Aug 9, 2022 - Sports

Inside Japan's national obsession with baseball

Illustration of the Japanese flag with a red baseball instead of circle
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

In America, the madness arrives in March. In Japan, it comes in August, swapping basketballs for baseballs and colleges for high schools, Axios' Jeff Tracy writes.

Driving the news: Japan's Summer Koshien — the national high school baseball tournament named after the stadium where it's held — began Saturday, back with full crowds for the first time since 2019.

"The only way to describe it is if March Madness was mixed with the Super Bowl."
Michael Clair, MLB.com

How it works: 49 teams participate in the single-elimination tournament: one qualifier from each of Japan's 47 prefectures, plus an additional qualifier from each of the Tokyo and Hokkaido prefectures.

  • The bracket is drawn at random, with 15 teams receiving first-round byes. Matchups are again drawn randomly in both the quarterfinals and semis.
  • Just how important is Koshien? Imagine if the Dodgers had to leave town every summer to accommodate high schoolers. That's what the Hanshin Tigers do, vacating their stadium for two weeks each year.

The big picture: Baseball is a way of life in Japan, which adopted the sport in 1873 and affixed its philosophies of martial arts (tireless training, total dedication) onto it.

Fun fact: One player who failed to qualify in 1989 named his son Koshiro, hoping to manifest an eventual berth. (It worked. Koshiro played there last year.)

Between the lines: As passionate as people are about winning Koshien, the tournament's ethos is best summed up by the tradition that follows every loss, when players collect the stadium's sacred dirt as a keepsake.

  • "We feel so much for the losing team and the beauty of how they've lost," said Ema Ryan Yamazaki, who directed a Koshien documentary.
  • "I think it just matches the sensibilities of what Japanese people appreciate in watching sports."

The bottom line: Sports are at their best when they transcend the field of play, working their way deep into the bones of a nation's culture. Few events exemplify that phenomenon better than Summer Koshien.

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