Baseball reached Japan the way it reached most of the rest of Asia, courtesy of missionaries and the military during the heady days of U.S. expansion. Commodore Matthew Perry arrived with his Black Ships in 1853 and forced the Japanese to end nearly three hundred years of feudal isolation and open their ports to the West. Little more than a decade later, the Japanese embarked on a national revolution, the Meiji Restoration, designed to unite the country under a strong central leadership and avoid foreign domination by embracing those areas such as education, technology, and military tactics where the West seemed superior.
During the early years of the Meiji Era (1867-1912), Horace Wilson, a young American brought in to teach history and English at Tokyo’s Kaisei Gakkô (now Tokyo University), introduced his students to the fundamentals of baseball. The exact date, even the year, seems lost in history. But it was some time between 1867 and 1873 because by the latter year, another American teacher, Albert Bates, is credited with organizing the first formal baseball game in Japan. That game was played at Kaitaku University in Tokyo and is widely accepted as the birth of baseball in Japan.
Few historians, and even fewer fans, realize that baseball was being played in China more than a decade before Bates organized the first game in Japan. Baseball can trace its roots in China back to at least 1863, when the Shanghai Baseball Club was formed, two generations before the collapse of the Qing Dynasty. But while baseball was confined mainly to the expatriate community and a scant few Western schools in China, the game was almost immediately popular in Japan–first among elite university students and later among the population at large.
By 1878, Japan had its first organized team, the Shinbashi Athletic Club Athletics, founded by railway engineer Hiroshi Hiraoka, who had become a die-hard Boston Red Sox fan while studying in the United States. By the 1890s, baseball was hailed as “the fastest-growing college sport” in Japan. And by 1922, University of Chicago coach and educator Nels Norgren declared baseball already had become “more the national sport of Japan than it is of America.”
A world war that pitted the baseball-loving lands of Japan and the United States against one another did little to slow the progress of the sport in Asia. If anything, the war quickened and legitimized devotion to baseball in Japan–and thence the rest of Asia. True, the dream of U.S. Army Major Roger B. Doulens still is a long way from reality. Doulens wrote to The Sporting News in March 1946 and painted a picture of the happy day–perhaps, he said, as early as 1955–when a shortstop for the Shanghai Spartans of the Yellow River League might be sold to the New York Giants for 500,000 Chinese dollars.
By 1955, Chinese dollars had fled the mainland to Taiwan. There were no Shanghai Spartans, no Yellow River League. And there certainly wasn’t a shortstop within a thousand miles of Shanghai who could displace Alvin Dark of the Giants. But nearly half a century later, amateur baseball is gaining a measure of popularity in China. A baseball stadium recently was built in Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. Professional baseball leagues–highly competitive leagues–flourish in Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Australia. And nearly every country in Asia and Oceania competes in both the amateur International Baseball Association and the worldwide Little League baseball program.
Just as in the Americas, where the United States is baseball’s foremost power, so, too, in Asia one nation dominates the sport. Japan is the keeper and guiding light of Asian baseball. The style of play and strategy, the reaction of fans and players–even the way games are officiated and reported–all mirror Japanese values, not American. That is why scoreboards in Japan, and across Asia, have an extra column labeled “B” for bases on ball. A walk may not count as an official at bat, but it helps the team and therefore deserves a place of prominence on the scoreboard.
In 1981, Masaru Ikei, professor of Japanese diplomatic history at Keio University, wrote: “Baseball, in Japan, though an imported sport, has been assimilated into the natural culture. Japanese values have suffused the sport.” Ikei, of course, was correct. But he could have gone further. Confucian values have become rooted in baseball and have helped define the game in Asia. The Great American Game has become the Great Japanese Game in Asia largely because the Japanese suffused it with social and cultural priorities that more closely mirror their society–and those of their neighbors–than they do in North, and even South, America, where all too often money means everything and “me” is more important than “we.”
To many baseball fans in North and South America, that might sound like heresy. But to most Japanese it is reality. The Japanese have done to baseball what they did to McDonald’s hamburgers. They have taken something once thought to be “uniquely American” and turned it into something that is, without question, “intensely Japanese.”
When McDonald’s decided to expand to Japan, the company chose as its partner a Japanese businessperson who was at once both rebel and conservative. Den Fujita broke the Japanese stereotype of the team player who owed his loya!ty and identity to one of Japan’s prestigious giant corporations. He was an aggressive entrepreneur who struck it rich at age twenty-five by starting his own business importing U.S.-made golf shoes and clubs. Yet Fujita was inherently conservative enough to understand and exploit the paradox of the Japanese, who envied the success of the West but cherished their own culture to the point of exclusion. “All Japanese have an inferiority complex about anything that is foreign because everything in our culture has come from the outside,” Fujita once said. “Our writing comes from China, our Buddhism from Korea, and after the war, everything new, from Coca-Cola to IBM, came from America. Japanese people are basically anti-foreigner. We don’t like the Chinese, we don’t like the Koreans, and we especially don’t like the Americans because we lost the war to them.”
Fujita knew those feelings, and he knew how to use them to make a success of McDonald’s. He created and carefully nurtured the impression that McDonald’s was for all intents and purposes a Japanese invention. A survey done in the 1970s confirmed that the vast majority of young people in Japan believed McDonald’s was a Japanese company. A similar survey done in late 1997 by Harvard University scholar James L. Watson revealed Hong Kong University students were unaware that McDonald’s was a U.S. company. And in an article written for Foreign Affairs magazine in 2000, Watson cited other examples of the “localizations” of McDonald’s, including a story about the children of colleagues from Taiwan and South Korea who were overjoyed to see the Golden Arches in the United States. “Look! They have our kind of food here,” an eight-year-old South Korean shouted.
Much the same kind of localization, acculturation, and assimilation has occurred with baseball. The Japanese took a foreign product and made it their own–then became a driving force, and comforting example, in helping the same thing happen in other areas of Asia.