The other night I ate three hot dogs, nibbled on fried chicken, and sat back to enjoy a baseball game. America? No. Japan!
I had always heard the Japanese are obsessed with baseball and that it’s their #1 sport by far. After watching the Tokyo Swallows play their visiting opponent, I can certainly corroborate this rumor and even add to it: Japanese baseball fans far outdo American baseball fans in every dimension.
First, baseball is baseball, same in Japan as in America. In Japan they use many English expressions (first base, second base, strikeout, catcher, pitcher, etc.) and play by the same rules. The difference is in the atmosphere of the stadium as the game is being played. Both teams had huge bleacher-seating fan sections all of whom cheered for every batter during every inning. This is not just random cheering, it’s highly organized. Think college football games, except pull people from all ages and demographics. Everyone had noise makers and shirts. Businessmen in suits pulled a jersey over their shirt and tie. Old women screamed their hearts out.
The collective nature of the cheering reflects Japanese culture of groupthink, not standing out, etc. I’ve never seen such a highly organized cheering machine in any other sports venue or game I’ve attended. Such a collective fan spirit means many people show up by themselves but instantly join in. The fans cheer while their players are batting. Then they sit down and are quiet the other half of the inning, again reflecting the Japanese value of respect and dignity for opponents.
Some other observations (I took some notes during the game):
- The cultural-straddling is fascinating. After the ceremonial first pitch the catcher shook hands with the kid who threw out the ball. Shaking hands is unheard of in Japanese culture but they probably adopted an American custom.
- One reason why the Japanese can invest so much pride in their baseball teams is they aren’t the minor leagues for other leagues. Europe football is the minor leagues for NFL. Since the MLB has its own minor league system, many of the best Japanese players stay in Japan and the fans know they’re seeing some of the best. In the seven innings I watched today I’d say the quality of play is at an MLB AAA minor league level, which is solid.
- Some of their cheers integrate English phrases, which is funny. "Let’s go" or "Yokurma, Yokruma, He’s our guy". English is obviously an influential language especially since it’s baseball. But in California some foreign phrases have also entered the vernacular (Livin’ the vida loca or "rapido"). In CA Spanish is the dominant foreign language influence.
- Globalization, globalization, I love it. In Japan, with non-English speaking fans saying "He’s our man," with Enrique Ingelsisas music playing on the stadium stereo.
- After someone hits a homerun the fans for the Swallows all held up little umbrellas. Nice touch. See picture.