Samurai Baseball

Baseball arrived in Japan late in the nineteenth century, introduced by American instructors hired by Japanese universities and other institutions of learning as part of an intensive modernization movement that had begun in 1868, the Meiji Restoration. That movement focused on making profound changes to Japan’s government, economy and even its social structure. Baseball, which quickly became popular in Japan and soon showed up on the playing fields of schools newly built to satisfy government requirements of compulsory education, was one example among many of new, exciting ideas and practices emerging as part of a modern and revitalized Japan.

However, this process had its losers too. New government policies such as conscription and universal education were not popular with all Japanese: the new schools required funding, which the government hoped to fund with local taxation, and conscription was part of the larger process of building a modern standing army. That army, as well as the introduction of a national police force, rendered the samurai more or less obsolete.

The samurai had been highly privileged under previous Japanese law, and enjoyed immense prestige in Japanese society. In truth, the samurai had as a class largely shifted away from its military role in the centuries prior to the Meiji Restoration. However, they had retained important cultural roles in defining concepts of Japanese honor, social decorum and masculinity. This role survived the effective end of the samurai as a formally recognized social class following the failed Satsuma Rebellion of 1877. In the years since, the samurai have persisted as emblems of a specific reading of Japanese history and for some as broader expressions of specific Japanese cultural qualities such as toughness and fighting spirit.

These qualities quickly translated into baseball. Early Japanese coaches became famous for pushing their athletes hard. The Tokyo Number One High School team, known as Ichiko, practiced until they passed blood in their urine. The attitudes of some Japanese coaches and athletes towards such extreme physical exertion mirrored Victorian-era concepts of strengthening the nation through expanding the physical capacity of its young men, fitting right in line with the enormous influence of British and German ideas on Japanese modernization. Many Japanese however contextualized such approaches within a distinct Japanese vocabulary, and turned to familiar language in describing young men making physical sacrifices in order to win in battle (or in nine innings) and who were willing to subjugate their own immediate interests to a higher concept of honor.

Robert Whiting, author of The Chrysanthemum and the Bat and one of the first Americans to write for an American audience extensively on Japanese baseball, refers to this as “samurai baseball.” Whiting does not claim to have coined the phrase, instead pointing out that the term itself (samurai besoboru) has been in service in Japanese baseball circles since the late nineteenth century. He frames the concept in terms of a Japanese discourse on national spirit, which has found a home in baseball for some time. The aforementioned Ichiko team are famous because of their lopsided victories against various teams of American workers and sailors in Yokohama. In 1985, the American player Randy Bass found his attempts to break the Japanese single season home run record thwarted when the opposing pitchers refused to throw him strikes; he happened to be playing against a team managed by the holder of the record, baseball legend Oh Sadaharu (pictured above).

Whiting points out that such flashpoints in the dynamic between American and Japanese baseball dovetail with an intensely ideological practice of “samurai baseball.” However, this position frequently comes under scrutiny. William Kelly, in particular, has expressed concern that the adoption of such language in Western scholarship leads foreign observers to sketch out a monolithic Japanese identity or national character, where supposedly classical or feudal traditions have reemerged in the modern age in a different guise. This is far from ideal: it shapes narratives of the modern world that celebrate Western diversity and insist upon Japanese uniformity, and overly credible acceptance of “samurai baseball” as a spiritual phenomenon unique to the Japanese game may have the unintended effect of orientalizing Japanese baseball players and Japanese baseball as a whole. We end up with a fascinating cultural counter-example to a “normal” American standard rather than a complex cultural practice in and of itself.

That practice is fascinating. The elevation of “samurai baseball” to a set of activities that can border on the spiritual at the individual level can draw us worryingly close to essentializing an entire culture, developing our own quick shorthand to identify the Japanese game’s most notable characteristics without diving deeper. Of course, the best approach is to learn more about the complexities of the cultural sphere surrounding the Japanese game. See for example the National High School Baseball Championship, which every year holds its final at Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya. The tournament has been a major part of Japanese baseball since its inception in 1915, with Koshien acquiring a special place in the heart of fans. After each championship game, the losing team gathers up some of the “sacred dirt” from the base running paths to take home. Koshien, like so many other stadiums in cultures across the world, occupies a clear place in an ideological and emotional embrace of baseball in Japan.

For many Japanese, the idea of characterizing this emotion and emotions like it within a broader historical tradition of the “samurai spirit” is an appealing one. That of course is in and of itself a Japanese decision, and worthy of study. Perhaps we are better off thinking of the concept as a specific Japanese manner of processing and celebrating hard work, sacrifice and emotional connections: a set of beliefs and practices analogous to American veneration for the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY or a certain type of American fan’s veneration for skillful use of the bunt play. Something unique to Japan but far from alien.


Suggested Reading:

Robert K. Fitts, Remembering Japanese Baseball: An Oral History of the Game

Andrew Gordon, A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present

William Kelly, Kōshien Stadium: performing national virtues and regional rivalries in a ‘theatre of sport’

Donald Roden, “Baseball and the Quest for National Dignity in Meiji Japan”

Robert Whiting, The Samurai Way of Baseball: The Impact of Ichiro and the New Wave from Japan

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