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Baseball in Japan
In recent years, the arrival in the United States of players like Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui has enlightened Americans on the popularity of the sport in Japan. But most Americans don’t know that Japan has a baseball history almost as long as the United States.
The exact date when baseball was introduced to Japan is not known, but is attributed to American professor Horace Wilson between 1867 and 1912. The Japanese were immediately intrigued by Western baseball, seeing psychological similarities between baseball and their native sports of sumo and martial arts.
In the 1930s, a team of famous American baseball players, including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, toured Japan and played games against Japanese college players. Even though the Americans won every game they played, the series helped spark interest in baseball throughout Japan. Japan’s first professional team was formed in 1934.
During the years of World War II, as more and more men joined the military, baseball fell out of favor and many baseball diamonds were turned into munitions depots or used to grow food crops. However, after Japan’s defeat, Allied commanders helping to rebuild Japan turned to baseball to boost morale and strengthen ties with the west.
In 1950, the Japanese league took on the form it still has today; two leagues of six teams each. The introduction of television in 1955 brought baseball to a wider audience in both Japan and the United States.
There are some differences in style and rules of play between modern American and Japanese baseball. The ball used in Japanese baseball is smaller and lighter than the ball used in American baseball. Also, unlike American teams, Japanese teams are only allowed four foreign players per team, two position players and two pitchers.
Stylistically, Japanese coaches focus more on the fundamentals of the bunting, base running, and fielding, while American baseball has come to rely heavily on pitching skill and the long ball strike. Because of these differences, Japanese baseball games generally have closer and lower final scores than American baseball games.
In recent years, Japanese baseball teams have been hit hard by the departure of players to American teams. The Japanese league and Major League Baseball have an agreement requiring American teams to pay fees for signing Japanese players, but the rules don’t apply to free agents. Japanese people today are much more likely to watch an American team on television than a Japanese team. Players like Ichiro Suzuki are hugely popular in Japan and are considered national heroes.
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