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

By Stewart McBrideStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 7, 1983


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.

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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.

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.