Japan’s love for baseball is marvel to behold. What makes Japanese baseball so much fun? The best way to find out is to go see a game in person.
One April after work I headed to Yokohama to watch the DeNA Bay Stars compete against the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.
I suppose Yokohama is the “home team” for any U.S. Sailor stationed in Yokosuka. The Bay Stars currently rank first in the Central League of Japan’s top-tier professional baseball.
Arguably no country outside of the U.S. loves baseball as much as Japan. I might even go so far as to say the Japanese embrace it more. It’s fascinating, because in the early 20th century, baseball was “America’s Pastime”.
I LOVE THE U.S.! I AM PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN!
But oh, there’s so much fun in seeing how the Japanese do it.
How did baseball get to be so popular in Japan?
During the Meiji Restoration, the sport was introduced by American missionaries and teachers. Although its “official” arrival is 1872, it did not truly take off until after World War II. While soccer is rapidly growing in popularity after the Samurai Blue stunned at the World Cup, baseball continues to be the most popular professional sport in Japan.
More recently, Japan defeated the U.S. in the World Baseball championship. I will attest to the fact that many Japanese colleagues discreetly had their TV screens on during the game. They are not ones to gloat. They simply said with admirable modesty how pleased they were with their team’s performance.
Anyone who looks outside the train window or walks a few miles near their neighborhood will be hard-pressed not to see signs of baseball’s presence. Uniformed children play on school grounds Saturday morning, or (when it is raining) use the shelter of long walking tunnels to practice throwing balls. Baseball is everywhere.
Yokohama’s gorgeous outdoor stadium seats 30,000 fans. And it is world class.
Differences Between Japanese and American Baseball
Every culture that adopts something from another culture makes it their own. The same holds true of Japan. Here are just a few observations of the differences:
- Very few fans converse during a game. The Japanese are there to watch.
- Each team has a distinct clapping rhythm for each player. Get the clapping rhythm wrong, and you may get a suspicious look.
- Each team comes with its own musical section and drums.
- There is no heckling or jeering in Japanese baseball. The home team claps and chants when THEIR player is at bat.
- Watch what you wear! My Japanese colleagues gently informed me that if I wore the wrong colors in the designated fan section that stadium security might have a word. An American colleague confirmed that Security did indeed have a polite word with him when he sat in a designated fan section wearing the “wrong” colors.
- The fact that the sections are separated based on a fan’s allegiance reduces the likelihood of fights. It also makes it easier to cheer in unison.
Fans are expected to be courteous. When one section cheers, the other is silent.
Even the stadium announcer is scrupulously polite.
Foul ball ne. Gochuii, kudasai. (There is a foul ball. Please be careful.)Stadium Announcer
It is the very picture of wholesome – with one exception: there were a few seconds of stadium music during which I literally spilt my beer after understanding the lyrics. Holy cow, there were some American obscenities! (You’d have to have a good understanding of English to pick up on them. It’s likely the song was chosen for the catchy beats.)
There is definitely plenty of pageantry at a professional baseball game. Since Yokohama DeNA’s team color is blue, fans are handed a blue light to whip out. During a designated inning, the stadium lights go dark and the stadium erupts into a dance party.
Every fan gets a blue light on arrival, but a truly devout DeNA Bay Stars fan brings their “official towel” with them. The branded towel is truly versatile: it protects against sunburn during the summer heat, can be used as an extra layer in cooler weather, and acts as a fantastic cheering sign when waved back and forth.
Of course, each professional team has “the thing” that they are famous for. They might have been the opposing team, but by thunder I LOVED the Yakut Swallow fans’ “umbrella dance” at the 7th inning! My phone did not capture the wonder of it. Here’s a 37-second video that does it justice.
I have got to get myself a miniature umbrella.
Don’t Leave Your Seat After the Game
Stay in your seats after the game! Much to my surprise, only a few fans left the stadium following the Bay Stars 5-3 victory.
In the U.S., there are many reasons fans depart a game early. For starters, the score may be so lopsided that it is no longer fun to watch. Another reason is to beat stadium traffic on the way home.
Unlike the U.S., Japan’s stadiums do not have massive parking lots. Since the metro station is literally a three minute walk away and trains run frequently, it is very easy to commute. There’s less urgency to leave.
Still, I was curious why everyone remained quiet and patiently fixed to their seats. It may be that Japanese baseball fans are more devout. A more credible reason may have been that there was MORE TO COME…the game is only one part of the entertainment package.
“Heroes of the game” interviews take place live on the field. The entire stadium fell silent as the top three players bowed to fans and gave their assessment.
And then came the concert. Blue Light Live sponsors a variety of guests throughout the season. That evening, we rocked out to a three-song set by Nanase Aikawa. The group was a trio comprised of a Japanese lead singer and drummer, and an American guitarist, and they put on a show.
Pyrotechnics, fireworks, and a Japanese rock concert?
Heck yes, you should stay after the game!
Hot dogs? Peanuts? Cracker jacks? Um, no.
(You can purchase a hot dog at the stadium, but why not try some specialties instead?)
Think bento boxes, tofu bowls, spring rolls, gyoza, and almond pudding topped with mango.
I purchased a cup of wonderfully spicy chili prawns for ¥800 ($5.86) and a steamy ‘meat bom’ for ¥400 ($2.93). The peach-colored shrimp crackers, normally ¥200 ($1.46), were free. I got a delightful kick out of eating prawns at a baseball stadium with a pair of chopsticks.
I’m not much of a beer drinker, but the cup of Bay Stars Lager (¥800, $5.86) was absolutely delicious.
The uriko (beer girls) were MOVING. Every single one of these ladies is insanely pretty. Whatever jealousy I felt quickly dissipated and morphed into deep respect. These women were FIT: the backpacks weighed at least 25-30 pounds, and they moved with incredible energy. I lost count of the number of stairs they must have climbed. I’d wager it was at least equivalent to a 50 story building.
The Bathrooms (And Everything Else) are Spotless!
Expect plenty of stalls, clean toilets that work, and fully stocked toilet paper dispensers. I randomly chose a stall and took a picture, I was so impressed.
It’s a luxurious experience indeed to sit on a heated toilet seat and do your business to the sound of birds chirping.
The mirrors are intact and gleaming, and every sink is unclogged.
Cleanliness is not limited to the bathrooms. When you depart the stadium, it looks as clean as when you first arrived. Why? Personal responsibility, for starters. Secondly, staff travel up each section every inning with plastic bags to proactively take fans’ trash.
As a result, the stadium is always clean.
Do NOT expect to see any ticket hawkers outside of the stadium! It is illegal in Japan for unauthorized people to re-sell.
You can purchase baseball tickets at convenience stores. However, konibinis have a limited amount. There were none available for the date I wanted, so I purchased my ticket through a (legal) online vendor. As expected, you will pay a premium for buying tickets from a third party site. My ticket cost ¥7600 ($55.64).
A more clever friend shared she saved money by creating a Bay Stars account, buying online, and having the tickets printed at a konbini. Consequently, her tickets were ¥5500 ($40.27).
If You Go
I don’t consider myself a die-hard baseball fan, and yet I cherished every minute of the game. For me, it was less about the actual sport than it was the chance to bask in the cultural fun of it all. There’s a joy and a sweetness to it.
It’s super easy for Sailors and folks living in Yokosuka to attend a DeNA Bay Stars game.
Getting there: Yokohama is only a 30 minute train train ride from Yokosuka. From there, it is a five minute train from Yokohama station to the stadium’s closest station – Kannai. And it is literally a three minute walk from the station to the stadium.
Are you curious about Japanese soccer games instead?
Here’s wishing you a fun, safe and happy adventure ahead!