Baseball’s age of brutality

The question I’ve been trying to answer since I first became familiar with Japanese baseball in 1984 is how this game became the way it is. It’s an enormous puzzle, and this is one part: How did Japanese baseball become militarized and regimented?

I long suspected that Japan’s first post-feudal leaders, keen to curb democracy and annoyed by the site of college students, the nation’s future elites taking part in drunken riots over baseball might have spurred it to co-opt the sport the way it had other movements whose interested conflicted with the government. But the answer has proved more elusive than that.

Once more, I am indebted to Kochi University Professor of sports history Tetsuya Nakamura for confirming and shaping my understanding of trends in Japanese baseball.

Any mistakes here or over-generalizations here are mine alone.

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This expression “ketsubatto” means being hit in the rear end with a baseball bat, and is widely known among the Japanese public as a common feature of schoolboy baseball.

To look at it now, Japanese amateur baseball is a top-down Social Darwinist nightmare where physical punishment and seniority-based hazing and intimidation is normalized as “part of the game.”

It’s most famous, of course, in the hardships endured by players who dream of competing in the national high school baseball championship each summer at Koshien Stadium to this day.

Since its inception in 1915, the tournament’s sponsor, the Asahi Shimbun, has promoted the event as an homage to the pure Japanese spirit of a handful of heroic 19th-century student athletes who showed Japan could stand up to the imperialist west by practicing till they puked.

Except for their extreme practice discipline and rigor, the kids from Ichiko, the First Higher School of Tokyo, bore little resemblance to the militaristic look and discipline that has become Koshien’s imitation of their legacy.

Ichiko truth and fiction

The Ichiko nine was a student-organized, democratic group, although one that agreed on the need for intense practice in accordance with Japan’s ahistorical, but extremely popular, way of the warrior, “Bushido.”

But unlike many “student” athlete ballplayers to come, these kids were more focused on passing exams and finding good jobs. There was no manager to speak of, and with barely enough players to form a team, hazing may have existed but there was no purpose for it.

I wrote in “the idealized past” how the legend of the 1896 Ichiko team that defeated teams of Americans grew in subsequent years as an example of a kind of pure Japanese baseball Garden of Eden, before the team lost its position of dominance and scandalous behavior began to be associated with the game around the country.

In some ways, baseball became a victim of its own popularity in a nation that was working overtime to stamp out the liberal ideas, such as representative democracy and humanism, that had infiltrated the country along with the western learning Japan needed to defend itself in a hostile world.

While there were some who sincerely wanted to rid Japan of this western curse of baseball, there was no stopping its popularity. Newspapers, railroads, and a nascent sporting goods manufacturer named Mizuno were all angling to drum up business by sponsoring tournaments.

The Asahi steps in

That was the context in which the Asahi stamped its tournament, taken over from Mizuno, as “pure” and a rejection of un-Japanese influences.

The tournament became so popular that it required the construction of massive Hanshin Koshien Stadium in 1924 to house it. And though it was originally created as a throwback, it created a tradition all its own that soon became the bedrock of Japan’s baseball identity.

The national summer tournament helped turn the single-elimination tourney format from a necessity to a tradition, and as the number of youngsters seeking to play increased beyond the number of available roster spots, the students began to lose control of their game.

The cost of popularity

Managers, largely superfluous in Japan’s early game, became necessary to decide who would play and who wouldn’t. Teams became fractured along the lines of those who played and those who took up supporting roles, such as preparing the field and doing the laundry.

Since the older boys tended to be better, teams also fractured along class-year lines. As competition for playing spots increased, so did the efforts of those with roles on the team to intimidate and discourage underclassmen seeking to displace them.

Excessive and abusive practices became a way to rid teams of those who were the least determined to play, and when they eventually became a routine part of the school baseball scene, they took on the status of respected “training” and “educational” methodology.

Authoritarian rule

Until 1932, Japan’s government, much to my surprise, had surprisingly little influence on baseball. It was still being run by schools and tournament sponsors, but money had poured into the nation’s most popular spectator sport.

With the exception of a few failed pro teams, described in “Happy 99th Birthday Pro Baseball” in my post of June 26, baseball was still amateur, but that did not prevent alumni groups from offering cash incentives to promising athletes to enter their school or transfer from others, or for tournament sponsors to offer cash to make sure star players appeared.

Amateur players were also making money in exhibitions against visiting American professionals, making college baseball an extremely lucrative occupation for the best players.

In 1932, the government, with the assistance of two famous individuals, Isoo Abe, who founded Waseda’s baseball program, and the team’s former captain and Japan’s most influential sports journalist, Suishu Tobita from teaming up with the government to clean up the game through a set of educational ordinances known as the Yakyu Toseirei.

In essence, it all but banned amateurs from making money, and established rigid government controlled amateur baseball hierarchies that dominate amateur baseball policy to this day.

Reciprocal baseball tours by Japan’s new universities with those established in America’s Gilded Age had become huge money makers. The Yakyu Toseirei put those squarely under the thumb of the government at a time when tensions were building over American opposition to Japanese aggression in Manchuria.

The end result of this on the game was to suppress the self government by leagues, schools and players that had been a vibrant part of Japanese baseball since its inception and replace it with a hierarchy in which the manager was the undisputed master within an authoritarian hierarchy ruled by the central government.

A legacy of war

Although corporal punishment in schools was a thing before the Kwantung Army began expanding Japan’s political control of Manchuria beyond the treaty port of Dalian in 1931, it was not ubiquitous for at least another decade.

The college graduates who go on to become school teachers were not being drafted until after Japan went to war with the United States, and only then were exposed to military-grade physical abuse.

Former Chunichi Dragons cleanup hitter Kenichi Yazawa said one of the first things he learned when he turned pro was that things hadn’t always been the way they were when he was growing up.

“The older guys, the coaches and former players said that until the war, corporal punishment was not routine, that it only really became the norm afterward,” he said.

When I first began talking to Yazawa at ballparks 20 years ago, he told me how the upperclassmen at Waseda University would beat him if he hit the ball further than they did.

“It happened all the time,” he said. “I loved to hit so much, that even though they warned me, I practiced how to drive the ball as far as I could, even though I knew I’d get a beating for it.”

“They’d say, ‘You’ve got some nerve.” And then it was ‘Bam, bam, bam.'”

Like the hazing, seniority bias, meaningless practices meant to discourage rather than educate, physical abuse simply became part of Japan’s game.

Echoes of the past

Of course, it’s not just baseball. There are similar parallels in Japanese history.

The Imperial Japanese Navy’s program to train naval aviators, for example, would have put the most hard-ass high school baseball coach to shame.

In order to create an ultra elite force, the Navy made its aviators’ minimum physical requirements so stringent that a huge percentage of suitable candidates were washed out and ordered to report for sea duty.

This created a small corps of the world’s best-trained aviators, but without concern for the overall costs and benefits of the policy that made them virtually impossible to replace.

The airmen were left in combat until they died, and their replacements, it turned out, were not nearly as qualified as the original applicants who had been rejected. By the war’s end, fighter pilot Saburo Sakai wrote, many naval pilots were barely competent to fly in the least demanding circumstances.

Changing times

Hazing, seniority and abusive management are entrenched in Japan’s culture and go well beyond sports, but because of Japan’s declining birth rate and the increasing number of options available to young people, they no longer have to put up with the old ways.

There is no longer an endless supply of would-be players that coaches can afford to hold onto the past. Abuse is more and more being called what it is rather than being euphemistically referred to as “tough love.”

This was the reason why in December 2018, Niigata Prefecture’s high school federation published studies suggesting the evils of overwork among pitchers and announced it would implement pitch limits in its own tournaments but in no events sanctioned by the national federation.

The national high school federation “Koyaren” didn’t care. By exercising its authority to decide what was best for school baseball in Niigata, the prefectural federation incurred Koyaren’s wrath for acting without getting permission. But because Niigata publicized its findings and its policy change, Koyaren was compelled to publicly announce it was looking into the issue of student athlete’s health.

The Koyaren commission included some die-hard old schoolers like Daisuke Matsuzaka’s former coach at Yokohama High School, who ostensibly accepted that high school baseball was not without its health issues.

The study resulted in weekly pitch limits at national tournaments, that are still pretty flexible and could allow pitchers to throw up to 500 pitches in a week, but were a recognition of the fact that something was needed.

Know the expression about software, “It’s not a bug, it’s a feature?” Well, the brutality that has became normalized feature of baseball in Japan designed to cull the herd of would-be players, has now become a bug.

The regimentation is still a problem, but Japanese baseball is not immune to the will of the society it serves, and, little by little, the absurd excesses will one-by-one be seen for what they are, and not what they pretend to be.

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One thought on “Baseball’s age of brutality”

  1. Great article JIm

    The intersection between culture and sports is always intriguing, especially when you have very cultures playing the same game

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