Just for sport

With Japan's co-hosting of the 2002 soccer World Cup just around the corner, this summer promises to be a bumper season for sports lovers. But as Stuart Braun discovers, not everyone is playing ball.

Summer is approaching and the Japanese nation is heading out from under the kotatsu (heated table) to frolic in the park with baseball bats and soccer balls. A popular form of recreation, sport is also big business in Japan. The major league baseball games are generally sold-out in advance, and the nightly televised games draw huge audiences. And while the J-League soccer competition is failing to attract the crowds that saw it challenge baseball as the nations pre-eminent ball code in the mid-1990s, Japan's co-hosting of the 2002 World Cup, the first ever to be held in Asia, is giving the local game unprecedented international attention. With the J-League season having kicked off in late March and the two professional baseball leagues - the Central League and the Pacific League - starting in April, the next six months will be a great opportunity to check out some big stadium sporting action.

Home run
Baseball, otherwise known as yakyu (field ball), is far and away the most popular sport in Japan. Since baseball was first imported from America in 1873, Japan's obsession for the game has seen it rival the US as the world's most baseball-crazed country. With so many people playing at school, college and club level, Japan is arguably the international home of amateur baseball. But while the game remained a part-time pursuit until the fully professional leagues were established in the 1930s, the emergence of big money pro teams such as the Yomiuri Giants served to propel baseball to the forefront of the nation's sporting consciousness.

Unlike the US, where "self-interest" and career advancement are primary, professional baseball players, like the Japanese salaryman, tend to stay at the same club "for life," rejecting financial lures from elsewhere.

Immortalized in John Whiting's seminal portrait of baseball in the Far East, "You Gotta Have Wa," an important element in Japanese baseball is wa - group harmony - embodied in the proverb "The nail that sticks up shall be hammered down." Wayne Graczyk, one of Japan's leading baseball commentators, agrees that yakyu is distinctive from the American game because it is engrained within Japanese culture and custom. "The strong mores and honorifics of Japanese society are embedded in the game," he says.

Yakyu's pervading code of ethics dictates that a kohai (junior) hitter will apologize to a sempai (senior) pitcher if he hits a home run. Maintaining the wa means staying loyal to your home club, which since the 1950s have been owned and administered by Japanese corporations including Nippon Ham, Yomiuri and Lotte. Unlike the US, where "self-interest" and career advancement are primary, professional baseball players, like the Japanese salaryman, tend to stay at the same club "for life," rejecting financial lures from elsewhere. This sense of honor and commitment extends to a highly disciplined, regimented and austere training program, with Japanese players having to endure a far more grueling and protracted pre-season training schedule than their American counterparts.

Like most sports in Japan, Japanese baseball is facing some "major" challenges. With the best pitchers, hitters and fielders leaving in increasing numbers to try their luck with Major League clubs in the US, the big story in baseball these days is the progress of Japanese players abroad. Most recently, the US Major League debuts of outfielders Ichiro Suzuki and Tsuyoshi Shinjo have drawn intense media attention, and there is a real threat that the US leagues will overshadow the local competition. Ten years ago there was little interest in the American game, but this year cable TV channels such as SKY PerfecTV announced they will provide daily live telecasts of Major League baseball. And while Japan's best players are heading for greener pastures, the local league continues to import minnows from the US minor leagues, compounding the inferiority of the local game.

According to sportswriter Marty Kuehnert, this trend is indicative of the declining status of baseball in Japan. While the Yomiuri Giants remain the success story of the Japanese game, most of the other clubs, in Kuehnert's words, are in "dire straits" due to an exodus of top players and a diminished fan base. The problems are varied. Rigorous training schedules and a lack of professionalism make the American game look extremely attractive to local players. Umpires are untrained, there are no government-funded training programs and coaches get jobs due to nepotism rather than acumen. "It's no wonder then that the very best athletes want to flee this country," says Kuehnert. More distressing is a lack of interest among younger people more impassioned by digital technology rather than bats and balls. In a country with a declining population, this trend will be difficult to reverse. Added to the mix is the fact that private companies, once the mainstay of the sport, are withdrawing their patronage from baseball. Last year 40 companies disbanded teams, and over the past two decades three-quarters of company-sponsored clubs have disappeared from the local leagues.

Remedial measures are in place, but Kuehnert argues that talk of entering the Yomiuri Giants into the Major League is an "unrealistic" expedient. There is further conjecture that a World Cup of baseball, touted to begin in 2003, might revive flagging interest in the game. But for now, the 2001 season is crunch time for Japanese baseball, and while seats to a Giants game remain hard to come by, it remains to be seen if the lesser clubs can survive.

The Japanese baseball leagues end in October and are followed by the Japan Series, a seven-game contest between the top two teams. The competition will be tough, and despite the problems, this season promises to be an exciting one. Players to watch out for include Yomiuri Giants slugger Hideki Matsui, voted the Central League's Most Valuable Player for the 2000 season by his fellow professionals-Matsui last season led Japanese baseball with 42 homers and topped the pros with 108 RBIs. In the Pacific League, Fukuoka Daiei Hawks first baseman Nobuhiko Matsunaka is expected to impress after being named Most Valuable Player in 2000, a year in which he led the Hawks to their second straight pennant with a .312 average, 33 HRs and 106 RBIs. Kuehnert is tipping the Hawks to win the Pacific League and the Yokohama Bay Stars in the tighter Central League. But despite a lot of early season injury worries, Graczyk is still picking pre-season favorites the Giants for the Central League and likes the Nippon Ham Fighters for the Pacific title.

In 1993, Japan's J-League soccer competition kicked off with a capacity crowd of almost 60,000 watching the game between Verdi Kawasaki and Yokohama Marinos at Tokyo's National Stadium. Professional soccer has since threatened to become Japan's glamour sport, particularly after Japan, along with Korea, was given the rights - in 1997 - to host the 2002 World Cup. Yet, like baseball, soccer has fallen on hard times, and the 2001 season will be a litmus test for the future of the game both at a domestic and international level.

While the J-League was a unanimous success over the first three years - in 1994 over five million people turned out with an average attendance of almost 20,000 - the initial interest has started to wane.

When the J-League was launched on May 13, 1993, it had ten teams in a single-division format. Since then, the league has grown, and now consists of 28 teams in two divisions. But while the J-League was a unanimous success over the first three years - in 1994 over five million people turned out with an average attendance of almost 20,000 - the initial interest has started to wane. Last year, for instance, four million fans turned out to see an expanded competition at an average attendance of only 11,000. The J-League recently took measures to stem the decline, announcing that the regular season will shift from the current spring-to-autumn format to a European autumn-to-spring style in 2006-a move that presumably will limit competition from baseball.

But the league has had a lasting and beneficial effect on soccer in Japan, Asia and the rest of the world. Without the J-League, it is unlikely Japan could have become a World Cup host for 2002. In addition, the J-League, which attracts quality players from around the world, has been the platform from which Japan's best players have gained invaluable experience overseas. Recently, some local grown talent has moved to the elite leagues in Europe, with Hidetoshi Nakata notably making a successful move to Italian League leaders A. S. Roma and national striker Akinori Nishizawa playing for Spanish First Division side Espanyol. While players such as Hiroshi Nanami, who now plays for Jubilo Iwata in the J-League first division, failed to survive in the top flight Italian league, Japanese players are getting vital exposure to high-quality football in the lead-up to the World Cup.

The hosting of the 17th world championship of soccer in 2002 has already been a big boost to the local game, particularly in terms of infrastructural development. Ten new stadiums are nearing completion, including the Sapporo Dome, designed by architect Hiroshi Hara, which is arguably the most advanced indoor stadium in the world. A "Hovering Soccer Stage," Sapporo Dome features the world's first air-floating, movable pitch system, which enables the whole soccer field (covered in natural lawn) to be moved into the dome, meaning that games can be played under the best conditions unaffected by the weather.

This summer will be a great opportunity to survey the national team's intensive preparations for the soccer World Cup. "Our team is in good condition," Manager Philippe Troussier said in Tokyo recently as he named his 22-member squad for Japan's game against France in March. "We'll show what our soccer is all about, which is active, dynamic and powerful." Jostling with Korea as the powerhouse of Asian football, Japan is the current holder of the Asian Cup, and many of the winning members will form the basis of Troussier's World Cup squad. Espanyol striker Nishizawa, Jubilo midfielder Nanami, Gamba Osaka midfielder Junichi Inamoto, Shimizu S-Pulse defender Ryuzo Morioka, Yokohama Marinos goalkeeper Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi and Urawa Reds midfielder Shinji Ono all played in the match against France, the 1998 World Cup holders, on March 24.

But for all of Troussier's confidence, his team were resoundingly thrashed 5-0 by the world champions. While Japan made it to the World Cup for the first time in 1998, they have a long way to go before they can challenge soccer's superpowers from Europe and South America. The next few months will therefore be critical. The French match will be followed by an away game against Spain on April 24, while Japan will challenge for the Confederation Cup from May 31-June 10 and the Kirin Cup starting in late June. Japan is also expected to play Nigeria in England in October, while a game against the Netherlands later in the year will round off this summer's World Cup preparations.

Game, set and match
The Japanese are not renowned for their tennis-playing prowess, however in recent years a couple of women players have had unprecedented success on the international tour. The US$1.18 million Toray Pan Pacific Open tennis tournament, played in March at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, saw Shinobu Asagoe and Ai Sugiyama win through to the quarterfinals against the world's best players. Sugiyama, who hails from Tokyo, has a career-high ranking of 15 and remains the great hope of women's tennis in Japan. But following in the steps of Kimiko Date, who reached No. 4 in the world and was a semi-finalist at the Australian Open, will not be easy. Recently falling 20 places to number 49 in the world rankings, Sugiyama, at age 26, might find it difficult to revive her standing in world class tennis. But Japan is still pinning its hopes on her powerful ground stroke game. With the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open all coming up in the next four months, all eyes will be on Sugiyama and Asogoe to see if Japan can make an impact at the Majors.

The whistle is about to blow on professional sports in Japan. With interest at an all-time low, the national sporting culture is heading into a make or break era. While baseball, soccer and tennis are having specific difficulties, Japan's poor showing at the Sydney Olympics shows up more systemic problems. But the current economic and political malaise is unlikely to help matters, with training programs and infrastructural development depending on increased government support. In the meantime, "Japan is becoming the laughingstock of international sport," says Kuehnert. With the World Cup looming, Japan's sporting community faces some big challenges if it is break back into the game.



395: Generation Next
The world-first launch of NTT DoCoMo’s third generation mobile phone network represents a quantum leap into mobile cyberspace. Stuart Braun goes online.
394: Sister act
Celeb sisters Kyoko and Mika Kano have taken Japan by storm, but can they win over the West? Chris Betros and Maki Nibayashi spend an evening with the divine duo.
393: Reel time
Matt Wilce gets a close-up of the Tokyo International Film Festival's hottest tickets.
392: Lap it up
Michael Schumacher is champion again, but the unpredictable Suzuka circuit is still set to offer up a surprise-packed Japan Grand Prix on October 14. Stuart Braun goes trackside.
391: Everything old is new
You might think Azabu Juban is all swanky dining and dancing 'till dawn.....
390: Cooking the books
Celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s in town with his new book in hand.....
389: Up from the underground
Japan's literary superstar Haruki Murakami is home for the duration
388: First wave
John McGee dives into Japan's art extravaganza
387: Water world
Matt Wilce explores Tokyo DisneySea
386: Open house
Many people are sleeping on the streets of Tokyo
385: A moveable feast
Some of the city's best yatai fare
384: Hair
A look at Tokyo's salon industry
383: Summer in the city
20 ways to make August a little more bearable
382: Tokyo Tomorrow
Stuart Braun tracks the future of the metropolis
381: From zero to hero
81-year-old Zero fighter Sadamu Komachi looks back
380: Island escapade
Journey to Odaiba
379: Open-air fare
Tokyo's alfresco dining spots
378: Reel story
Reel in the summer's hottest movies
377: Sonic relief
Gear up for the summer's hottest music festivals
376: All at sea
No shortage of fun in the sun on the beach
375: Your cup of tea
Tea time in Tokyo
374: No time to waste
Tokyo's mounting problems with garbage
373: Freetown
Tokyo's stylish suburb, Jiyugaoka
372: Broken record
Tokyo's ecclectic array of record stores
371: Bottoms up
Tokyo's finest martini bars
370: Admit one
Regulations for foreigners wanting to live and work on Japan
369: After a fashion
Spring trends from the catwalks to the streets
368: Bandwidth wagon
Japan's move towards DSL
367: Just for sports
How to play ball this summer
366: Life's a hitch
Helpful hints for hitch hiking in Japan
365: Altered state
Try Tokyo's tailors on for size
364: The Fringe Club
Shinjuku's infamous Golden Gai bar district
363: Take two Tomatos
Design gurus Michael Horsham and Steve Baker
362: Stage left
Innovative and intimate shogekijo (little theaters)
361: The lowdown on TC
Everything you ever wanted to know about TC, but were afraid to ask
360: A reversal of fortune
Tokyo's home of racing, Fuchu Racecourse
359: Funny Valentine
How to do Valentine's Day in Japan
358: Two-faced
Heartthrob Katsunori Takahashi
357: Read all about it comes to Japan
356: Daikanyama
Central Tokyo's hippest hood
355: Wash out
Heaven Sento
354: Means to an end
Some good ideas to inspire you
352/3: Last Laugh
TC's rosey re-cap of the year
Signs of the times
Horoscopes for 2001
351: It's a wrap
TC's holiday gift tips
350: Cable ready
Cable and satellite broadcasting renaissance


The Big Game:
Editor's picks for the summer sports season


All-Stars Match
All-Star Teams - J-EAST and J-WEST - are selected by dividing J-League clubs into eastern and western areas. Participating players and managers are chosen by fan ballot and by the J. League. The match is played between the First Stage and the Second Stage.
Aug 4, Tokyo National Stadium

JOMO Cup 2000: J-League Dream Match
This season-closing match is played between Japanese players chosen by fans and non-Japanese players playing in the J-League.
Oct 4, Tokyo National Stadium


Federation Cup World Group 1st round
Japan vs Argentina
Apr 28
Ariake Coliseum, Tokyo
Info: Japan Tennis Assoc. Tel: 03-3481-2321


Central League
Yokohama Bay Stars vs Yomiuri Giants
May 4-6
Yokohama Stadium

Pacific League
Nippon Ham Fighters vs Fukuoka Daiei Hawks
Apr 24-26, May 14-15, June 18-19
Tokyo Dome