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How losing the war gave Japan its favorite game.

Japan lost the war, but today they're winning at baseball.

I’m in Tokyo.

I’m in Hokkaido.

I’m in Osaka, and I’m here for a baseball game.

You see, unlike in America—the home of baseball, where the sport is dying—in Japan, baseball is everywhere!

And, believe it or not, it’s thanks in large part to America’s occupation here after World War II.

But first, take a look at this stadium right outside Osaka: Koshien. This year, it turns 100 years old, making it Japan’s oldest. Today, it’s packed with 50,000 people. And it was built as a championship venue…for high school teams![1]

The largest high school stadium in America, a football field in Ohio, only seats 22,000![2]

Now take a look at Es Con Field, the brand new, half-a-billion-dollar stadium in Sapporo that opened last year, and you can see that one century later, baseball is still the king in Japan.[3] But it’s more than just a symbol of Japan’s continued love for the game. Es Con is a monument to Japan’s modern dominance in this imported sport. Because this was Shohei Ohtani’s home team before he came to play in Los Angeles.

If you don’t know who that is, well, he just signed the biggest contract in the history of sports. Seriously. Bigger than Messi![4] And yes, Japan, not just Shohei, dominates in baseball. You might think Americans, given they invented the sport and have a dominant record in international athletics, would run the table, but Japan has actually won three of five World Baseball Classics - the premiere international competition for the sport. America has won one.[5]

And, finally, take a look at this. This is Kitagas Arena, Sapporo’s top venue for traditional Japanese budō, or sport, like judō or kendō. Es Con seats 35,000. Kitagas fits less than 3,500 on collapsible bleachers.[6] I found that surprising, because we tend to think of Japan as having a very strong attachment to its own unique culture and history. But here, just across town from the shiny new baseball stadium, it’s clear that in sports, Japan has left tradition in the past. So, why baseball?

The short answer: this guy, one of the most important figures in modern Japanese history.

Douglas MacArthur commanded America’s Pacific forces in WWII, but more importantly for our story, he was in charge of America’s postwar occupation of Japan. Tasked with transforming a militaristic empire into a pacific democracy, an ambitious assignment in itself, MacArthur imbued his mission with his own racial chauvinism: a belief that the Japanese required a kind of paternalistic guidance toward modernity. Thousands of Americans were employed across the occupation administration in service of this project, but MacArthur had special esteem for one office in particular: the Physical Education Office. Because, to MacArthur, democracy wasn’t just a bunch of ideas you could learn in a classroom. You had to live it to understand it. In his own words, “I have stated many times my conviction that…sports is of immeasurable value in the project of making the true meaning of democracy understandable to the Japanese people and to the world.”[7]

And look at how baseball is played. It’s a team sport, demanding cooperation and team play on defense, but it’s individualistic on offense, each batter standing over the plate alone: balancing community and individuality. Moreover, it’s fair! Every individual gets their turn at bat; nobody is left out, and nobody can brute force their way into running the show.

Some would say it’s the perfect democratic sport. American occupiers sure thought so. In fact, the Physical Education Office had one man advising the Japanese government on policy regarding every sport…except baseball. Baseball was so important, American General William Marquat specially managed policy for it.[8]

This is a list compiled of all sports approved for instruction and play at Japan’s schools. The list is sorted by “general order of urgency,” including considerations such as equipment needs, space to play, and cost, but also “democratic value.”[9] Baseball isn’t just number 1. It’s numbers 1, 2, and 3 — the third being a variant of baseball invented by the occupation authority to satisfy particular material and space limitations in postwar Japan.[10]

Limitations that were so bad that when the physical education office submitted an order for 4.5 million balls, it was rejected on account of leather rations.[11]

Maybe that’s why Japanese baseballs are a bit smaller than America’s; they use a bit less leather. Or maybe not.

Regardless, General “Baseball Tsar” Marquat overrode the restriction. Japan would have baseballs. In turn, ballpark fever once more swept the country. Yeah, once more. This wasn’t new.

Remember this stadium turns 100 this year. It was built in 1924, well before World War II, and over 50 years after baseball was first introduced to Japan.[12]

So why spend all this time on the American occupation, and why did the Americans care so much about sports, anyways? Good questions.

You see, while pre-war Japan discovered its love for baseball, even competing against and usually beating American teams, it was a tragically short-lived affair. As Japan began arming itself and preparing for war first against China and eventually America, baseball fell under suspicion of authorities. It was foreign, and it lacked the martial character of Japan’s traditional budō such as judō, kendō, or kyudō. It just wasn’t appropriate for training proud and militarily fit Japanese men. So the government nixed baseball from curricula across the country, replacing the game with military drills, marches, and martial arts, even for those still in elementary school.[13]

In the words of one historian, William Kelly, “Budō’s demands for self-sacrifice and endurance conveniently justified the extreme nationalism and militarism of the decade, and budō was closely connected to the ideology of an Emperor state.”[14] In other words, sport and physical education became a foundational component in the empire’s fascistic war machine, just as it had been for the Nazis, via institutions like Hitler Youth.

So by the time MacArthur arrived, he knew that sport would be just as essential to building democracy as it had been to building the empire, and baseball was dead. The occupation brought it back to life by providing Japan with the mitts, the balls, and the bats, but also by merely allowing Japanese the freedom to once more pursue the sport they so loved, rather than forcing them into an imperial militant mold.

Today, MacArthur is hardly known by young people here, but among Japan’s older generations he’s widely revered. Because while MacArthur was assigned to remake Japan from the ground up into a new society, it was also his personal belief that his purpose was to “restore security, dignity, and self-respect” to Japan.[15] Beyond his racial chauvinism and leniency with some truly disturbing Japanese war criminals, MacArthur had an enduring faith that Japan could become a mature democratic society, free of militarism and authoritarian nationalism. Whatever his precise reasoning, it’s hard to overstate just how successful his approach to democracy-building in Japan truly was. We’ll never really know all the countless conversations, choices, and bits of chance that made it a success, but one thing we do know. Baseball certainly helped.

A. Wikipedia, Koshien Stadium.
B. Wikipedia, Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium.
C. Wikipedia, Es Con Field Hokkaido.
D. Wikipedia, List of largest sports contracts.
E. Wikipedia, World Baseball Classic / Results.
F. Sapporo City, Kitagas Arena Sapporo.
G. Wikipedia, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers.
H. William Neal Dahlberg, Democratization, Re-education, and Japanese Physical Culture: The Use of Sport by the American Occupiers of Japan, 1945-1952.
I. Gerald R. Gems, The Athletic Crusade: Sport and American Cultural Imperialism.

  1. A ↩︎

  2. B ↩︎

  3. C ↩︎

  4. D ↩︎

  5. E ↩︎

  6. F ↩︎

  7. H, p.31 ↩︎

  8. H, p.90 ↩︎

  9. H, p.70 ↩︎

  10. H, p.79 ↩︎

  11. H, p.73-74 ↩︎

  12. I, p.31 ↩︎

  13. H, p.10-11 ↩︎

  14. H, p.12 ↩︎

  15. G ↩︎


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