As part of a project for my day job, I’ve been digging through scholarly studies of Japanese baseball history in a search for keys to the riddle of how baseball in Japan became the way it is.
This process led me to understand something about how baseball became both popular and demonized in Japan and how the power of creating a past that has been polished and re-imagined has shaped how Japan sees its game to this day.
I am indebted to Professor Tetsuya Nakamura of Kochi University for helping make sense of many of the threads that make up the fabric of Japan’s early baseball history and its evolution.
The way of the baseball warrior
In “You Gotta Have Wa” and its sequel “The Meaning of Ichiro,” which if you haven’t read I commend you to buy this instant, Robert Whiting argues that the historic success of “Ichiko” — the First Higher School of Tokyo, Japan’s first baseball power, inspired imitators of its spartan training methods that drew on the elements of Japan’s warrior code “bushido.”
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Bob is a tremendous researcher and story teller, and he is certainly right that the kids at Ichiko spoke of bushido and embraced its ideals to describe the martial spirit that inspired their practices.
The whole warrior ethic as it came to be written down was indeed extreme stuff, but how it went from “Ichiko practiced harder and more diligently and achieved nationwide fame” to the form that schoolboy baseball takes now, is vastly more interesting than “their success bred imitation.”
The meaning of Bushido
Bushido is a real thing in Japan. People believe in its power and cultural connection with the Japanese spirit.
In its original form, long before it was written down and published, Bushido was a kind of code of ethics, duties and obligations for the samurai, Japan’s warrior caste, who for generations toiled in actual combat as rival clans strove for dominance and influence.
Yet, after 1603, when the Tokugawa established itself as the greatest among Japan’s warrior clans, made Edo, currently Tokyo, their capital, and established rules to keep rival and enemy clans in check, the samurai’s role changed dramatically.
Warrior families became bureaucrats, clerks and petty functionaries living on fixed stipends that often left them impoverished, and forced to find socially questionable ways of fending for their families, and preyed on the weak and helpless.
The solution was to create a portrait of an idealized warrior past in Bushido that was not a historical document but a tapestry of threads that painted past warriors as noble and chivalrous and guided by duty and obligation.
Bushido was published in order to remind warrior-caste parasites of their duties to a society that had no use for them as soldiers by explaining how real warriors of the past would have acted in their shoes.
It was kind of like when Ronald Regan talked about the idealized America of his youth, the America that Norman Rockwell painted that wasn’t founded on racism or exploitation of labor, and called it glorious and pretended that it actually existed when it never had except in our imaginations.
People believed in it, but bushido was–from its inception–like Reagan’s imagined America, an ahistorical construct, something created after the fact to depict something in a way it never was.
The next level of irony
Idealized or not, Bushido struck a chord with Japanese even before the end of the feudal Tokugawa era. Ichiko’s students latched onto this theme, and applied it to baseball, and man did they succeed.
Their success, however, bred expectations for the future. Within just a few years, the failure of successive Ichiko teams to meet those expectations encouraged some to raise the status of their predecessors to mythic proportions while demonizing their successors as failures.
Ichiko’s golden age
In an era when the sport was just catching fire and few were skilled at baseball, Ichiko dominated local competition and in 1896, famously beat teams of American expatriates augmented by sailors from the U.S. Navy’s Asian squadron over and over.
Their victories against the Americans made Ichiko’s team national heroes in an era when Japan was facing the real threat of domination by western imperialist powers, and added fuel to the sport’s popularity.
Baseball had already had been gaining traction on other fronts as a fad of Japan’s western-suit-wearing elite fascinated by everything coming in from Europe or the United States. Subsequent Ichiko teams, however, gradually became less dominant, and were soon overtaken by squads from two vocational schools that eventually became Waseda and Keio universities.
Ichiko’s fall and the blame game
The reasons for Ichiko’s fall from grace was a structural one, but from the standpoint of the school and its alumni association, their successors had, like the anti-social samurai and petty bureaucrats of the Tokugawa period, lost their way and needed moral correction.
One influential voice at the time was that of Kanae Chuma, one of the original Ichiko heroes. Chuma wrote Japan’s first influential text on how to play baseball, and is credited with the current Japanese word for the game, “yakyu” — field ball.
To Chuma and others, their successors had dropped the ball and kicked it around, forgetting the importance of Japanese martial spirit, succumbing to the individualism that was attaching itself to the game around the country.
The player’s dorm, something that had been part of Ichiko’s baseball tradition from the start, was considered a cause of subsequent teams’ failings as it led to a sense of entitlement.
From the first time Ichiko students took up the new game, players practiced extremely hard. Yet, historian Tetsuya Nakamura has also written that they weren’t anything like today’s Japanese high school kids practicing day in and day out.
That would have been impossible at such an elite academic school. Nakamura wrote in his doctoral dissertation that the Ichiko practice field would often be silent as students studied for the tests that could decide their future.
These kids faced huge hurdles to achieve their educational goals, and while they took baseball seriously, and shouldered a huge burden by representing an elite school in their sport, studies always came first.
Another key element to the true Ichiko story was that they organized themselves democratically, the way the game was taught to them, as an egalitarian endeavor.
The students, according to Nakamura, ran everything. They organized their own practices, arranged with other schools to set up games, enlisted umpires. It was a 100 percent bottom-up grass-roots development.
Although there is probably some truth that later players may have been swayed by the more light-hearted manner baseball was becoming to be enjoyed in Japan — as a game rather than a metaphor for war — the root cause of Ichiko’s decline was Japan’s rapidly evolving educational system.
Examination hell takes its toll
As schools began to open across Japan, the trickle of applicants to the top academic schools became a flood that could only be stemmed by making the entry exams steadily more difficult. Ichiko was at the top of the pyramid and was forced to make it harder and harder to get in.
It didn’t take long before most athletic students found it too hard to get into Ichiko, and moved on to other schools, notably Waseda and Keio, with the predictable outcome that Ichiko could no longer compete.
As a result, every element of the Ichiko program that could be identified with un-Japanese behavior came under attack, including its democratic organization and dormitory. And though those attacks were essentially a phenomenon within the school and its alumni, the process of making Ichiko’s 19th century champions into models of pure Japanese sport was to have a life of its own.
Bringing baseball to the masses
In the wake of Ichiko’s victories, even more clubs began sprouting up across Japan. But without Ichiko’s grinding academic workload and expectations, the game often became less a martial art and more of a diversion.
This was true to a slight extent even at Waseda, where the driving force behind the school’s team, Isoo Abe, modeled the club on the Ichiko tradition. But Abe’s outlook was also inspired by Christian humanism and liberalism.
Waseda and Keio developed a fierce rivalry that evolved into an annual series. This was emulated in those other cities that had more than one middle school. These rivalries began to get out of hand in riotous behavior by student supporters and other fans, while the idolizing of star players caused them, in the eyes of the nation’s school principals to become impudent and disrespectful.
As the quality of college ball increased, its popularity soared, not only among the students but among the public. and commercial interests soon began finding ways to cash in. New newspapers began publishing reports of games and new railroads began to realize there were profits to be had in transporting fans to games.
Baseball in a pickle
The increased commercialization and new ways Waseda and Keio began pushing the game, such as Waseda’s three-month 1905 tour of the U.S. west coast–deemed unpatriotic by some since it took place during the Russo-Japanese War–increased calls for reform. In 1906, the final game of the annual Waseda-Keio series was canceled out of concern for clashes between the teams’ supporters.
The series, tied 1-1 at the time, had seen Waseda supporters march to Keio after their victory and sing loudly outside the home of the school’s founder, Yukichi Fukuzawa, while Keio supporters did the same outside the home of Waseda founder and Meiji oligarch Shigenobu Okuma.
Waseda and Keio soon got in on the ground floor of a popular and lucrative baseball touring business energized by the Glen “Pop” Warner, and featuring teams from his University of Chicago and other new American gilded age universities like the University of Washington and Stanford.
The disdain for the direction baseball was going following Ichiko’s decline and the rise of Waseda and Keio and the commercial and liberal themes that accompanied them reared its head in a 22-part series demonizing baseball’s evils published by the Tokyo Asahi Shimbun in 1911 from Aug. 29 to Sept. 19.
The editorials were part of an effort between newspapers knowing that anything written about baseball would increase sales, and purists, who gushed about Ichiko’s 1896 champions the way Bushido embellished the virtues of ancient samurai.
Schoolboy baseball to the rescue
In 1915, the Osaka Asahi Shimbun, took over sponsorship of a small existing tournament and took it nationwide in an effort to expand its readership beyond Tokyo and Osaka.
Although motivated purely by profit, the tournament, now in its 104th edition, was billed as a move to promote pure Japanese baseball, like that practiced at Ichiko in the school’s heyday. The Asahi also sought to separate middle school ball as the game’s pure form, as opposed to that practiced in the colleges.
One facet of middle school ball, that the Asahi billed as “pure win at all costs” baseball, was a single elimination format. While colleges packed close together in Tokyo had begun playing in leagues, Japan’s far-flung middle schools, rarely with two in the same prefecture, made league play impractical because of the travel involved.
The Asahi did an amazing PR job on their tournament. It caught on like wild fire and soon became the standard for baseball to follow, while Suishu Tobita, a former Waseda captain and manager whom Whiting credits with being the game’s ultimate spokesperson, further promoted the glorious story of Ichiko as Japan’s most influential sports journalist.
NOTE: This post has been updated after various threads were confirmed and some, such as government interference in the years between 1911 and 1916 were found to be erroneous.
Although the oligarchs who ran Meiji and early Taisho Japan were skilled at co-opting grass-roots movements that challenged national agendas, and bringing them under government control, this didn’t start with baseball until the Ministry of Education’s 1932 Yakyu Toseirei ordinances, and which Tobita and Abe had a huge hand in.