It’s Tourney Time: Sports Followership in Japan

Ahh, March

At least this much is comforting and familiar: Every year, about this time, work productivity plummets as employees spend an inordinate amount of time checking updating sports scores for their favorite school in the March Tournament. But there’s a twist. While my American friends are screaming in agony about their broken NCAA brackets for college basketball, here in my Japanese office, the sport is baseball.

Baseball: Japan’s Only Significant Sport

Sure, there are other sports, but my local Biwako Lake Stars (basketball), Toray Arrows (volleyball), and Kyoto FC (soccer) get less attention, combined, than high school baseball teams. There may even be other sports out there, but I haven’t heard of them. We do have one rikishi (sumo wrestler from the top two divisions) from Otsu city, but I’m probably the only one in my office that follows sumo. America claims baseball as its national passtime, though it has to compete with football, basketball, and hockey for popularity. In Japan, there is no competition. Baseball is king.

Why High School Baseball?

Japan’s 12 “Dai League” teams tend to recruit straight out of high school, so the high school national tournaments are prospective pros’ opportunity to shine. College sports get a lot less attention. Heck, I work at a university, and I can’t recall anyone talking about our college baseball team last year, but we all followed Shiga Prefecture’s representative in the summer “Natsu no Koshien” national baseball championship.

Part of the reason, as far as I can tell, is the absence of sports recruiting at the university level. Everyone has to pass the same entry exam to get in, even athletes. Besides, if the pros are siphoning off the best talent right out of high school, that means the college players are the guys who weren’t quite good enough. Just as American college athletes often value going pro over earning a degree, and therefore leave school early, their Japanese counterparts skip the college part altogether. I mean, what’s the point of going to university if you’re not going to finish? As a proponent of reducing unnecessary college attendance, I can get behind this system.

Two Baseball Tournaments per Year

The high school baseball season starts with the “Senbatsu” or “Haru no Senbatsu” the (Spring) Invitational, with 36 schools invited based on their previous year’s performance. But, since the Senbatsu starts today (same day as the field of 64 in the US NCAA tournament), and graduation was earlier this week, the seniors are gone, so selection is based on the performance of last year’s underclassmen. The new “Freshmen” won’t arrive until next month, either. High school is a three-year affair in Japan, so that means players get two years of eligibility to shine in this tournament. It also makes for a decent turnover in participants.

This year, we have 7 schools returning from last year and 10 making their first-ever appearance. A handful of others haven’t been to the Senbatsu in 20 to 55 years. A set number of schools are chosen from several eligible regions around Japan, but no Shiga schools made the list, this year. Since we’re in the same district as big cities such as Osaka, Kyoto, and Nara, it’s tough to compete for an invitation, I guess.

The second tournament of the year is the “Koshien” or “Natsu no Koshien,” (named for the ballpark that hosts both the Senbatsu and Koshien tournaments) the summer championship. This one brings in one representative from each prefecture (Tokyo gets two), based on prefectural tournament results, so there’s always someone local to cheer for, in the first round at least. I thought the Shiga team did fairly well last year, but since their team was almost all seniors, they didn’t get an invite this time around.

High School Baseball in Japanese Social Context

When Japanese commentators refer to pro baseball stars during the season, their high school tournament stats are a common topic. Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Matsui are still remembered for their heroics in those tournaments. With Matsuzaka, in particular, his Koshien performance receives more air time than his time with the Red Sox, which is probably the merciful thing to do.

These tournaments are also, as I hinted above, the equivalent water cooler talk fuel to the NCAAs in America. It’s when you find out where all your coworkers are from, since they’ll be supporting their home teams. I already know that my manager and one other coworker at the university are from nearby Fukui prefecture, which has two teams in the tournament. I’ll find out today if either of them graduated from the schools.

These tournaments, as well as the less-well-known national soccer tournament (soccer is probably Japan’s second most popular sport), have given rise to sports high schools across Japan, as well. High schools in Japan specialize in various fields- they also have their own entry examinations. There are academic-oriented schools in various fields, music schools, trade schools, and sports schools. I gather that the last two categories overlap a bit. While sports and trade schools may not send many graduates on to college, at least a few times each year, they get some major bragging rights. Many of the teams represented in the Spring and Summer tournaments are vocational or trade schools, which makes a lot more sense to me than the American system of recruiting athletes to academically-minded schools that they wouldn’t be able to get into, based on their scholastic merit.

So, Let the Tournament Begin!

I’m looking forward to this year’s tournament, with two teams from Fukushima to cheer for, as well as the slight increase in liveliness around the office. For me, there’s only one small problem. I translated “Senbatsu” as “invitational” in this context, but it is also used for “selection.” As it happens, the college where I work in admissions has a “Special Selection” (Tokubetsu Senbatsu) scholarship, and applications open on Monday. Talk about your bad timing! I forsee a couple weeks of, “Wait, which Senbatsu are you talking about?” in my near future.

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