Japan's gotta have baseball back in the Olympics! Tokyo 2020 squeeze play?

With 12 Japanese MLB players having appeared in the World Series – Nori Aoki of the Kansas City Royals is the latest – avid baseball fans across East Asia want the sport restored after two Olympic shutouts.

Charlie Riedel/AP
Kansas City Royals' Norichika Aoki, from Japan, gets ready to bat during baseball practice Friday, Oct. 17, 2014, in Kansas City, Mo.

Japanese baseball fans are some of the world’s most diehard. Cities across Japan, including Tokyo, now regularly slow down during the World Series in October to watch homegrown players hit and pitch in the United States. Last year Japanese watched Boston closer Koji Uehara, and this year Nori Aoki, who plays for Kansas City is hammering out hits. In all, 12 Japanese players have appeared in the MLB fall classic.

So with Tokyo hosting the Summer Olympics in 2020, Japan is already lobbying – hard – to have baseball restored to the Games. The sport was shut out of the 2012 London Olympics and won’t make an appearance in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games in Brazil. 

A decidedly avid Japanese and Korean lobby is working for an affirmative decision on men’s baseball and women’s softball at a Dec. 8 meeting in Monaco of the International Olympic Committee.

"First, we have to win the vote in December,” IOC president Thomas Bach told a crowd of reporters on the sidelines of the recent Asian Games in South Korea.

Short-lived Olympic glory

Baseball made its first Olympic appearance in the 1904 games in St. Louis as an "exhibition sport," and it finally became a medal sport in 1992.

In 2005, however, the IOC voted baseball out for the London Games, the first time a sport has been eliminated since polo was dropped from the 1936 Olympics. In 2009, the IOC again excluded baseball from the 2016 Games.

But the sport is hugely popular in Asia. The Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun conducted a survey on 1,522 respondents nationwide and found that nearly 70 percent want baseball and softball on the sports program for Tokyo 2020.

“Baseball is the hottest one in terms of support, because it has already been included in the games before and a lot of people want it to come back,” says Tristan Lavier, a spokesman for the Tokyo 2020 organization committee. He adds that Japan already has world-class stadiums. 

Some critics say baseball and softball lack appeal in Europe, Africa, and much of Asia; others complain the actual games are less competitive since Major League Baseball teams will not release players to join the Olympics at the height of the baseball season in North America.

'What's there to debate?'

Don’t try out those arguments with Japanese fans, however. Kashikawa Kazumi, a 75-year old who played ball in junior high and high school here, is sitting outside the Tokyo Dome on a warm and sunny October day, waiting for the start of a Yomiuri Giants game at their home field.

He can’t understand why there’s even a debate: “It’s a sport everyone really likes.”

One former Japanese Little League player, Ogata Hitomi, now in his 20s and who traveled with friends from a distant city to the Dome to watch the Giants, puts it simply: “There are so many people playing baseball. Why wouldn’t you let them play in the Olympics?”

Robert Whiting, a longtime Tokyo resident and American-born author of the classic book “You Gotta Have Wa,” about Japanese baseball, says that local fans strongly support Olympic baseball.  He also points to a Japanese peculiarity often noted by Americans who visit Japanese ball games: fans here only root in designated outfield sections, and the cheering is organized and rehearsed.

“In Japan, it’s all controlled,” Mr. Whiting says. “When you sit in the infield it’s pretty quiet. Nobody stands up and yells alone because they don’t want everybody ... looking at them. People who want to make noise go out to the cheering section in the outfield.”

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