The Japanese have a reputation for an intense interest in American culture. They adopt many American ideas and customs, and then do them better than we do them at home! Baseball, known as Yakyuu in Japan, is one of those things.
Baseball came to Japan in the 1870s and was one of the first team sports to be widely played in the country. Its popularity exploded under American influence in the post World War II period. The Japanese League was set up in 1950, with teams sponsored by the country’s major businesses.
Some people say that it is the discipline and teamwork that is required to excel at the sport that makes Baseball so popular, as it appeals to the Japanese work ethic. I don’t know about that, but it is certainly a team sport, especially for the spectators. The fans take supporting their team very seriously, and have many rituals in which everyone participates with a passion. The fans might be more well coordinated than the players!
I first got interested in Japanese Baseball when I was in a sports bar in Tokyo. I am a major fan of Baseball anyway, and my interest was piqued when I saw locals drinking American-style beer and passionately shouting at the television screen. Inspired, I went to a game at the Tokyo Dome, and I was hooked. I was suddenly a follower of Japanese Baseball.
If you are in Tokyo, making it to a ball game is a memorable experience. It feels a little bit like being in a parallel universe. It is a lot like going to a game at home, but little differences make you realize that you are somewhere entirely different. Trade in your hot dogs and cold ber for edamame and chu-hai!
The Nippon Baseball League has five teams in Tokyo, each with their own stadium. A trip to any one of them should be on your to-do list for your next visit to the city. Here is what you need to know about the teams and their stadiums.
Tokyo Yakult Swallows (My favorite experience)
The Swallows are probably my favorite team in the league and favorite experience. It’s cheap, decent snacks, cheap beers, and lots of fan excitement and singing. The home run dance is amazing.
They play at Meiji Jingu Stadium, which opened all the way back in 1926, and is actually one of the few stadiums in the world still standing where the legendary Babe Ruth played as part of a 1932 visiting all-star squad.
More recently the team also had one of my favorite players from the Nippon League, Wladamir “Coco” Balentien, who previously played for the Seattle Mariners. In 2013 he hit 60 homeruns, breaking the season record. A scoreboard just for him was erected in the stadium so that the fans could follow his progress.
The fans of this team are also great. Every time a run is made they open up mini umbrellas in the teams colors and since “Tokyo Ondo” a well-known festival song. It is a joy to be among these fans.
The Giants are the richest team in the league, buying the players that the need to dominate the sport from their home stadium, the Tokyo Dome. This makes them a bit like Chelsea FC in the English soccer league: they are a love hate team. It probably doesn’t help that the team has also been caught up in an array of scandals including illegal salaries that exceed the leagues cap, shady draft dealings, and there is even talk of a connection between the team’s manager and the Japanese mafia.
The Tokyo Dome is probably one of the most interesting stadiums to visit. It is also home to Japan’s Baseball Hall of Fame, and just next door is Tokyo Dome City, an entertainment centre that even has its own amusement park.
Yokohama DeNA Baysters
For many years the Baysters, that call Tokyo’s Yokohama Stadium home, was the most miserable team in the league, but it has a phenomenal staduim. Following a series win in 1998, they went through a nineteen year slump in which they consistently finished in fifth or sixth spot every year. The fans were loyal but disillusioned.
That all changed in 2017 when former Baysters player Alex Ramirez – the only foreign-born player to make 2,000 hits in the league – took over as manager. The team had a surprise Central League win in 2017, and now both the players and the fans are back with avengence.
Chiba Lotte Marines
The Marines are actually best known for the houlaginism of their fans. They are always raucous in their support of their team, and they have been known to collectively intimidate the fans of other teams, and even their own players when they feel like their game play is not up to standard. There is a reason why the Marines stadium, QVC Field, was included as a fight location in the 1993 video game Tekken.
The fans are much more relaxed these days, and it is safe to go to a game at the stadium, though do where the black and white colors of the local team. There is also a great museum attached to the stadium that celebrates the team, which one the inaugural Japan Series in 1950.
Saitama Seibu Lions
The Seibu Stadium, where the lions play, is one of the most interesting in the city. It was originally an open air stadium, but later a giant dome suspended on immense legs that stand outside the stadium were added. There is a huge gap between the stadium and the dome, which means that batters can hit a homerun by landing the ball between the top of the stadium and the dome. When it happens, the fans go wild!
The team also has a cool seventh innings stretch tradition where the fans release balloons into the air in unison while loudly singing the teams fight song. It is a moving scene to be part of.