On opening day, Japanese baseball is in the MLB spotlight

Japan’s best player is about to take his first crack at Major League Baseball.
Japan’s best player is about to take his first crack at Major League Baseball.
Image: Gary A. Vasquez/USA Today Sports
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When the US Major League Baseball season begins today (March 29), one of the most closely watched players will be Shohei Ohtani, who is debuting in the US after a remarkable four-year career in Japan. Ohtani, who will play for the Anaheim Angels, was the both the best hitter and pitcher in Nippon Professional Baseball last season, an accomplishment so unusual that he’s invited comparisons to Babe Ruth. (Though his sub-par performance in spring training may have dampened some of that enthusiasm).

Ohtani may be the most notable import from Japan this season, but he’s far from alone. Last year, eight Japanese-born players plied their trade in the majors, extending a modern-era streak that started in 1995, with Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo. Japanese players in the majors have had mixed success: some have flamed out, others have become genuine stars.

But Nippon Professional Baseball isn’t just a staging ground for prospective major leaguers, but a thriving Japanese institution in its own right. Baseball, called yakyu, is Japan’s most popular sport. Just as in the US, baseball cards are avidly collected in Japan. Among the most prized are pre-war menko, colorful cardboard discs or rectangles used in a game where the object was to flip an opponent’s card, similar to pogs.

Teams are named for their corporate sponsors (hence the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters and Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks), fans sing and cheer throughout the game, and concessions stands sell sake and bento boxes. (Also, there are cheerleaders.) The game is different on the field, too: Japanese teams emphasize manufacturing runs through teamwork, not solo heroics, and the sacrifice bunt, a self-effacing tactic all but abandoned in the US, continues to flourish.

Now in its 83rd year, professional baseball is a true Japanese institution. It’s also gaining more attention from American fans who see a mirror version of their familiar game, with its own vibrant traditions and history.

A brief history of Japan’s favorite game

1872 or 73: Baseball is introduced to Japan by Horace Wilson, an American professor of English in Tokyo, to encourage his students to be more physically active. The first Japanese team is formed a few years later.

1896: A team from Ichiko, an elite Tokyo high school, beats a recreational team of expatriate Americans 29-4, spurring the adoption of baseball among Japanese high schools.

1934: A team of American all-stars—including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Jimmie Foxx—plays a series of exhibition games in Japan. Ruth hit 14 home runs in 17 games, and was a sensation.

1936: Japan’s first professional league is formed, and later reorganized as Nippon Professional Baseball in 1950. The same year—11 years before Jackie Robinson broke major league baseball’s color barrier—James Bonner, a 24-year old African American pitcher from Louisiana, was signed by Dai Tokyo, the precursor to the Yomiuri Giants.

1957: Wally Yonamine, the first American to play professionally in Japan, is named MVP of the NPB’s Central League. Born in Hawaii, Yonamine also played professional football with the San Francisco 49ers

1964: Manasori Murukami, a pitcher, becomes the first Japanese player in US Major League Baseball, playing nine games for the Giants.

1980: Sadaharu Oh, the “Japanese Babe Ruth,” retires from the Yomiuri Giants after 21 seasons and with 868 career home runs, the most in any professional baseball league

1992: The Tom Selleck comedy Mr. Baseball is released, about a New York Yankee who is traded to the Chunichi Dragons

1995: Hideo Nomo, a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, is named National League rookie of the year. Nomo was the first Japanese player to star in the US, throwing two no-hitters and twice leading his league in strikeouts.

Then came Ichiro

There’s never been a player quite like him, on any continent. Ichiro Suzuki—who, Prince-like, goes by just his given name—was a superstar outfielder for the Orix Blue Wave when he left Japan at age 27 to play for the Seattle Mariners in 2001. Japanese hitters hadn’t yet found success in the US, and there was skepticism about whether he could handle US pitching. He quickly demolished those doubts, leading baseball in batting and stolen bases, and was named both rookie of the year and most valuable player in the American League. Ignited by Ichiro, the 2001 Mariners won 116 games, a major league record.

With his distinctive chopping swing, Ichiro kept piling up the hits—including 262 in 2004, breaking an 84-year old record for hits in a season—and finished last season with 3,080 major league hits. Combined with his total from Japan, he has 4,358 hits through 2017, the most of any player ever, even if Pete Rose, the US hit king, refuses to acknowledge Ichiro’s preeminence.

Ichiro’s reputation wasn’t just made with his bat, however. Along with his speed on the basepaths and awe-inspiring throwing arm, he’s a style icon who carries his bats in a custom-made dehumidifying case. His work ethic is legendary: as a minor leaguer, he would wake up at 1 a.m. to practice his swing for three hours in the dark before going back to sleep. In 2009, he tried to play with a bleeding ulcer, the result of the stress of leading Japan to a World Baseball Classic title. During the offseason, he rents an entire stadium in Kobe for his personal workouts.

Now 44, Ichiro is back with the Mariners after six years in New York and Miami. Age has dulled his skills, and as a part-time player last year he appeared in only 136 games, the fewest in his career. Still, he says he wants to play until he’s 50. Given his history, who would bet against it?

A Japanese baseball reading list

If you want to dive deeper into Japanese baseball history and culture, here’s a reading list:

You Gotta Have Wa Robert Whitting’s classic from 1989 is the seminal introduction to Japanese baseball, from an American writer reporter who spent decades in the country. Other Whiting books on Japanese baseball include The Chrysanthemum and the Bat (1977) and The Meaning of Ichiro (2004).

Kenichi Zenimura, Japanese American Baseball Pioneer Bill Staples unveils a hidden chapter in baseball history, the segregated California Nisei leagues, and how Zenimura built a 32-team league behind barbed wire at the Gila, Arizona internment camp during World War II

When Winter Never Ends  Wright Thompson of ESPN Magazine profiles Ichiro at the end of his career as he contemplates the unthinkable: life without baseball