Take me out to the 'besuboru' game: a view from the stands

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Tokyo's eastern suburbs, persimmons hang ripe on the limb and a hush hangs over the stadium in Tokorosawa. Bases are loaded, and mighty Tabuchi has choked up on his bat, waiting for Egawa, the Giants' ace pitcher, to throw his inevitable slow curve.

In the bleachers, a kimono-clad grandmother anxiously gnaws a dried squid stick. The sushi and hotto dogu vendors stop in their tracks. Miles away in the Ginza, businessmen cluster in front of television store windows.

Like the Lions' first baseman, Tabuchi, all of Tokyo this week is waiting for the next pitch. All eyes are on baseball and the annual Japan Series, this year between two bitter Tokyo rivals: the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants and the defending champion Seibu Lions.

Recommended: Could you pass a US citizenship test?

News of former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka's possible resignation from the national Diet (parliament) and of President Reagan's upcoming visit to Tokyo has been temporarily eclipsed. The talk of this town is box scores and batting averages. The common refrain in the streets of Tokyo: ''Take me out to the ball game'' - a refrain certain to increase in volume next year if, as proposed, the winner of the Japan Series plays its American counterpart in what the Japanese are calling the ''real'' World Series.

If you want to understand modern Japan, forget the tea ceremony and the bonsai trees, and study its besuboru mania. Nothing so reflects Japanese character as the way the nation has adopted the ''great American pastime'' and turned it into outdoor Kabuki.

Introduced here by missionaries in 1873, baseball was first played by college students. After World War II, it quickly became Japan's most popular sport, far surpassing sumo (wrestling).

Along the way, the Japanese managed to mix with the bunts and pop-ups an ample dose of 16th-century Bushido samurai discipline, traditional respect for age and authority (players never mouth off to the paternal team managers), and contempt for individual antics. As the Japanese proverb goes, ''The nail that sticks up shall be hammered down.''

In American baseball, the teams represent cities. In Japan, they represent corporations - and are carefully choreographed into the company's morale and marketing programs. Most corporations have amateur or semiprofessional teams; of Japan's more than 10,000 softball fields, nearly half are owned by corporations.

The country has 12 professional baseball teams advertising the products of parent companies, including the Yukalt Swallows (soft drinks), the Nippon Ham Fighters (pork products), the Lotte Orions (chewing gum), the Hiroshima Carp (Mazda automobiles), and so forth. The Taiyo Whales, owned by a fish company, actually sell ''whaledogs'' at their ballpark.

The Japan Series this year between the Tokyo Giants (owned by the Yomiuri newspaper and TV conglomerate) and the Seibu Lions (owned by a railroad and department-store chain) is the Japanese equivalent of the New York Times playing Bloomingdale's in Yankee Stadium.

The series opened Oct. 29 with the usual pomp and pageantry at Seibu Stadium in Tokorosawa, a bedroom suburb 30 minutes west of Tokyo. As the rising-sun flag was hoisted in center field between neon scoreboard ads for Datsun and Seibu, a military marching band blared out the national anthem. Drum majorettes in white knee socks strutted to the pitcher's mound to present chrysanthemum bouquets to the opposing team managers. The managers ceremoniously cradled the flowers back to the dugout, looking more like homecoming queens than hard-nosed major leaguers.

Nine innings of Tokyo baseball is sufficient to change any stereotypes you may have about the Japanese. With the first pitch, you might as well chuck the myth of a nation populated by nothing but strong, silent types. How, for instance, does one explain karate-chopping pompon girls who lead the left-field bleachers in cheers that in sheer decibels would match any Ohio State-Michigan football game.

Sango Morita, an Osaka businessman wearing a Giants-logo necktie, slurps his green tea and explains that ''baseball has a great history in Japan. It's a team sport, and group-oriented, which the Japanese like. But it's also a chance for us to expose our feelings.

''It's like a festival. Just look at that,'' Mr. Morita says, pointing to the banner-strewn Giants rooting section.

''Baseball is Japan's national game, but remember, it's also a big part of the corporate image, and every time your team plays on television it's worth millions,'' adds Morita, a high-ranking executive in the booming 410-restaurant McDonald's Japan. The fast-food chain is contemplating the purchase of a professional baseball team to promote its hamburgers and fries.

The whole Japanese corporate world jealously eyes the Seibu Lions - the ''miracle team'' of Japanese baseball - whose parent corporation is now cashing in on runs batted in. The Lions were in the Pacific League cellar when Seibu bought them five years ago. With some first-rate management, team discipline (the Lions have a season-long ban on drinking, smoking, and mah-jongg), and the signing of former San Francisco Giants sluggers Terry Whitfield and Steve Ontiveros (who together accounted for 40 percent of the team's runs last year), Seibu molded the Lions into a championship team. Moreover, the Lions have challenged the dominance of the Tokyo Giants, a Yankee-like team that has played in 22 of the last 33 Japan Series and won 16 of them.

The Lions, of course, advertise the goods and services of the multibillion-dollar Seibu Corporation, which owns some 48 Prince Hotels, 30 Seibu department stores, the vast Seibu supermarket chain, 25 golf courses, two Tokyo rail lines, two ice-hockey teams, and the Prince Hotel semiprofessional baseball club, the Lions' farm team.

For Seibu, baseball is more a matter of dollars and yen than foul balls and strikeouts. ''We would like to see every schoolboy in Japan wearing a Seibu Lions baseball cap,'' said Masaru Tanaka, the savvy assistant manager of the 37 -story Sunshine City Prince Hotel in north Tokyo - near one of Seibu's showcase department stores and its Ikebukuro train line to the Lions' stadium.

''It's long-term strategy, but the children who develop a loyalty to the Seibu Lions and Seibu products will be the foundation of our business in the future,'' he said.

''Baseball is part of our overall business,'' Mr. Tanaka added. ''We own the stadium, but don't provide parking, so our fans must ride our train. Of course we advertise on the train. Around the stadium we have an amusement park, three golf courses, and a housing development. Seibu is basically a real estate company, with the largest assets of any in Japan.''

And that, sports fans, will buy a lot of peanuts and Cracker Jacks.

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...