Matsuzaka have enjoyed tremendous success in the United States, while players like Leron Lee, Tuffy Rhodes, and Greg “Boomer” Wells notched remarkable achievements in Japan.

Although the game is played under essentially the same rules in both countries, there are a great many differences at the practice and game levels.

New York native Dennis Sarfate, a former Major League pitcher and current reliever for the defending Japan Series champions, the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, is another player to have found success in Japan.

Asked about the difference between baseball in Japan and the US, Sarfate notes: “They live by practice; practice is number one and the most important thing. The game is the reward—and that’s great and all—but when practice overtakes all of your effort, then you’re spent for the game.

“Another difference is weight training. Major League players are a lot bigger than players here, as we take weight training as our way of preparing; whereas guys here aren’t really into it. They’re more into running; these guys can run for hours, something I’m not built for.”

John E. Gibson, co-host of the Japan Baseball Weekly podcast and a sportswriter who has been covering Nippon Pro Baseball since 1995, says: “When I first came to Japan in 1990, I was surprised at how small the players were compared to those in the US. There are still guys who are 5’7″, 5’8″, or 5’9″ that are considered big-name players, but aren’t big in stature. It was also a shock to see that they don’t really have strong outfield arms; they can’t throw the ball well from the outfield.”

While Major League players value the benefits of practice, the levels of intensity of their workouts are nowhere near what is typically seen in Japan.

“Because of all the work they do before the game, they’re never going to be at full energy for the game because they’re already tired—whether they think they are or not,” another baseball insider notes.

“You can see a steady change from the beginning of the season to the end; if you watch the foreign players that come over here for the first time trying to buy into the Japanese system and take every swing or every pitch, as well as all the work on the side, they’re going to get tired as the season goes on,” Sarfate adds.

On the general play of the game, Gibson notes: “The pitching is very different. The Japanese will throw any kind of pitch in any kind of count, whereas in the US the philosophy is that if a pitcher gets into trouble, he should throw a pitch that is easy to control; that means a fastball that they will try to spot, trying to get the batter to miss or hit poorly.”

Speaking about the aspect of the Japanese game with which he is most impressed, Sarfate says: “Their hand-eye coordination is off the charts; they can foul pitches off just for the sake of fouling them off, which is frustrating as a pitcher. Another thing is their dedication. While American players are dedicated, the Japanese just spend so much more time each day preparing themselves.”

Gibson adds: “On the defensive side, the Japanese are generally very sound. They are always in the right position and they do really well with the footwork to get themselves in position to make the plays.

“At the plate, they are very good at making contact; they don’t strike out a lot. There are even some guys who work on fouling pitches off so they can stay up there long enough to see more pitches—to get used to the pitcher and have a better chance of getting a hit.”

Asked about what things Japanese could do to improve their overall performance, Sarfate explains: “Pitchers need to long toss more. I don’t think they do it enough, as it’s definitely a way to improve strength.”

Gibson notes that there is a difference in culture, saying: “I think they need to play more than one sport; they choose one sport when they are eight years old and focus only on that sport. I think they miss the benefits that could be gained playing other sports, and I think they get burned out.”

Repeating something that is heard about the Japanese in other sports, Gibson feels a lack of creativity could hold some players back on the global stage. “They’re not creative because their coaches in school don’t really allow for it, making them predictable.

“In Japan, when you see a guy get to first base, you can expect the next batter to bunt, even if he’s a cleanup hitter or in the heart of the lineup.”

Speaking about what the Japanese game has to offer the world, Sarfate says: “I think that Japanese baseball is more team-oriented than anywhere else. You can see it in the first inning when a guy gets on with a leadoff single and they bunt him around.

“The game is about sacrifice and the team here; if someone is a bad seed, they aren’t going to keep him around. You see guys get sent home and not come back despite having had a good season.”

Gibson adds: “The game is very team oriented here. In the US you see the big boys on the team who make the big bucks and they are expected to produce, whereas in Japan anyone can be the hero and they just want to win. Major League players could learn from that; making more sacrifices for the good of the team.”

Speaking about the differences between fans in the US and Japan, Sarfate says: “The Japanese are true fans; they come to the game, cheer their team, and stay until the end of the game. They know exactly what is going on in the game. American games have become social outings; fans stay for five innings just so they can put it on social media. It’s also become a thing in the States where people buy tickets just so they can trash talk and say things they would never say to a person outside of the stadium.

“Japanese fans are amazing, and I’ve never been disrespected by any fan in Japan, whether of a visiting team or a home team.”

Gibson comments on the organized cheering groups found in Japan: “The oendan are organized cheer sections, taking turns cheering their teams on. Many foreign players come to Japan and are surprised at how loud the crowds are; there’s a band playing for each team while they are at bat.”

To see these differences in action, attend a game live in Japan, watch Major League games on TV, or catch international events such as the World Baseball Classic.

Despite differences in style of play, philosophy, and fan support, baseball transcends culture, language, and politics in a way few other sports can.

The 2013 World Baseball Classic was held at eight venues, including San Francisco’s AT&T Park.

The 2013 World Baseball Classic was held at eight venues, including San Francisco’s AT&T Park.

James Souilliere has been living, writing, and editing in Japan for 25 years. He currently works in the editorial department at The Japan Times.
The game is very team-oriented here … Major League players could learn from that.