In the land of the Yomiuri Giants

In Tokyo Wednesday, a group of Americans engaged in a Japanese tradition more than a century old. The Americans are the Mets and the Cubs. The tradition is baseball.

Published March 29, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

The Chicago Cubs and the New York Mets began the 2000 baseball season Wednesday in Tokyo, with the Cubs winning the first of a two-game series, 5-3. For many Americans, the sight of baseball on Japanese Astroturf on the morning highlight shows was an unfamiliar one. But to me, Japanese baseball has always been a pastime, and to see the first regular season games played outside North America was just another twist in an unusual cultural import-export business.

When I was about 7, I became an unlikely consumer of an unlikely Japanese cultural product. Every morning, a public television station in New York would broadcast a two-hour Japanese-language morning show, with news, weather and talk. But I made sure to tune in at 7:25; just in time to catch the sports segment, often consisting only of day-old baseball scores and highlights.

I had been following baseball for a couple of years by this point, and I was a fan of the Mets -- my hometown team, about to become World Series champions. But here I was, entering a baseball culture nearly 7,000 miles away just because I happened to stumble upon it while channel surfing before school.

Unlike my tie to the Mets, my relationship with Japanese baseball was entirely inorganic. No town was my home, no team the hometown favorite, none of the company sponsors were familiar to me, and I hadn't been following the major leagues long enough to be able to recognize all the washed-up Americans dominating the Japanese game. I was watching it because I liked baseball, I was interested in Japanese culture and it was fascinating to see the two intertwined in a way I didn't entirely understand.

Who ever thought a ballgame could be so, well, foreign? The meeting of cultures on the baseball diamond began with the new openness of Japan's Meiji period (1868-1912), in the same way that the day's architecture -- with its conventionally Western forms and unquestionably Asian accents -- stood as a monument to intercultural cross-pollination.

But bats and balls were not brought over with Commodore Matthew Perry's black ships in 1853. Instead Japanese baseball grew in a fashion we would now call "grass roots": it traveled the Pacific with individuals.

It was Horace Wilson, a young American teaching history and English, who introduced the new American game to his students in the early years of the Meiji period at Tokyo's Kaisei Gakko. Similarly, it was Albert Bates, an American teacher at Kaitaku University in Tokyo, who organized Japan's first formal baseball game in 1873. And it was Hiroshi Hiraoka, a railway engineer who became a Red Sox fan while a student in Boston, who in 1883 founded the nation's first team, the Shimbashi Athletic Club Athletics.

Before baseball, the Japanese had no conception of leisure sports. Sumo wrestling had its origin in religion, part of Shinto rites, as early as the fourth century. Other athletic pursuits, such as horseback riding, swimming and kendo all began as part of military training.

The idea of athletics solely for the fun of competition did not exist, and baseball's early years in Japan seem charged with a certain combativeness that shows a country unsure of how to accept sport (although, to be fair, we see combativeness also in countries entirely comfortable with sport, such as with English soccer).

In 1891, when an American named William Imbrie hopped an outfield fence considered sacred by Japanese players, he did more than interrupt a ballgame. The game broke out into a riot; Imbrie was attacked and his face left bloody. Cultural and diplomatic chaos ensued, and to this day the Imbrie Incident is remembered as a turning point in Japanese society.

Around this time, Japanese journalists and politicians began to criticize baseball on moral grounds, some going so far as to label it "a pickpocket's sport" and to declare, "those who like baseball are those who think prostitution is good."

But (metaphor alert!) just as the Meiji Era buildings that embodied the architectural give and take between East and West were in large part destroyed during the American firebombing of Tokyo during World War II, the unifying force of baseball became a source of division during the war.

When Babe Ruth visited Japan as part of a touring cavalcade of American stars in 1934, a team that included Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx, he was heralded by the Japanese as a star without parallel. But less than 10 years later, in the jungles of Asia, "To hell with Babe Ruth!" was a common cry of Japanese soldiers.

Anyway, there I was at 7, witnessing trans-Pacific intercultural transmission, round-trip included. Of course, this was in New York, a city with plenty of good baseball of its own: two big-league ball clubs and hours and hours a day of major-league highlight reels on television. At first, one wonders how a transplant from Tokyo could come to New York and not find enough baseball to satisfy his fix. But people were not watching the 7:25 a.m. recap for just a baseball fix; they needed a Japanese baseball fix.

Many Japanese living in the United States maintain a strong cultural connection to their homeland. The sports link is a direct connection to the quotidian events of Japanese life, unlike static rituals such as the removing of shoes when entering a home or even a tea ceremony, following baseball is a constantly developing drama that cannot be practiced in isolation.

Japanese-Americans frequently adhere to these rituals and institutions in their own home, without interacting with a neighbor who could be doing the same thing in the privacy of his own home, but the 7:25 highlight reel was something that was shared. At the tender age of 7 I had wandered into an expatriate community of the media age.

Many years later, I went to my first Japanese baseball game -- last summer -- at the Tokyo Dome, affectionately known by fans as the "Big Egg."

It was an important game; the home Yomiuri Giants have a pedigree and domination over the years that make them the closest thing to a Japanese version of the Yankees, although they have been off their game in recent seasons. The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper founded the Dai Nippon Tokyo Yakyu Kurabu (the Great Japan Tokyo Baseball Club) in 1934, two years before the Japan Professional League was brought into existence.

The visiting Yokohama Bay Stars (only in a country of non-native English speakers could a team get a name like that) had to travel only 30 miles or so up the bay. This also meant their fans came with them, making a nearly even balance of supporters between the two teams.

Unlike their American counterparts, Japanese fans have found a way to be loud without being rowdy, intense while remaining restrained. With such a hometown rivalry, the outfield bleachers became a specimen of self-imposed Jim Crow seating arrangements; Giants fans took the right-field side and Bay Stars fans took left field.

Numerous fans in each section came with their own drums and percussion, which were beaten continuously for the entire half inning when their team was batting. Then the other team was up and it was time for their fans to pick up the beat, while the other side fell silent. This meant that for the whole game, there was never a moment of quiet. It was like being stuck in a three-hour version of "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida."

It was a great game. The Giants launched a late comeback and managed to win, keeping the energy high until the end and leaving the home fans happy. I had finally seen a real Japanese ballgame, and the team I was rooting for won. The game was fun, but the result didn't concern me. I did not feel in any visceral way satisfied by knowing the Giants had won. All I could think about was finding an evening paper to see how my Mets had done the night before.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Weeks before they left New York for the 14-hour flight to Tokyo and today's game, Mets players were already complaining about the rigors of long-distance travel and jet lag. The team even had a clock installed in the clubhouse during spring training displaying local time in Tokyo.

And though the games at the Tokyo Dome are being broadcast in New York on both television and radio, I don't think anyone is expecting big ratings; even the most die-hard Mets fans will have trouble rousing themselves for a 5:05 a.m. first pitch -- New York time.

I, however, will be enjoying both games, sitting comfortably in front of the TV. I'm used to baseball over breakfast.

By Sasha Issenberg

Sasha Issenberg is the author "The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns" and "The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy"

MORE FROM Sasha Issenberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------