Japanese baseball finds itself at a crossroads

Baseball could be losing its status as Japan's most popular sport as more and more children turn away from the game due to tough high school programs and ...

Team members of Shimohama Club baseball team work out in Akita, Akita prefecture, northern Japan June 21, 2018. 

Baseball could be losing its status as Japan's most popular sport as more and more children turn away from the game due to tough high school programmes and amid changing trends in sports participation in the country.

A survey conducted by the Japan High School Baseball Federation last month showed 30 percent believed the popularity of baseball had already been surpassed by other sports, while almost 45 percent said it was only a matter of time before baseball was knocked off its perch.

The questionnaire found that over 50 percent of the coaches had been confident in baseball’s future as recently as 2008.

Less than 17 percent said baseball would remain the country’s most popular sport.

Further research conducted by the federation in June found that the number of children belonging to school baseball clubs had fallen for the fourth consecutive year in 2018 and by a record number – 8,389 – from the previous year.

The number of schools affiliated with the federation had also gone down.

“I think we may need to make changes to the way we conduct ourselves,” said one high school coach, who asked to remain anonymous.

“The children now have other options, other sports and things outside sport. We need to look at ways to keep them within baseball.”

Robert Whiting, who has been writing about Japanese baseball’s role in society for decades, said the notoriously rigorous baseball programmes run by many of the top Japanese schools could be compared to joining the U.S. Marines.

“High school baseball does feature a tortuous regimen. Some high school students may not like it. Others may see it as a test of manhood, a rite of passage,” he said.

This is an experience 17-year-olds Kei Tanaka and Kosuke Saito can relate to. Both of them used to play baseball for their school in a suburb of Tokyo.

“I ended up not wanting to go to school because of it,” Tanaka told Reuters outside a batting cage in Tokyo.

“Baseball used to be fun for me and then it wasn’t. The coaches expect too much.”

“We trained so much and had to combine that with homework so we never had any time to relax,” added Saito.

Still number one

Despite these concerns, data published in June by Japan’s Central Research Services showed baseball was comfortably the most popular sport in the country, with 48.1 percent of respondents naming it as their favourite sport.

Soccer and sumo wrestling were tied for distant second with 24.8 percent.

The data also showed that Shohei Ohtani, who is enjoying an excellent rookie season in US Major League Baseball, was the country’s favourite sportsman.

The National High School Baseball Tournament, or Koshien, is still the most-watched sporting event in Japan with crowds of up to 50,000 people watching the games in the stadium and millions more watching on national broadcaster NHK.

“These things go up and down,” says Whiting.

“There was a five percent drop in student participation in high school baseball in 1982, just like this year, but then it went back up again.

"I expect the present drop will be reversed when a baseball player dominates at Koshien and becomes a national hero,” he added.

MLB, who have heavily invested in Japan as their biggest market outside the United States, are not worried about the future of the sport here.

“This has been a recurring theme since 2002 when the soccer World Cup was here, but I just don’t see it. I don’t see the numbers to back it up,” MLB’s vice president for Asia Jim Small told Reuters by telephone.

“The bigger issue is not baseball versus socce. I think it is more about people watching and consuming less sport across the world.”

According to research by the Sasakawa Sports Foundation, a Japanese think tank aimed at promoting involvement in sport, the numbers of those aged 12-21 playing sport five times a week had dropped by almost four percent in the last four years.

Less than half of 12-21 year-olds asked in the survey said they liked doing exercise and sport.

“I think there is a tension within amateur baseball,” added Small, who has seen the MLB invest strongly in children’s baseball programmes in Japan.

“The way they have been doing it has been hard. You can throw 100 pitches and then tomorrow throw another 100 more.

"Maybe the old way isn’t the best way anymore.” 

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