My dream came true this summer when I got to attend a Japanese baseball game in Tokyo on a student “free day” during an overseas study program I co-directed with my Japanese colleague Yoshiko Green. I wanted to know how the quintessentially American game translates to Japanese culture. In the States, baseball reflects our individualism and our obsession with measurement. It’s a team sport in which individual players determine outcomes in a direct way – unlike football or basketball, in which the whole team executes coordinated “plays” and every player’s motion counts. Baseball involves a lot of waiting around, followed by sudden crisis-like spurts of activity. It reflects the way most of us live. Finally, there are statistics – batting averages and earned run averages, home run totals, and so forth, that measure individual achievement, and baseball fans pay attention to those numbers, tracking the performance of favorite players and arguing with friends about the relative value of this player or that.
Watching Japanese professional baseball was an uncanny experience, familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. So much is the same – the playing field, the stadium, the baseball uniforms, the basic rules. On top of that, Japanese baseball employs English terminology. Strikes, balls, home runs, and so forth, are named in English, even by people who know few English words otherwise. Team names appear only in English. The entire production seems to be directed toward an American audience. But at the game I attended, a matchup between the last-place Tokyo Yakult Swallows and the Hanshin Tigers, I was (as far as I could tell) the only westerner. I suppose that when Americans want to see a game, they choose the famous Yomiuri Giants. No one has heard of the Swallows. Americans don’t keep up with Japanese baseball the way many Japanese people keep up with our major league. It’s as if the Japanese league plays partly to an imaginary American audience – or as if being a Japanese baseball fan is partly a matter of being a fan of American sports.
Other aspects of the game were strange to me. As I approached Meiji Jingu Stadium, I noticed a large banner that included the Swallows’ motto -- a humble admonition after a disappointing 2016 season: “Snap out of it 2017,” it said. Both teams had large, formal cheering sections in the bleachers. Everyone who sat there wore team colors and regularly chanted “support songs.” Cheerleaders took the field between innings. Each team has its own chants, just as the fans of each team have their own way of celebrating runs and other important events. These are not taunting displays of dominance. Like the cutesy mascots (two overfat swallows that looked like smiling penguins and seemed to be a married couple), the coordinated gestures of the crowd were disarmingly sweet. Swallows fans brought to the game small plastic-canopied umbrellas which they would open during celebrations and twirl and wave in outstretched arms while singing. The game was less a competition than an opportunity for fellowship. What was there not to like?
Baseball is one way in which Japan and America are connected. My students on this trip were drawn more strongly by another connection. When I asked if any of them wanted to go to the game I discovered that most of them were planning shopping sprees for items related to Japanese cartoon culture, an important part of the world they all grew up in. Their minds were opening to the almost infinite forms of artistic expression that Saturday morning cartoons had given them the first taste of. They had a lot to say about their discoveries in that realm. We were all pursuing the fun work of cultural translation.
Editors note: The audio version of this piece contains incorrect references of the Tokyo Yakult baseball team as the Sparrows, instead of the Swallows.