The latest sensation on the baseball diamond here is a five-foot-tall, 114-pound, dimpled high school girl who throws a nasty knuckle ball.
Eri Yoshida, who left a line of male batters hitless in tryouts in November, recently signed on to become the first woman to play in professional baseball in Japan. Her drafting into pro ball has catapulted her from little-known high school jock to media darling, with camera crews following her daily rounds from calligraphy class to the dugout. Clips of her quirky side-armed pitch seem to be stock footage on nightly sports and news programs.
Yoshida’s spot on the bench of the new team, the Kobe 9 Cruise in the Kansai Independent League, which launches its inaugural season in April, has many women here hoping that she is more pioneer than token.
“She is a symbol of the changing status of women in Japan,” says Machiko Osawa, an economist at Japan Women’s University and an expert on women in the workplace. “She’s been accepted in sports, a very conservative world.”
Indeed, the United Nations’ Development Fund consistently ranks Japan as the most unequal of the world’s richest countries when it comes to gender equality. Women are not only barred from participating in Japan’s national sport, sumo wrestling, they can’t even step foot into the sumo ring, which is considered sacred and, therefore, off limits. Japan’s other national pastime, Kabuki theater, also remains an exclusively male domain.
Little leagues didn’t open their benches to girls until a decade ago – about the time Yoshida first picked up a ball. Even in schools, women face significant hurdles. Men outnumber women at Japan’s top universities by 4 to 1.
Yuriko Koike, a former cabinet minister and scion of a famous political family, who last year made an unsuccessful bid to become Japan’s first female prime minister, has complained that Americans talk about a glass ceiling, but women in Japan must contend with an “iron plate.”
Yoshida is no Gloria Steinem – at least not yet. Although her knuckle ball has helped the nation break through an iron plate, or, in this case, home plate, the diminutive hurler seems bewildered by all the talk about her effect on gender equality. Yoshida likes to sing karaoke with her friends and is known among her teammates for her funny impersonations of Japanese celebrities.
“I don’t know much about the status of women in Japan,” Yoshida said in a recent telephone interview. “But with regard to baseball, it is not easy for women to find the opportunity to play baseball.”
With the optimism that belongs to youth the world over, Yoshida had not yet had cause to question her childhood dream – to become a professional baseball player. Even though she had retired her bat and glove a few times, it was never because of discrimination. She dallied in golf and other sports – some of them more accommodating to women. But the excitement of the diamond always drew her back.
“I could never give up baseball for long,” she explained. “Because I love it.”
Yoshida began developing her signature pitch, the knuckle ball, a few years ago after her father showed her a video of Tim Wakefield, the longtime knuckle-baller for the Boston Red Sox. Her father thought she should develop a special skill to distinguish herself. She hoped the knuckle ball, which requires technique instead of power, would allow her to succeed in baseball despite her tiny frame. Her fluttering pitches top out at about 60 m.p.h., but are elusive to hit.
“She is a very strong player on our team,” says Yukari Naganum, who was a teammate on her all-girls squad. “We will miss her.”
At her first press conference in November, dressed in her school uniform, a tartan skirt with matching tie, a soft-spoken Yoshida came across as both humble and ambitious. She told reporters that although she hadn’t “done anything yet,” she hoped to “play as a pro eventually in a higher league.”
No disrespect to the Kobe 9 Cruise intended, but her ultimate dream, she confided over the phone, is to play on an all-women’s professional team. “I think that male players tend to focus on the competition and that female players tend to appreciate the teamwork.... So playing with women is more comfortable for me.”
Her new manager at Kobe 9, Yoshihiro Nakada, strikes a fatherly note when discussing her future. He says he would endeavor to protect her because of “her age as well as her sex.” Mr. Nakada says he has already told Yoshida’s teammates, “you guys are like Eri-chan’s [using a diminutive ending to refer to Eri Yoshida] brothers, so please take care of her.” He adds that she will not be held to the same exercise regimens as her teammates. All players on the new team, including Yoshida, will be paid 1,800,000 yen (about $18,000) for their first year.
When Yoshida makes her debut in the new league next spring, she will be joining a sport that faces significant challenges. While baseball has been played in Japan for more than 100 years, and is revered, it faces growing competition from soccer.
Moreover, the flight of some of the country’s top talent to deep-pocketed US teams have left some ball clubs here struggling. In December, Junichi Tazawa became the third Japanese pitcher to join the Boston Red Sox in just the past two years. Almost half of all US teams now have at least one Japanese player.
In this environment, many fans wonder if Yoshida is merely a marketing ploy for a sport eager to fill stadium seats. “When I first heard about her, I thought for sure she was a way to get more publicity and attract a possible fan base, just as the Pittsburgh Pirates signed the two Indian prospects – Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel,” says Michael Peters, a student at Tokyo’s Waseda University, who is writing a masters thesis on Japanese baseball. “But I’ve heard now that she is quite good. Her ultimate impact is contingent on her performance.”
Manager Nakada, for one, has been surprised by all the publicity surrounding baseball’s first lady. “But, I think Eri-chan will help solve some of our problems,” he says, noting that the team – which is also the first pro ball club in Japan to be owned by a woman – is still looking for sponsors and fans. “Although I never recruited Eri-chan to make the team popular, the media attention is most welcome. I am happy that many people are hearing about baseball through Eri-chan.”
After the Japanese women’s softball team won a gold medal in the Beijing Olympics this summer, many here are, in fact, eager to see more women on the diamond.
“I am looking forward to seeing games including women players,” says baseball fan Kota Kasai, who attends Keio University. “It makes the game more colorful.”
Asked if he worried that women players would change the sport, he replies, “I hope they do.”
• Yukiko Abe contributed to this report.