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The Japanese (Baseball) Fan

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The Japanese (Baseball) Fan

by Robert Whiting (1986)

The sun beats high in the sky;
The passion of youth is beautiful,
Oh, glorious Hanshin Tigers,
Hanshin Tigers
from "The Hanshin Tigers Song," lyrics by Sonosuke Sato

There are a lot of unusual things about Japan's national sport of baseball: spring training that begins in mid-winter; million-dollar scoreboards that light up with "Gattsu Besuboru" (Guts Baseball) and other inspiring slogans, even mini-skirted ballgirls and waitresses who serve cocktails in the expensive infield seats.

But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the game is the Japanese fan himself, whose passion for his favorite sport may be unsurpassed anywhere else in the world.

According to one survey, one out of every two Japanese is a baseball fan, and some observers consider even that figure to be conservative. Each summer, for example, when the National High School Baseball Tournament is in progress, the nation virtually comes to a standstill to watch the continuous 9 a.m. To 6 p.m. Live TV coverage. Crowds of 60,000 or more are not uncommon for top college games, and whenever the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, Japan's oldest and winningest professional team, play a game, standing room only is the rule – all reserved seats having been sold out months in advance. The Giants annually draw 3,000,000 fans, and that's in only 65 home dates.

Last year, as the Hanshin Tigers of Osaka, perennial bridesmaid to the Tokyo club, won their first pennant in 21 years, a wave of Tiger mania swept the land, eclipsing everything else in its path. Tiger supporters gave new meaning to the word "fan," often sleeping outside the stadium to buy bleacher tickets for the next day's game. Thousands more followed the team around the country on a special Tiger Train, in which several cars were chartered exclusively for devotees of the team.

In setting an all-time attendance record for the club (2,600,000), the Tiger faithful sparked a mini-economic boom. They snapped up Tiger dolls, Tiger beer, Tiger underwear and other memorabilia in a season-long frenzy of souvenir buying that, when combined with ticket sales and other related costs, amounted to nearly half a billion dollars worth of revenue in the Osaka area alone.

On the day the Tigers wrapped up their Central League title, their fans were so overcome with joy that many of them leaped impulsively into a polluted canal that flows through downtown Osaka. Said Randy Bass, the American star of the Tigers, "We've got the best fans in the world. But one of these days, I'm afraid they're going to tear down the stadium."

So extraordinary were the exploits of Tiger followers that in a year-end poll conducted by the leading daily Yomiuri Shimbun, Tiger Fever was chosen as one of the top 10 stories of 1985 in the regular domestic news category.

Man blooms as a flower of the earth.
Baseball is a is life.
Take the Tiger alive...catch the Whale,
Swallow the Dragon...pull in the Carp,
Knock down the Giant star.
Fly away Yakult Swallows.

From the Yakult Swallows' song
"Fly Away Yakult Swallows"

Taken as a whole, the Japanese baseball fan is a fascinating study in contrasts – like the Japanese character itself. He will sit quietly through a nine-inning game, behaving with proverbial Japanese decorum, eschewing the sort of loud and vulgar conduct common in many U.S. Major-league ballparks. He will even politely return foul balls to the stadium ushers (as prescribed by longtime custom in Japanese baseball).

Yet put him in one of the cheering groups, or oendan, that can be found at all baseball stadiums in Japan and he quickly sheds his traditional restraint. Spurred on by energetic cheerleaders, the herd instinct and a pounding rhythm of taiko drums, horns, whistles and other noisemakers, he becomes a veritable wild-man.

Said one New York television producer after spending an entire game in the midst of the several-thousand-member Yomiuri Giant oendan, "These people are lunatics! There is more noise here than the World Series and the Army-Navy game combined. How do they keep it up?"

Oendan exist at every level of Japanese sport, from amateur to professional. A concept originally borrowed from the West, it is now a phenomenon unique to Japan, at least in terms of intensity. For example, the baseball rivalry between Keio and Waseda, Japan's top two private universities, has long been famous for its hyperactive cheering sections. Six times a year the two schools play, and each game seems noisier than the last.

Rival oendan station themselves on opposite sides of the field and, under the direction of karate-chopping cheerleaders and somersaulting pom-pom girls, scream bloody murder for nine solid innings.

Each time a runner reachers first base, his school's oendan begins a rhythmic cry – "Let's go! Let's go! Let's go! Let's go!" – which continues until the side has retired. The chant has been known to last as long as an hour without stopping, requiring an amazing degree of stamina from participants and leaders alike, many of whom train hard for the task. As one student said proudly, "We're in better shape than the players."

Oendan dates back to the 19th century, when sports like crew racing, tennis and baseball were introduced by visiting professors and missionaries from Great Britain and the United States.

Before then, the Western concept of sport had been virtually unknown in Japan. There was sumo, with its religious origins, and athletics like horseback riding, swimming, kendo and judo, which were originally adopted for military training purposes.

As Japan opened its doors, however, ending nearly 300 years of national isolation to embark on a modernization effort to catch up with the West, the nation imported many facets of Western civilization, including sports, and a craze for besuboru developed.

Baseball was well-received for a number of reasons. It was Japan's first group game and it gave the Japanese an opportunity to express their renowned group proclivities on an athletic field. Moreover, the Japanese found the pitcher-batter confrontation similar in psychology to that found in the martial arts, The Ministry of Education soon pronounced the sport "Good for the development of the national character," and by the turn of the century a number of high school and college leagues had been formed. (So great was the educational emphasis on fighting spirit at that time that in some contests a batter who tried to avoid being hit by a pitched ball inadvertently thrown at him was penalized by not being allowed to take first base. It was reasoned that he had failed to demonstrate the proper courage.)

Almost from the start, the oendan were a major presence at baseball games – highly organized, extremely loud and more than a little militant. Participation was considered a way of demonstrating school loyalty and post-game confrontations between rival cheer groups were a major problem.

In 1904, for example, after a game in which Keio had defeated its crosstown Tokyo rival Waseda, the Keio oendan performed a rousing Banzai cheer in front of the on-campus residence of the Waseda University president. Stung by this grievous insult, the Waseda oendan repaid in kind the next time the two teams met (a game which Waseda won) with a noisy demonstration of its own in front of the Keio president's house.

By the time the third game was scheduled to be played, there was homicide in the air. Both cheer groups had swollen in size to several hundred students, their ranks fortified with members of their respective judo clubs – many of whom arrived at the ballpark clad in their judo uniforms, ready to do battle. University authorities were so alarmed that they cancelled the contest and subsequently banned further play between the two schools for 20 years.

            The sun rises, the wind blows hot, the sky burns,
            The Lion runs on the horizon.
            Fierce, brave, beautiful;
            His flying mane leaves the trail of a rainbow.
            Aaah...Lions, Lions, Lions.

From the Seibu Lions' song "Lion on the Horizon" lyrics by Yu Aku

With the birth of Japanese professional baseball in 1935, oendan naturally followed. These cheering groups consisted of a few unpaid volunteers who had in common a passion for the home team and a strong set of lungs.

Although pro baseball struggled in those early years, its popularity soared after the war as the game came to symbolize the new order of democracy that had taken hold in Japan. The oendan grew right along with it.

Most notable was that of the Yomiuri Giants, who dominated pro baseball for much of the postwar era, winning nine straight Japan Championships from 1965 to 1973. The Giants' oendan was organized and led by a rambunctious man named Sekiya, who owned a newspaper distributorship for the Yomiuri Shimbun, the team's parent company. For every game at Tokyo's Korakuen Stadium, the Giants' home park, he would take up position in the first base stands – yelling, waving his arms and exhorting his fellow fans to cheer on their heroes.

Sekiya would also taunt the opposition. "Hey, get your mind off your wife's ass!" he would say. So ruthless was he by Japanese standards that, on occasion, the chief umpire would halt the game and order him to desist.

Since the mid-1970s, when the strangle-hold of the Giants on Japanese baseball was finally broken, cheering groups in both leagues have grown bigger and brassier – so much so that one former baseball commissioner tried, with little success, to tone them down for the benefit of fans who might wish to watch a game in peace and quiet.

The several hundred members of the Hiroshima Carp cheering section, for example, now wave so many giant carp streamers that it is sometimes impossible for the fans to see the field. The Nippon Ham Fighters oendan has a detachment of long-legged cheer girls whose high-kicking antics usually bear little relation to the flow of the game itself. But no matter. As one newspaper reporter has written, "It seems that people these days are more interested in watching the activity in the stands than the action on the diamond."

One particularly popular oendan is that of the Yakult Swallows. It is led by a colorful character named Masayasu Okada, who has become something of a cult figure in Japanese baseball. A sign painter by profession, the 55-year-old Okada can be found at Tokyo's Jingu Stadium during every Swallows' home game, leading the right field stands in wild abandon. Before the game begins, Okada passes out colorfully painted frying pans, drumsticks and other noisemakers to the fans, coaching them on his enormous repertoire of songs and cheers.

He is famous for his cry, "Kutabare (Drop dead) Giants!" which officials eventually made him stop (for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is perhaps the fact that the Swallows' owner is an admitted longtime Giants fan).

Yakult fans like their leader so much that many of those sitting in the expensive infield seats will leave in mid-game to join him in the bleachers. Accompanied by a squadron of 30 or so assistants, Okada follows his team wherever it plays on the road, paying his own expenses. He explains his hobby of 20 years by saying, "I'm just crazy about the Yakult Swallows. That's all."

            To the sky with fighting soul
            The ball soars and soars with burning flames.
            Ever proud of the name
            Their courage lights up the field.
            Go...Go...Giants Troop.

From the Yomiuri Giants' song "With Fighting Soul" lyrics by Sanpei Tsubaki

Some observers view the oendan as but further proof Japanese society's addiction to group activity and regulation. Some cheer groups, for example, charge membership fees and issue membership cards. Others, like the Giants' right field oendan, even assign seat numbers to areas which the club has designated as non-reserved seating and require members to come to the ballpark several hours early to practice their cheers.

Many members of the Seibu Lions' oendan are employees of the Seibu Group, which owns the team and includes the Seibu Railways company and the Seibu Department stores. Displaying fabled Japanese corporate loyalty, they respond to company appeals to support the team by making frequent trips to Lions Stadium, located in Tokyo's far suburb of Tokorozawa.

Yet few are complaining. As one fan said, "For the most part, the oendan organizations are an example of democracy at work. Anyone can join. You're free to form your own group if you want. And anyone can become a cheerleader, whether he is a wealthy businessman or a poor college student. It's simple. The noisiest rise to the top."

A Professor Oda of Tsukuba University sees the oendan as serving an important psychological function. "Japanese work too hard," he said in a recent TV interview. "Traditionally, it has only been at matsuri (festival) time each year that we lose our inhibitions and let down our hair. These days, however, a trip to the baseball game has become a substitute for the matsuri. That's good. It means we're relaxing more."

Nowhere is a baseball game more of a matsuri than at Koshien Stadium, a chipped and weathered structure in Osaka with a capacity of 60,000 that has housed the Hanshin Tigers for over half a century. Each day during a Tiger home stand the routine is the same. Several hours before game time, stadium officials open the gates and a long line of fans queued up outside the park rushes in. Within minutes, the bleachers right and center field are a sea of people – over 10,000 in all. Each is equipped with a Tiger happi coat, a Tiger cap and Tiger megaphone, which are sold at the park for a nominal fee. (In addition, every person has been given a Tiger balloon to be sent aloft during the seventh-inning stretch in a flamboyant display of Tiger fan unity.)

Many young women sport artificial Tiger tails and Tiger whiskers. Others have their hair dyed yellow and black, the official Tiger colors. Several fans even have their heads shaved in the shape of the Chinese character tora, meaning tiger. Someone waves a tattered American flag in tribute to the two Americans on the team, Bass and Rich Gale.

Two hours before game time, with an overflow crowd standing in the aisles, the cheerleaders arrive – their places in the front row respectfully reserved by other fans. They have just come from the Tiger shrine, located in a nearby supermarket, where, led by oendan chief and 20-year veteran Yutaka Matsubayashi, they prayed for the success of the team.

In the crowd are several splinter booster groups and ad hoc organizations identified by distinctive headbands and shoulder badges. There is the "I Love Koshien Club," the "Tiger Fanatics Club," the "Kyoto Tiger Association," the "Right Field Stands Club," and the "Tora, Tora, Tora Group," among many others.

A young man named Kichi, who belongs to a small fan group, exclaims: "I love it here. I'd come every day if I could afford it. This is our place."

At 5:00 p.m., exactly one hour before the first pitch, the crowd rises to sing the Tiger song. Then the chanting begins. "Ketobase Tai-ga-zu (Knock 'em dead, Tigers), Ketobase Tai-ga-zu!" It is a resounding, deafening chant that is varied only to replace "Tigers" with the name of a Tiger batter or pitcher. For the next four-and-a-half hours, with a monotonous and hypnotic regularity, it goes on...and on...and on.

It is an awesome display of energy, and even when the game is over the crowd seems reluctant to leave. Many remain standing in place, still chanting as if under some magic spell.

"Baseball is a lot clearer than our daily lives," says one businessman, dressed in a blue suit with tie still in place, as he filed out of the stadium. "The strong and the best win. That's all there is to it."

For others, however, the attraction is even more basic. Says one young man in a voice hoarse from screaming, "I didn't really come here to see pro ball. I just like the atmosphere." "It's like a rock concert," declares his girlfriend. "We just have a lot of fun yelling."

"To tell the truth," confesses one sub-cheerleader, a man in his 50s, "I come here because it gives me a chance to get away from my wife." He adds with a wink, "That's also why I go on the road with the team."

            The power and spirit of the sun
            Which shines on the field is in this breast.
            Living for baseball, full of dreams.
            Nankai Hawks, let's go!
            Aah...Flapping wings of gold in the sky
            The flag of victory unfurls.
            Hawks! Hawks! Nankai Hawks.

From "The Nankai Hawks' Song" lyrics by Takao Saeki

In recent years, a distinct change in the makeup of professional baseball crowds and their respective oendan has become apparent. Giant fans at Korakuen used to be predominantly white-collar, upwardly mobile, with pretensions to sophistication – precursors to the Japanese "Yuppies" so to speak. Even those who sat in the oendan sections had a distinct "whiskey-and-water" air about them.

Now, however, one notices an increasing number of adolescent females, especially in the cheaper seats, screaming wildly at the younger players on the field, regardless of the score or game situation. As one veteran sportswriter put it: "Korakuen is getting more and more like a Roppongi disco."

By the same token, Hanshin fans were once largely artisans, craftsmen, and day laborers – professions typical of industrial Osaka, who came to the game to let off steam after a hard day and who weren't averse to dashing joyfully out onto the field to celebrate a home run.

Today sees more and more high school dropouts in the crowd; disaffected youth who have been bypassed in Japan's demanding educational system, who are quite often unemployed and looking hard for ways to kill time. Japanese sociologists call them the "Wandering Generation," and attribute a certain rise in stadium violence to their presence at the ballpark. Last year at Koshien, for example, a number of visiting players were struck by rocks, batteries and other objects being thrown from the stands. And on one occasion, an umpire was carried off the field after one inebriated, angry young fan hit him with a bicycle chain.

When a Giant-Tiger game was precipitously called because of rain, several hundred angry oendan members stormed the field. The next day, stadium authorities erected a barbed wire fence in front of the outfield stands.

In a subsequent TV symposium on fan violence, one sociologist was moved to comment: "Our youth is becoming more and more alienated. The family is breaking up and there are no rules for them on how to act. No restraints. If this continues, we're in for a lot of trouble...."

Still, there is no need for panic. Not yet. Japan has a long way to go indeed before it can match the violence found in foreign soccer stadiums, or even the rowdiness one routinely sees in many American major league parks, where armed guards and police dogs are sometimes employed to keep order.

Said Sports Illustrated writer Bruce Anderson, after spending several days last August watching baseball Japanese-style, "Perhaps there are isolated episodes, but all in all there is just not the mean-spiritedness here that there is in the U.S. In Japan, it's more a spirit of good, clean fun. It's very refreshing."

Last fall, the Tiger oendan demonstrated just how refreshing good clean fun can be when they took control of a Seibu Railways train.

That particular incident occurred after the end of the sixth and final game of the 1985 Japan Series between Hanshin and Seibu at Lions Stadium, which the Tigers handily won to wrap up their Japan Championship. Several hundred delirious Tiger supporters squeezed onto the last train from Tokorozawa and continued their celebration all the way back into the city.

Not satisfied with having screamed themselves hoarse all afternoon, the oendan, under the vigorous orchestration of cheerleaders with megaphones stationed in each car, sang individual cheers to all the players, coaches and front office people in the Hanshin organization – all accompanied by much foot-stomping that literally had the train shaking on the tracks.

That finished, they started all over again – this time with chants deriding everyone on the Seibu and Yomiuri rosters.

Each time the train came to a halt at a station, the oendan chief called out his instructions: "Listen, everyone. No one gets on this train. Repeat. No one. This is a Seibu line and everyone out there is a Seibu fan. So no one gets on."

Those orders were unnecessary, since the entire train was so utterly jammed with people that it would have been impossible for anyone else to squeeze aboard. One station official, who tried to work his way inside one of the coaches, gave up after several unsuccessful attempts.

This continued for nearly an hour all the way to the end of the line, whereupon the Tigers fans alit to do a rousing <i>Banzai</i> cheer in front of the corner selling Lions' goods at the entrance to the Seibu Department Store. They then capped it off with several reverent bars of the Tiger song – just to rub it in.

As the group headed for Tokyo Station and the three-and-a-half-hour ride back to Osaka, one person who, by his own estimate, had been cheering for seven consecutive hours, was heard to remark, "I can't wait until we get on the bullet train. Then we can start all over again."

Hanshin Tigers!

Robert Whiting's book on Japanese baseball, The Chrysanthemum and the Bat, is regarded as a classic in the study of Japanese culture.

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