“It is essential that we continue to communicate across borders and cultures”

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact all facets of life around the globe, communities have had to learn to adapt, from the work environment to education and recreation settings. Professional baseball is no exception.

In August, as baseball made a gradual return to stadiums in the U.S. and Japan while undertaking precautions such as testing players and keeping them distanced from fans, the Japan-America Society of Dallas/Fort Worth and the Japan Society co-hosted an online panel discussion entitled “Baseball in Japan and the U.S. during COVID-19.” Three notable panelists took part: Jason Coskrey, Sports Writer/Editor at The Japan Times; Matt Murton, Baseball Operations Assistant with the Chicago Cubs and former professional baseball player in the U.S. and Japan; and Bobby Valentine, Director of Athletics at Sacred Heart University, former professional baseball player in the U.S., and manager in the U.S. and Japan. The discussion was led by moderator Yuriko Gamo Romer, Director of Diamond Diplomacy, a forthcoming documentary film about U.S.-Japan relations through a shared love of baseball.

Kicking things off, Paul Pass, Executive Director of the Japan-America Society, emphasized the importance of connecting during these trying times. “In our current global situation, it is essential that we continue to communicate across borders and cultures, as well as within our own communities.”

Sharing his enthusiasm, President and CEO of the Japan Society Joshua Walker believes, “Whether you’re in New York or Dallas or San Francisco or Tokyo… there’s one thing that unites us all, which is our love of sports, and baseball in particular.”

“The greatest piece of diplomacy ever”

This shared love of baseball has deep roots, as powerfully conveyed in the sneak preview of Yuriko Gamo Romer’s film Diamond Diplomacy, which examines the heart of the sport that has united people across continents over many years. The birth of professional baseball in Japan was due in large part to the efforts of Lefty O’Doul, an American Major League Baseball player whose passion for the sport brought him to Japan to coach players, promote the sport, and build relationships from the 1930s to the early 1960s. These training missions were hailed as “the greatest piece of diplomacy ever” by General Douglas MacArthur.

The relationship between Japan and baseball dates back almost to the end of the Shogun era. This statue in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward commemorates the first introduction of baseball to Japan as an amateur sport in 1872.

If baseball serves as such a strong unifying force, what role does culture play in the game, and how do these cultural differences play out on the fields of Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) and Major League Baseball (MLB)?

Bobby Valentine, with his vast experience as both a baseball player and manager in the U.S. and Japan, highlighted some key differences experienced on the road. “The game itself is very similar, the ball is pitched, the ball is hit. On the road you dress in the hotel, and the lavish clubhouses and locker rooms aren’t the place that players hang out and spend most of their day; they spend it at the hotel.”

Naturally, sustenance is a crucial part of sports routines anywhere, and Mr. Valentine, who calls Japan a “food society,” observed that major league baseball in Japan “revolves around making sure that the food is served properly—breakfast, lunch, and dinner for guys who are on the road,” adding that, in terms of field etiquette, “You don’t spit on the field, you don’t mess up the dugout. You think of the field as a sacred place to work and play, and everyone takes the game a little more seriously there, both the fans and the umpires.”

Echoing this sentiment, Jason Coskrey has noticed a striking difference between the NPB and MLB from just being in the stands. “The fans, the atmosphere, the game, it’s totally different. It’s the culture, you see the seriousness that even the fans have about the game, and you see how society also reveres the lower levels of the game as far as high school and college, like Waseda University and Keio University. It’s not just about the professional game here. People love the high school game (in Japan, the National High School Baseball Championship, or “Summer Koshien,” is a highly anticipated annual event—some might even say, a national obsession— held during the school summer holidays) and amateur game, so, I think for me it’s just the atmosphere of games is totally different and the seriousness the fans have about the game as well.”

Baseball is one of the most popular sports among kids in Japan, with teams found at the neighborhood and school level throughout the country.

As a former professional player both in the U.S. and Japan, Matt Murton, drawing from his experience with the Cubs organization, spoke vividly about the similarities. “The mound is still 60 feet six inches, the plate is still 17 inches wide, and the goal is still to create runs and prevent runs. So, the object of the game never changes. At the end of the day when you’re competing as an athlete between a batter and a pitcher, inevitably that ball has to come down to home plate and your objective of squaring that ball up really isn’t different regardless of where on the globe you’re playing the game. So, whether you’re in Japan or the U.S. or anywhere else for that matter, in Latin America, around the world, the object is still to hit that baseball.”

“The best of the U.S. in Japan and the best of Japan in the U.S.”

The panelists were asked if they had any thoughts on strengths either country could bring to the game in the other culture.

Mr. Coskrey would like to see greater press access in Japan to managers and players. “In America, before the games you can go talk to the manager, you can go in the clubhouse and in Japan you really can’t do that. A few people can talk to the manager if he decides to sit on the bench and do a little session and then he’s gone, and you really don’t get much from that after that. You don’t get that same sort of access to the players.”

Mr. Murton learned firsthand about the significance of “wa” and unity during his time in Japan. “It’s really hard to experience baseball in another country without culture being a big part of it. One of the things that really stood out to me in Japan is the idea of unity, or “wa,” and the group mentality. As we went through our training and our practices, they were much more group oriented in how we went about stretching and taking our infield and outfield work and going through our hitting routines. And that gave a sense of checking self. We all have egos, we all want to succeed, we all want to be the best of what we do, but the Japanese did a very good job of being able to suppress that in a sense or be able to internalize that in such a way that the group was always supposed to be more important than the one individual.”

Send us a comment about this article