Adjust Font Size: A A       Guest settings   Register

Chapter 11: The Schoolboys of Summer

Robert Whiting's Homepage at

Chapter 11: The Schoolboys of Summer

by Robert Whiting (1989)

Koshien is a page of history. It burns somewhere inside every man's heart. I never made it there, and I always feel that it was an opportunity lost. I always think, what if...

Shigeo Nagashima
former infielder, Tokyo Giants

High school baseball is an education of the heart, the ground is a classroom of purity, a gymnasium of morality; that is its essential meaning.

Suishu Tobita (1886-1965)
former manager, Waseda University

I saw high school games in Japan and after the game the players would line up an take off their caps and the manager would go down the line and hit every third or fourth player because of some mistake or other that the guy made -- hit him on top of the head with his hand. Really dictatorial.

Davey Johnson
former infielder, Tokyo Giants

I always wanted to piss on the "sacred" dirt of Koshien.

(name withheld)
ex-outfielder, Hanshin Tigers

Meet Makiko Kawamura, wife, mother, and successful clothes designer. She lives in the fashionable Tokyo suburb of Denenchofu with her husband and young daughter, drives a BMW, and commutes to a gleaming new office in the chic Harajuku district. Each summer, she vacations at a posh lakeside resort near Mount Fuji. While there, she spends the entire time in her room watching high school baseball on TV, from morning to night.

Mrs. Kawamura is a devotee of the annual National High School Baseball Summer Championship Tournament, and there are millions of Japanese just like her. In fact, for two solid weeks, starting with the second Friday in August, the eyes and ears of virtually the entire nation are turned to aging Koshien Stadium, near Osaka, where the top schoolboy teams in the country battle for national supremacy.

Evidence of this peculiar addiction is impossible for any sentient person to miss. Taxicabs patrol the street with the play-by-play blaring on the radio. Department store windows display inning-by-inning line scores. Every activity at Tokyo's normally bustling stock exchanges grows quiet as traders slip off to follow the action.

In fact, so many television sets around the land -- in coffee shops, households, and factories alike -- are tuned to the continuous 9:00 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. coverage of the games that electricity consumption, already high from the use of air conditioning, reaches alarming levels.

Professional baseball may be Japan's front-running sport, but this schoolboy tournament is unquestionably the country's single biggest sporting event; a bona fide national fixation, like America's Super Bowl and World Series all rolled into one. As Makiko Kawamura put it, "Even people who don't like baseball watch it. It's the thing to do."

The competition is a single-elimination affair involving forty-nine teams called from nearly four thousand participating schools in regional preliminaries. It draws as many as sixty thousand fans a day. Sponsored by the Asahi Shimbun, the annual midsummer extravaganza occupies a particularly warm spot in the Japanese heart because of a long and special tradition. By the time the first professional Japanese team was formed in 1934, the high school tourney was already twenty years old and amateur baseball had been played for over half a century. Masaru Ikei, a Keio University professor and author of many Besuboru books, said, "Perhaps the biggest difference between Japanese and American baseball is that the U.S. game was a pro sport long before it was ever played in high school and college, while in Japan, it was just the opposite. Amateur baseball is a big part of our sports heritage."

A visit to the tourney, known simple as Koshien to most Japanese, offers a rousing spectacle of sound and color that is worthy of the Olympics, starting with the opening ceremony when hundreds of shaven-headed youths march lockstep into the stadium, regional flags held proudly aloft, and make a fierce vow to uphold the spirit of sport. Banner-waving supporters bussed in from hometowns all over the country fill the stands and cheer their favorites on. Miniskirted pom-pom girls with pasa rosa faces assist them in their cause, as do student brass bands, playing spirited renditions of "Popeye the Sailor Man" and other stirring fight songs with mind-numbing persistence.

On the field in furnace-like temperatures, contestants in baggy uniforms play with such untrammeled intensity that the losers unashamedly break into tears. Games feature a profusion of maniacal head-first slides, batters streaking wildly to first base on ordinary walks, and the opposing teams dashing madly on and off the field between innings. Rival cheer groups, yelling through plastic megaphones, wage a vocal battle almost as intense as the one on the field. At midday, temperatures are so searing hot that majorettes' batons and the players' metal bats become too hot to handle if left in the sun.

Olympian standards of decorum are also on display. Dubious umpiring calls go unchallenged. Hit batsmen receive an apologetic bow from the offending pitcher and the sacrifice bunt is laid down at every conceivable opportunity. At the end of each contest, the participants immediately dash to home plate, where they line up, remove their caps and bow deeply to one another. In the post-game interview area under the grandstand, amidst a logjam of reporters and TV camera crews, the sweat-soaked athletes answer questions with the ramrod deference of military academy plebes. As one school official said, "Such behavior is part of the children's education."

To many Japanese, Koshien is more than an athletic contest; it is a celebration of the purity and spirit of Japanese youth. Said one TV commentator, "The total devotion of these players to the game is refreshing. The tourney is evidence that old values have not yet been swept away by the wave of internationalization that has hit Japan."

Whereas amateur sports in most countries are played for recreation, Japanese emphasize the educational and moral aspects of school athletics. They view baseball as a part of the school curriculum, a means of developing discipline and of instilling sincerity in students in the pursuit of their life goals. The emphasis on purity is so great that former professional ballplayers have long been forbidden by Japan's Amateur Sports Federation to coach high school athletes. Nearly all school uniforms are white or off-white to symbolize that purity.

The National High School Baseball Summer Championship Tournament was originated in 1915 by the Asahi Shimbun, which only a couple of years earlier had participated in a movement to have baseball banned. In an editorial written for the inaugural tourney, the paper explained why high school baseball was, after all, good for the Japanese: (1) It teaches the players to be unified, to play as a unit on both offense and defense; (2) It is good exercise for the arms, legs, and whole body; (3) It teaches a player to use his brain to formulate strategy; (4) It teaches a player to be quick-witted, to act in a split second, but also to be prudent for a prolonged period of time; and (5) It teaches a player to be cooperative.

In terms of PR, establishing the tourney was the best investment the Asahi ever made. That first tournament involved only ten teams. It was played in the Osaka suburb of Toyonaka in a park that seated less than fifteen thousand. But the games quickly caught on; their popularity mushroomed so fast that larger accommodations were soon required. One contest had to be cancelled when the crowd overflowed onto the field.

In 1922, work was begun on a park to be built in nearby Koshien which would rival anything in the U.S. major leagues. Its seating capacity of fifty thousand (later expanded to sixty thousand) would make it the largest athletic facility in all of Asia.

So vast were the dimensions -- 330 feet down the lines and 410 feet to the center field fence -- that many feared it would be too big for baseball. In fact, twice during construction, engineers halted work to conduct test games. They resumed building only when they were assured that people seated in the distant center field stands would actually be able to see the ball in play.

When Koshien Stadium was finally completed in 1924, the first fans inside were awestruck. The single grandstand stretched fifty rows back and a huge iron roof towered over the infield seats. It was promptly nicknamed "The Iron Umbrella."

That same year also saw another leading daily, the Mainichi Shimbun, establish a tournament of its own -- a ten-day spring invitational which would also become popular, although somewhat less so than its summer cousin, because fewer teams were involved. Since then, two tournaments have been held annually at Koshien, except for a four-year break during World War II when the movement of students was banned. During that period the stadium grounds were reserved for grenade-throwing practice, while the Iron Umbrella was torn down and used in the manufacture of Zero fighter planes.

Koshien survived a firebombing in August 1945 to resume its role as the Mecca of High School Baseball. The Hanshin Tigers, who also used the park, were forced to go on a three-week road trip each summer so the tourney could be played. For a time it was the Osaka headquarters of U.S. Army forces.

Despite the postwar surge of professional baseball, high school baseball, particularly the summer gamefest, retained its magical pull. The 1988 tourney drew about 820,000 and the spring invitational over half that.

More than once, officials moved some early-round games to nearby Nishinomiya Stadium in an effort to ease congestion outside Koshien. Nishinomiya, however, remained virtually empty while Koshien continued to overflow with fans. Such was the allure of Japan's favorite ballpark.

Japanese writers tend to wax maudlin where high school baseball is concerned. They have eulogized the sport as an "ode to fighting spirit"; the tourney as the "ultimate crucible of youth"; and Koshien Stadium itself as a "temple of purity." Suishu Tobita, the famed Waseda manager cum baseball guru, was among the many who have proclaimed the ground at Koshien "sacred."

Masahiro Shinoda, a movie director and noted Koshienophile, has declared that an almost religious feeling pervades these games. In that sense, he said, Koshien was holy ground and the young players were "Japanese gods."

"That may be going too far," a tournament official, Kazuyuki Matsui, told the New York Times in 1987, "but I think that fans do see this as a pure and sincere form of the sport."

Indeed, the long history of Koshien is brimming with heroic tales of players overcoming adversity with stoutness of heart, as if inspired by the paeans written about the games. The apotheosis of Koshien stars was Takehiko Bessho, a right-handed hurler who pitched his final of the 1941 tournament with a dislocated left arm bound in a sling. Losing 2-1, Bessho, by necessity, made all his fielding plays barehanded and had his catcher roll the ball back to him after each delivery. Said Bessho, who was headed for wartime duty in the Japanese army, "I want to play as much baseball as I can before I die."

There was also Sadaharu Oh, pitching Waseda High School to victory in 1957 despite a painful ruptured blister on his pitching hand. When a teammate expressed concern about the blood dripping from his fingers during a midgame meeting on the mound, Oh begged him to keep quiet. "Don't tell our manager," he pleaded. "I've got to stay in the game."

Another stoic hero was Koji Ohta, the blue-eyed product of a Russian-Japanese marriage, who led little-known Misawa High School Number 9 into the final day of the 1969 summer tourney by pitching four consecutive complete games. In the final game, before one of the largest daytime audiences in Japanese TV history, he hurled eighteen consecutive scoreless innings, in a 0-0 game that was called on account of darkness. The next day, workaholic Japan ground to a halt once more to watch Ohta lose 4-2 in a continuance.

The loss hardly mattered. In defeat, Ohta became a national hero. His shy good looks sent teenage girls into a dither and he was the subject of numerous TV documentaries and one book before he had even graduated from high school. Like many Koshien aces, Ohta burned his arm out young. After a spotty pro career, which saw him washed up by the age of twenty-seven, he became a TV commentator. But, even today, fans remember him with affection and respect.

Ohta's performance sent interest in the high school tournament rocketing to new highs. So did the deeds of a baby-faced, sloe-eyed pitcher named Daisuke Araki who was a national idol even before his voice began to change. Araki took Waseda High to three straight near-misses in the summer tourneys (1980 through 1982), the first when he was only fifteen. In 1986, as a professional just up from the Yakult Swallows farm team, Araki won but one game, but he was the overwhelming choice of the fans as starting pitcher in the All-Star series.

The batting star of the 1985 games, PL Gakuen's Kazuhiro Kiyohara, who hit four home runs (two in the final) became a household name overnnight. He was trailed for months afterward by a pack of magazine reporters who recorded his every move in copious detail -- from what he ate for breakfast to which comic books he read in study hall.

Koshien is a highly symbolic event for the Japanese. It takes place during the obon holidays, the Buddhist festival of paying respect to the departed souls, a time when workers take leave to return to their hometowns. Mitsuyoshi Okazaki, an editor at Bungai Shunju, has written: "With the massive postwar shift of the Japanese population from rural to urban industrial areas, the Koshien tourney has become one of the few remaining ways Japanese have of displaying regional loyalties. To many people, especially those in big cities, Koshien evokes nostalgia for their youth and for a time that doesn't exist anymore."

One can see ample evidence of regional ties in the myriad support groups queueing up outside the park before each game. A large proportion are elderly people, clad in colorful happi coats festooned with logos and badges showing their school affiliation. The stands are filled with beaming parents, and of course, little brothers and sisters cheering their elder siblings. One columnist has called Koshien a "universal Japanese experience."

Newspaper editorials also stress the visceral attraction of the "specter of inevitable defeat which looms over the games." "Just think of it," gushed one writer, "Nearly four thousand teams around the nation, remorselessly pared down. For half of the teams that play each day there is no tomorrow. That's desperation at its finest. The players try so hard that many say they can't remember hitting or catching a ball."

Koshien is about suffering and loss," said a radio talk show host one evening. "One empathizes with the losers instead of cheering the winners, because all their effort has gone for naught. It is doubly poignant since the end of the tourney signifies the end of summer in Japan, the change of seasons. It symbolizes something irrevocably lost. There's a kind of melancholy to it all."

Those playing high school baseball are committed to a system so austere it would tax a samurai's resolve. At most schools in Japan, players are expected to practice every single day of the year, before and after school, rain or shine, except for a brief respite at the New Year. During summer and winter vacations, they are sequestered at special baseball camps where the program might include marathon all-ninght workouts and other excruciating exercises designed to hone fighting spirit. Teams in the frigid regions of Hokkaido and the Japan Alps often practice in the snow using an orange ball for better visibility.

A young magazine editor described what it was like when he played on his high school team:

We used to have this drill at the end of practice every night. It was a race involving all the first- and second-year students on the team. Everyone would have to dash from one foul like in the outfield to the other and only the first-place finisher was allowed to go home. We'd keep repeating this until there was only one person left.

We'd also have to sit (meditating), or stand in place and hold our arms outstretched for thirty minutes, or we'd have to stand on our toes and a senior classman would put his foot underneath our soles. If we touched his foot with ours, we'd get scolded.

If you could put up with all this, then you got to give the orders when you became a third-year student. If you couldn't, it was believed that you could never develop fighting spirit either in sports or in life.

Our coaches would say that there was beauty in suffering. They would physically punish slow learners.

Training extends off the field as well. On most teams, the junior members must perform such edifying tasks as scrubbing floors or cleaning toilets. GI haircuts are de rigueur -- a way of showing that nothing is more important than the team, even one's appearance.

School officials emphasize self-discipline and self-reflection. Collective responsibility is a general rule and woe betide the player who gets into a fight or otherwise sullies the name of the school. The entire team may be suspended from play as punishment. When the student manager of Tokyo's Keio High baseball squad was caught stealing a pair of little girl's undergarments from the locker room of a primary school, the Keio principal withdrew the entire team from the regional tourney.

Corporal punishment is another colorful feature of high school baseball, as it is of Japanese education as a whole. TV viewers watching a regional game in the summer of 1983 were startled to see a manager slap his pitcher for giving up a couple of runs. "Pull yourself together," he growled. Later the youngster thanked the coach in front of the TV cameras for having brought him back to his senses. "Being hit by my manager made me realize the situation we were in," said the grateful slappee, "so I was able to throw my best for the rest of the game."

During the 1987 games, the manager of the team from the Saga Prefectural High School of Technology and Engineering discovered several of his players up late at night talking in the kitchen of the ryokan (inn) where the team was staying. He whacked each of them over the head with the grip end of an aluminum bat, cutting the scalps of two of them.

As a result of the late-night whacking, the team played listlessly the next day and was eliminated from the tourney. Saga Manager Yasuhiko Kugimoto, forty-five, apologized for his actions, but said he could not hold his temper because the boys were so noisy.

The Saga High principal thought it all a bit much. He delivered an apology to the Japan High School Baseball Federation and suspended Kugimoto for a year. But Saga's captain and ace pitcher, who was among the whackees, was mortified. "I don't blame the manager," he told reporters, "Because I was the one who was really bad. And my parents agreed with that. I just feel sorry that this happened. It's all our fault."

On a hillside in the southern part of Osaka stands a cluster of undistinguished buildings that form the campus of PL Gakuen, acknowledged king of high school baseball. PL has been to Koshien twenty-five times and has won six championships in its thirty-five-year history, more times than any other school in history. Knowledgeable Americans have compared it to a Texas high school baseball power. Perhaps the University of Texas would be more like it.

PL was founded in 1954 by the Church of Perfect Liberty, one of the many nondenominational religious groups that sprang up in Japan after the war. It was a coeducational school with a student body of approximately eight hundred, sixty of whom live in the baseball team dormitory, a three-storied structure next to the main PL practice field, which has, not coincidentally, exactly the same dimensions as Koshien Stadium.

The select sixty who are scouted by PL coaches in junior high school compete for one of the fifteen first-team spots.

Year round, these players follow the same monklike routine, arising at 4:30 A.M. for prayers and study, followed by four hours of practice in the afternoon.

After evening meditation, the players fall out of voluntary training which may continue past the 11:00 lights-out curfew with shadow (make believe) pitching and batting drills in the dark.

When PL's stern-faced manager Junji Nakamura peers through his steel-framed glasses and tells reporters, "I don't force my players to practice that much. It's up to them," everyone chuckles.

PL plays nearly two hundred games a year, from March to December.

At the center of student athletics in Japan -- some would say Japanese civilization -- is the sempai-kohai relationship, whereby underclassmen (kohai) perform services for their upperclassmen (senpai), who lend advice and guidance in return.

A journalist named William R. May has written, "Some senpai believe that they are responsible for the kohai's spiritual development, not in a religious sense, but within the Japanese belief that they possess a unique Japanese spirit that needs to be disciplined, refined, and polished."

At PL, every senior ballplayer is assigned a kohai to wash his underwear, assist him in late-night practice, and otherwise do his bidding, all of which leaves the kohai with little time for training or study of his own.

Few complain. to these players, baseball represents a way of circumventing Japan's infamous "examination hell" education system which forces junior and senior high school students to study seven days a week, almost year-round, both in and out of the classroom, so as to pass stiff university entrance exams. Qualifying for admission to a prestigious university guarantees entry to one of Japan's top companies and a good position for life.

Playing in a Koshien tournament, however, can be a virtual ticket to success in that national recognition and stardom can be instantly achieved. Over half o the players on Japanese pro rosters have been scouted at Koshien tournaments. Even those who don't gain lucrative professional contracts can still wind up as well-paid employees of corporations that maintain teams in Japan's industrial leagues. Just the fact that a man has appeared in Koshien means he will be honored for life in Japanese society. (It is also said that an appearance in the Koshien quarterfinals is enough to guarantee a youth admission to certain big-name private universities, whether or not he passes their entrance examinations).

"Some mothers force their sons to play high school baseball because they think the discipline will straighten them out," said a baseball writer who wished to remain anonymous. "But others want the prestige of Koshien. Some mothers will even screw the coach, if it means getting their sons on the ball club. It's rare, but it happens."

PL graduates are particularly valued by companies because competition within the team is so tough that PL players are considered to have much more energy than those of other high schools. Said the father one one third-year player at PL, "In the two-an-a-half years that my son has been there, I haven't seen him for more than a total of one month. But I know it's good for him, because he will be able to advance in life."

The baseball budget at PL is said to be in the neighborhood of 10 million yen a year, ten times that of ordinary schools. But then, being a Koshien regular has its own rewards. What PL expends it gets back many times over in donations, enhanced prestige, and increased applications. Said one newspaper reporter, "You have to think of PL's baseball expenses as being in the same category as the national advertising budget for Hitachi or Panasonic or some other big Japanese firm. It's big business."

Hiroshima Carp cleanup batter Takehiko Kobayakawa is one of many PL players in the pro ranks. He was recruited from a Hiroshima junior high school by a PL scout when he was fifteen. He was brought to Osaka to live in the school dorm, his family remaining in Hiroshima. All expenses were paid by the school.

Kobayakawa once described what his studies were like at PL: "I slept in class," he said. He wasn't the only one. A survey taken in 1984 at a high school baseball power in Tokyo revealed that nearly two-thirds of the players never did any homework. (When a journalist asked graduating phenom Tatsunori Hara what his major would be in college, Hara reportedly replied, "Major... what's that?")

But Kobayakawa's somnabulence in class didn't hurt him. Upon graduating from PL, he entered Hosei, a top baseball university, where he starred for four years and was then drafted by teh Carp, who paid him a huge signing bonus. Hara, who went to Tokai, got an even bigger one from the Giants.

There are lots of schools like PL in Japan. There are also lots of the other kind. Yokohama Shogyo Koko has been to Koshien several times (albeit without winning a championship). Their manager, a cordial, friendly bookkeeping teacher named Fumio Furuya, is an enlightened despot. He does not require his boys to shave their heads or live in a dormitory. He has never hit any of his players and his practices last only two hours a day -- though the team works out nearly ever day of the year. Furuya's unique system of training encourages first-year students to razz the third-year students in practice. Y-Ko, as it is called, plays seventy games a year and has tight academic eligibility requirements.

Then there are the institutions like Rakusei Koko, a Catholic high school nestled in a corner of Kyoto, the ancient capital of Japan, not far from the sleepy waters of the Kamo River. Rakusei, with a student body of eight hundred, is highly ranked academically and regularly sends graduates to the top universities in Japan.

The baseball budget there is minuscule. The twenty-two players on the team share a tiny field with the soccer squad. They practice, using patched and restiched balls, an average of two hours a day from January to December, except during exam periods. The pitchers throw in practice an average of two hundred pitches a day, three days out of four. Their schedule calls for forty games a year.

Rakusei manager Fumio Nishino, a warm-faced man in his late forties, eschews the one-thousand-fungo drill, all-night sessions, and other forms of brutality. His players are models of deportment -- when visitors come to the field, they immediately stop whatever they are doing, remove their caps, and cry out, "Irashai!" (Welcome!)

But Rakusei has never been to Koshien.

The closest manager Nishino ever came was a 1-0 loss in the regional semifinals of 1987. That was the year he had a big right-handed pitcher with a blazing fastball, a wide-breaking curve, and an ERA of under 1.00.

"My players cried after the game," said Nishino. "And so did I. It had always been my dream to go to Koshien, but it is very difficult. It is very rare that a small baseball club like ours can ever make it."

There have been compensations, however. Scouts from the mighty Tokyo Giants came around to recruit the 1987 ace but the boy said he was not interested in turning pro. "I'm going to Todai," he declared, referring to Japan's most elite university.

Such moments made Nishino proud he was a Rakusei man.

Game time. PL Gakuen's first-round opponent in the 1987 summer tournament is Chuo High from Gumma -- a lesser light on the teen baseball scene. outside the stadium, under a hazy blue sky and withering noon heat, the PL players await the signal to enter. Some are stretching, others are running in place. Everyone looks confident, like Mike Tyson waiting to enter the ring.

Neary, the PL cheering section, several hundred students strong and supplemented by the forty-five members of the baseball squad who did not earn a spot on the first team, is going through its own pregame warmups: fifteen minutes of calisthenics, then fifteen minutes of yelling practice. Wearing black school uniforms and white headbands on their shaven skulls inscribed with the Rising Sun and the word hissho (desperate victory), they look as formidable as the ballplayers and in fact have practiced almost as hard. Those chosen for the PL oendan have passed tryouts in which they were required to yell for several consecutive hours.

Koshien is serious business. The oendan of one school from the chilly climes of norther Hokkaido prepared for an appearance in Koshien by practicing for several days inside a vinyl ten where the temperature was 101 degrees.

Reminders of the importance of spirit are seen everywhere. In the souvenir stands by the main and rear gates, hawkers peddle baseballs with the word konjo (spirit) painted on them with a fine calligraphy brush, as well as banners urging nekyu (Passionate Baseball) and flags carrying Suishu Tobita's famous motto, ikkyu nyukon (total concentration). The air is filled with the acrid odor of smoked fish from vending stalls under the stands.

The game starts slowly for PL. By the end of the fifth inning, Chuo is leading, 2-1. Everyone in the PL oendan is cheering lustily and with soldierly precision, as the PL band plays prewar military songs and Meiji Era music. Still the head cheerleader looks worried.

"You're not cheering loud enough," he yells. "You there, back row, third from right. Show some spirit."

He shoots his hands in the air in karate chopping motions, exhorting them to greater heights. The roar increases. It is almost painful to listen to.

"I still can't hear you!" he screams. "Give me more!"

Some reporters in the area clap their hands over their ears.

Miniskirted majorettes prance in the aisles, kicking their legs high. Photographers surreptitiously station themselves at the base of the stands, their cameras angled at the girls' crotches. Certain magazines in Japan will pay several hundred dollars for the right kind of picture. Pubescent cheesecake is a favorite of the Japanese male.

"They're all virgins," explains one of the photographers, offhandedly. "At least I think they are. That's part of the appeal."

The federation had complained about such photos. It has asked the magazines concerned to respect the innocence and purity of the affair and not publish "indecent" pictures. No one seemed to pay attention.

"These games aren't as pure as everyone would like to think," said a big, bearded, deep-voiced man in his mid-thirties named Masayuki Tamaki, who has written several successful books on baseball. "There are high school baseball groupies, you know. It was harder in the days when all the teams stayed in communal-style Japanese ryokan. There was no privacy. Nowadays, many stay in regular hotel rooms. There are always girls milling around outside. These guys are big heroes. All a player has to do is wave from his window and someone will come up.

"Hotel proprietors say they find all sorts of interesting things in the lavatory trash cans up by the players' rooms. Cigarette butts, beer cans. Even used condoms."

In the first row of the cheering section, the junior students make tea for the seniors. "That's another part of their education," says Tamaki. "They're studying to be adults and work in a corporation." He laughs.

Tamaki is an iconoclast -- the Ochiai of Japanese sports journalism -- who, among other things, writes satires on Japan's ongoing obsession with adolescent baseball. Once he was quoted in a magazine as saying that ballplayers at Koshien looked like prison inmates with their bowed heads and shaven skulls. The high school federation complained to the magazine's editor-in-chief.

Fifty rows up, the PL flag bearer holds the school flag aloft. The flag and the pole weigh fifteen pounds, yet he will stand at attention the entire nine innings. He has "spirit."

The cheering never stops. On offense, it is kattobase (slam it out). On defense, the yell changes to gambare (do your best). The energy level is astounding. The tempo picks up as PL comes to bat in the bottom of the sixth inning. The students are screaming so hard the cords in their necks stand out like steel cables. Their faces are purple, contorted in pain. Seat flies from their brows. It is a scorching hot: ninety-nike degrees at 2:30.

It is also polluted, Osaka being surrounded by a plethora of factories. Outside the stadium stands a permanent sign which reads, "Beware of Photochemical Smog." A student in the crowd collapses from the heat. Under the grandstand in the first-aid room, several people are being treated for heatstroke. most of the press corps are down in the coffee shop under the stadium watching the game on TV in air-conditioned comfort.

A walk to the PL leadoff batter in the sixth is followed by the inevitable bunt, which is misplayed, leaving two runners on base. Many students in the oendan are clutching mamori (good luck charms), eyes closed, playing for a hit as they yell. The next batter steps up to the plate. He lines a single into left center field. A gift from the gods. The tying run crosses the plate.

"It gives me the creeps," says Tamaki.

The score is still tied in the PL half of the eighth as the first batter steps in. He screams at the pitcher -- an animal-like "Aarrgh!" -- to demonstrate that the time has come to get serious about the game. The cheering is more intense than ever -- reverberating through the stadium -- and so is the praying. The batter singles. So does the next man (on a bunt). And the next. A run comes in. Then another. Then two more. Then still another. Suddenly the game has turned into a rout.

Over on the Chuo side of the field, the large contingent of hometown supporters -- local residents, town officials, mothers, and fathers, all wearing straw hats to ward off the heat -- are despondent. Going to Koshien is about the biggest honor a school can bring to its town. It ranks with sending someone to Todai, or sending a man to the moon. Many Chuo supporters made the eight-hour trip to Osaka the night before on one of the many special trains Japan Railways rigs up. But now, their dreams of an upset at an end, they will have to turn around and go right back home again, barely before the two-week tournament has even started.

Most of the Chuo students and cheering section members are openly sobbing, oblivious to the NHK cameras zooming in on them. For them, it is a great tragedy. But the viewers at home will love it and Koshien's ratings will stay high.

The final score is 7-2. The Chuo players do their obligatory home plate bow, stand at attention as the PL School song is played, then rush down the line to thank their respective cheering sections. Then they race back to their dugout area, where they produce plastic bats and begin filling them with Koshien's sacred dirt, a memento of their one shining day in the summer sun. It is a ritual that has been repeated thousands of times in this park.

When the youths finally leave, they turn and bow toward center field, as they would at any park, really, but at Koshien, their bow is more reverential, because this stadium is a very special repository of the spirit -- like a cathedral. One should pay it utmost respect.

In the interview area underneath the infield seats, the press crowds around the victors and the losers alike. It is said there are more reporters covering the Koshien tournament then there were for the last Tokyo SUmmit. The NHK cameras focus on the PL pitching ace, his head shyly bowed as he answers questions, his arm going un-iced. Then it is PL manager Nakamura's turn.

Nakamura is one of the better-paid managers in high school ball. His income is estimated to be near six figures, which is not unusual in big-time high school baseball. (Another high paid manager, Tatsunori Hara's father, Mitsugu, was wooed from Kyushu to Tokai High School for a reported 10 mission yen a year. He now drives a Mercedes.) For years Nakamura was an assistant coach and before that he worked at Mitsubishi Caterpillar. These days all he does is manage the team ... and win.

One day he will write a best-selling book on how to educate and motivate young people, as all other top high school managers have done. Perhaps he will draw the title from the motto of PL's baseball club, "The Way of Baseball is the Way of a Human Being."

Many players on the Chuo team are sobbing openly, uncontrollably, their big chance at everlasting fame over.

"Suishu Tobita would be proud," exclaims one elderly magazine writer, eyeing the scene.

"Tobita who?" asks a young newspaper reporter, taking a sip from a plastic cup of Kirin beer.

The older man looks disgusted. "Get serious," he snaps. "You shouldn't be drinking beer at an event like this."

No one seems especially happy that PL has won, except those from PL, of course. The games at Koshien have been called daily morality plays, with their emphasis on fighting spirit and manners. But the lesson of today's play was, as usual, Might is Right. The Lions always eat the Christians. And certain types of schools finish last.

"Rooting for PL," says one fan, contemptuously, "is like rooting for a professional team against amateurs. PL should be force to play in the Central League."

According to High School Baseball Federation officials, the ultimate purpose of this great national preoccupation is to produce good citizens through baseball. Yet many dispassionate critics wonder if that is what is really happening.

They bemoan the increasing commercialization of high school ball and the glitzy show biz atmosphere that has invaded the games. "Koshien is not an athletic meet," said one writer, "it is a social event." Said another writer, after witnessing the unnerving sight of a losing team sobbing en masse before equally distraught supporters, "This isn't sportsmanship. It's group hysteria."

Japanese high school baseball stars are perhaps the best players in the world for their age group and usually have little difficulty downing their American counterparts (who practice far less but perhaps enjoy the game more). Japanese critics, however, worry the Koshien mentality is producing a continuous like of passive robots, a charge that is frequently made in regard to the Japanese system of education as a whole, with its emphasis on rote learning, corporal punishment, and blind obedience to dogmatic rules.

The story is told of a young pitcher who entered Waseda University from a high school where he had undergone extremely rigorous training. In practice one day, he complained to fellow players of abdominal pains. The manager overheard him and asked, "Tell me, where exactly does it hurt?"

The youth stood up straight and barked, "Hai!" (Yes; Yes, sir), but said nothing more. The manager asked again. Once more the boy shouted "Hai!" and stood at rigid, silent attention.

Several times more the manager tried, but all he could get was the same robotlike response. Finally, he gave up and sent the boy to the school doctor. He found out later that the youth had been taught in high school to respond as he had whenever the manager spoke. That had been his "education."

A system which stymies creativity and independent thinking is, some analysts say, one reason why Japanese baseball players fall behind their American counterparts in later years. Said columnist Kazuo Chujo, "Rigid training can produce results, but the results don't last because the players are merely following orders and not developing their own styles. No amount of coaching or teaching can make a passive athlete rise to great heights. But too many Japanese fail to realize this simple fact. The Japanese must liberate baseball from the realm of education and elevate it to that of fun and games."

Author Tomomi Muratamatsu is among those who see something more sinister in the Koshien phenomenon. Wrote Muramatsu (in the Asahi Shimbun, no less), upon watching rows of unsmiling youths file stiff-backed into the stadium for the opening ceremony -- column after column of pumping legs and swinging arms, in endless, military-perfect duplication, "They remind me of Hitler's Brownshirts at a gathering of Nazis."

The steely discipline and references to divine attributes also disturb some foreigners, looking for signs of resurgent Japanese militarism. Americans were particularly alarmed when surveys taken at the height of U.S.-Japan trade friction revealed that a majority of Japanese high school students believed the United States would be their most likely opponent in the event of a war.

Referring to the apparent xenophobic implications of the survey, Shoichi Suzuki, a twenty-five-year-old reporter for the weekly Gendai, said, "I don't think there's much to worry about. ... Older people in their thirties and forties might find the Koshien spirit admirable, but among young Japanese, opinion is divided. Lots of young people think the whole thing is really stupid. They don't think about the past or draw any significance from it. Koshien is just there."

Atsushi Imamura, a thirty-two-year-old editor for the weekly Bunshun, was even more emphatic: "They're just skinheads -- out of step with the times. They don't represent modern Japan at all."

Perhaps, but Koshien has left a powerful influence which is felt in many areas of Japanese society. As the parents of an eleven-year-old boy from Chiba named Jiro can attest.

Little Jiro liked to play softball. And one a very hot day in July of 1986, he showed up for a game with the rest of his school's team in Funabashi, Chiba, near Tokyo.

The boys' pregame workout alone would have exhausted most adults. It consisted of twenty 160-yeard dashes, a 2-mile run, a Japanese running drill in which players run back and forth in front of a coach at full speed for several minutes trying to catch a ball tossed up in the air, and a fielding session of one hundred ground balls. Jiro and the other boys were not allowed to drink watch during practice.

This was, according to the weekly Asahi Journal, which wrote an article about the event, a standard pregame workout for any young boys' ball team.

Jiro's team lost the game, so the manager ordered a postgame workout. This one consisted of ten 30-yeard dashes, ten 60-yeard dashes, ten laps around the field (310 yards), ten sprints up and down the stadium stairs, and, finally, three 60-yard dashes to wrap it all up.

It was, said the Asahi Journal again, not an unusual postgame workout for a young boys' ball team.

It is estimated that the boys ran a total of ten miles all told and when it was all over, little Jiro, who had apparently been in good health, keeled over and died of heart failure.

Jiro's school eventually paid 40 million yen in consolation money to Jiro's parents, who filed a lawsuit anyway. They didn't thinkk much of the coach or the school's philosophy.

Masayuki Tamaki thinks his countrymen are attracted to baseball because they perceive it as the ultimate macho sport. He became convinced of that after he wrote a magazine article in which he made practical suggestions for turning the Koshien tournament into a less brutal experience for those involved.

He suggested holding the tourney in October when it is not so hot, or moving the locale to Hokkaido where summers are cool, as a way of avoiding the sauna bath heat of Osaka in August. He also proposed scheduling games every other day so that ace pitchers would not have to go through the arm-wrenching ordeal of pitching nine-inning games several days in a row.

His piece was met with overwhelming silence.

From this, Tamaki concluded that the Japanese, no matter what they might say to the contrary, were hopelessly addicted to the tournament the way it was. To change it would mean that Koshien would no longer be the modern manhood rite -- in which fighting spirit is pitted against adversity -- that had attracted people in the first place.

"Koshien is a big festival," said Tamaki. "It's like gion, or obon. Only it's dedicated to spirit and guts."

Search for Pro Yakyu news and information
Copyright (c) 1995-2023
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Some rights reserved.