Baseball has been a popular sport in Japan for over a century since its introduction in 1872. It is called 野球 (やきゅう; yakyū) in Japanese, combining the characters for field and ball. It is played at all age levels but most widely in junior high schools and senior high schools. Two tournaments are held in March and August for senior high school teams that win a prefectural tournament. The location of the tournaments is Koshien Stadium.
The highest level of competition is the professional league, started in 1920. It is called Puro Yakyū (プロ野球), meaning Professional Baseball.
Players from the Japanese leagues who have gone on to success in Major League Baseball in the United States include Hideo Nomo, Kazuhiro Sasaki, Ichiro Suzuki, Tadahito Iguchi and Hideki Matsui.
Japanese professional baseball consists of two leagues, the Central League and the Pacific League. There are also two secondary-level professional minor leagues, the Eastern League and the Western League, that play shorter schedules.
The professional season starts in late March or early April and ends in October with two or three all star games in July. In recent decades, the two leagues each scheduled 130, 135 or 140 regular season games with the best teams from each league going on to play in the "Nihon Series" or Japan Series. Prior to 1950 there was just one league, called the Japanese Baseball League. From 1973 to 1982, the Pacific League employed a split season with the first half winner playing against the second half winner in a mini-playoff to determine its champion. Then in 2004, the Pacific League played five fewer games than the Central League teams during the regular season and used a new playoff format to determine its champion. The teams in third and second place played in a best two of three series (all at the second place team's home ground) with the winner of that series going on to play the first place team in a best 3 of 5 format at its home ground. In the end, the Seibu Lions finished in second place, defeated Nippon Ham 2 games to 1, went on to take 3 of 5 games in Fukuoka against the Daiei Hawks and then defeated the Chunichi Dragons in the Japan Series, 4 games to 3, capping off their grueling playoff drive with a well-earned championship.
The two leagues began interleague play in 2005, with each team playing two 3-game series (one home, one away) against each of the six teams in the other league. All interleague play games are played in a 7-week span near the middle of the season.
Play in the Pacific League is similar to that of American League baseball, with the use of designated hitters, unlike the Central League. Unlike North American baseball, however, Japanese baseball games may end in a tie. If the score is tied after 9 innings of play, up to 3 additional innings will be played. If there is no leader after 12 innings, the game is declared a draw. Other differences from its American counterpart is that the general play is less aggressive, there are fewer home runs, the strike zone is larger near the batter but smaller away from the batter, and the ball is slightly smaller and wound tighter.
Unlike American pro teams, Japanese professional baseball teams are usually named after their corporate owners/sponsors rather than the cities in which they play.
Problems of professional baseball
Financial problems hinder the league as a whole, but the problem is not a simple one to solve. It is believed that except for the Yomiuri Giants and the Hanshin Tigers, all teams are operating with considerable subsidies, often as much as ¥6 billion or about US$50 million, from their parent companies. A rise in the salaries of players is often blamed, but, from the start of the professional league, parent companies paid the difference as an advertisement. Most teams have never tried to improve their finances through constructive marketing. Until Nippon Ham Fighters moved to Hokkaidō, there were six teams in Tokyo and its surrounding area and three teams in the Ōsaka–Kōbe region. The market was flooded, but this was considered all right, as there was no competitor that tried to challenge baseball's popularity.
Eventually, however, J. League professional football league challenged that, winning over many people who used to spend their money and time on baseball. Instead of teams clustered in metropolitan areas, J. League aimed to create teams in the major city of every prefecture, much like professional football leagues in Europe.
On September 18, 2004, professional baseball players went on a two-day strike, the first strike in the history of the league, to protest the proposed merger between the Orix BlueWave and the Ōsaka Kintetsu Buffaloes and the failure of the owners to agree to create a new team to fill the void resulting from the merger. The strike was settled on September 23, 2004, when the owners agreed to grant a new franchise in the Pacific League and to continue the two-league, 12-team system. The new team, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles began play in the 2005 season.
Baseball was introduced to Japan in 1872 by Horace Wilson, and its first formal team was established in 1878. For almost 30 years, until 1906, a game could be viewed freely, as it was considered shameful to take money for doing something the players liked. In 1907, the first game was held that had a fee to watch. From 1908, several U.S. professional teams made their tours and had a match against amateur teams made up mostly by university students. Realizing that a professional league was necessary to improve, two professional teams were established in 1920. In the same year, teams held exhibition tours in Korea and Manchuria to spread baseball. This first professional league disintegrated in 1923 for financial reasons, and after repeated attempts to revive a professional league, it formally disbanded in 1929.
In 1934, Dai-nippon Tokyo Yakyū Club (literally Tokyo, Japan Baseball Club) was established, reviving professional baseball. A second team, Ōsaka Yakyū Club (literally Ōsaka Baseball Club) was established in following year. The former became Yomiuri Giants and the latter became Hanshin Tigers. In 1936, five other teams also formed, and the Nippon Professional Baseball League was started. Briefly forced to stop playing for a year beginning in 1944, it restarted on November 6, 1945, and a full season was played the next year. In 1950, the league split into the Central and Pacific Leagues.
Starting in 1992 and continuing intermittently, several Major League Baseball (MLB) teams have played exhibition games against Japanese teams. American teams popular in Japan include the Seattle Mariners, Los Angeles Dodgers, and New York Yankees at least in part due to Japanese players on those teams. Although the Minnesota Twins lack any Japanese players on their squad, they are quite popular in Japan, seen as playing baseball more like a Japanese team than the stereotypical home run hitting American clubs. Since 1986, a team of MLB All-Stars has made an end-of-the-season biennial tour of Japan, playing exhibitions games against a mix of NPB teams and all-star teams; the MLB squad has won each of these series.
In 2005 the Japan Samurai Bears began play in the Golden Baseball League, becoming the first Japanese team in an American professional baseball league.
Current Japanese baseball teams
|Current Japanese professional baseball teams|
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- The Central League
- Yomiuri Giants (Tokyo)
- Tokyo Yakult Swallows (Tokyo)
- Yokohama BayStars (Yokohama)
- Chunichi Dragons (Nagoya)
- Hanshin Tigers (Nishinomiya)
- Hiroshima Toyo Carp (Hiroshima)
- The Pacific League
- Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters (Sapporo)
- Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles (Sendai)
- Seibu Lions (Tokorozawa)
- Chiba Lotte Marines (Chiba)
- Orix Buffaloes (Ōsaka and Kōbe)
- Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks (Fukuoka)
Defunct Japanese baseball teams
Former Japanese Baseball League teams:
- Nagoya Golden Dolphins (merged with Tsubasa in 1940, Tsubasa later became Nishitetsu.)
- Nishitetsu (dissolved in 1943.)
- Yamato (dissolved in 1944.)
Former Central League teams:
- Nishi Nihon Pirates (merged with the Nishitetsu Clippers in 1951, now the Seibu Lions.)
- Shochiku Robins (merged with Taiyo Whales 1952, now the Yokohama BayStars.)
Former Pacific League teams:
- Daiei Unions (merged with Mainichi Orions 1957, now the Chiba Lotte Marines.)
- Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes (merged with the Orix BlueWave after the 2004 season to form the Orix Buffaloes.)
- Orix BlueWave (merged with the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes after the 2004 season to form the Orix Buffaloes)
- Takahashi Unions (merged with the Daiei Stars in 1956, the Stars later became the Daiei Unions.)
- Batting Average
- Randy Bass .389 (1986)
- Ichiro Suzuki .387 (2000)
- Ichiro Suzuki .385 (1994)
- Sadaharu Oh 55 (1964)
- Alex Cabrera 55 (2001)
- Tuffy Rhodes 55 (2002)
- Randy Bass 54 (1985)
- Makoto Kozuru 161 (1950)
- Robert Rose 153 (1999)
- Yutaka Fukumoto 106 (1972)
- Ralph Bryant 204 (1993)
- Ralph Bryant 198 (1990)
- Ralph Bryant 187 (1989)
- Ralph Bryant 176 (1992)
- Orestes Destrade 165 (1990)
- Hideo Fujimoto 0.73 (1943)
- Masaru Kageura 0.79 (1936 fall)
- Eiji Sawamura 0.81 (1937 spring)
- Victor Starffin 42 (1942)
- Kazuhisa Inao 42 (1961)
- Jiro Noguchi 40 (1942)
- Yutaka Enatsu 401 (1968)
- Kazuhisa Inao 353 (1961)
- Leron Lee .320 (1977–1987)
- Tsutomu Wakamatsu .31918 (1971–1989)
- Isao Harimoto .31915 (1959–1981)
- Ichiro Suzuki hit .353 for his Japanese career (1993–2000), but did not have enough at-bats to qualify for career leadership.
- Sadaharu Oh 868 (1959–1980)
- Sadaharu Oh 2170
- Yutaka Fukumoto 1065 (1969–1988)
- Kouji Akiyama 1712
- Hideo Fujimoto 1.90 (1942–1955)
- Masaichi Kaneda 400 (1950–1969)
- Tetsuya Yoneda 350 (1956–1977)
- Masaaki Koyama 320 (1953–1973)
- Keishi Suzuki 317 (1966–1985)
- Takehiko Bessho 310 (1942–1960)
- Victor Starffin 303 (1936–1955)
- Masaichi Kaneda 4490
- Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame
- List of Japanese baseball players
- High school baseball in Japan
- Japan Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
- Japanese Baseball Data Archive at The Baseball Guru
- List of players at Japanese Baseball
- ((Japanese)) Official Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) Site (.jp)
- MLB history of Puro Yakyū page
- Japan Baseball Daily
|Japanese Professional Baseball|
|Central League||Pacific League|
|Yomiuri Giants||Chunichi Dragons||Tokyo Yakult Swallows||Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters||Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles||Chiba Lotte Marines|
|Hiroshima Toyo Carp||Hanshin Tigers||Yokohama BayStars||Seibu Lions||Orix Buffaloes||Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks|
|Japan Series - Japanese Baseball League (former) - edit table|