Japanese Baseball on the 4th of July

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As an American attending a Japanese major league baseball game for the first time, it turned out that the most fun part wasn’t watching the game, it was enjoying the highly choreographed, non-stop cacophony of alcohol soaked cheering and singing from the fans. The game itself was good, and was very much like watching two good major league American teams play. It was the Yomiuri Giants vs. the Hanshin Tigers, who have a long-running rivalry like the Yankees and Red Sox. The big difference from American baseball is the rituals the Japanese bring to the game. When you combine Japanese baseball fanaticism with their obsessions over convenience, cleanliness, and group activities involving alcohol, you get a unique experience.

Convenience begins with buying the tickets – I didn’t buy tickets until the morning on the day of the game, so all that was left were standing room only tickets. But I was able to buy them at a convenience store for only 1000 yen (about $11) each. Convenience stores here sell tickets for just about every major event in the city, with no surcharges like those obscene TicketMaster “convenience” fees. Getting to the game is also convenient on the subway, which takes you within a stone’s throw of the Giants’ home stadium, the Tokyo Dome. I didn’t even see a parking lot – if there is one, it must be small.

Cleanliness is apparent the moment you walk in the stadium. You’re allowed to bring in any food and drink you like, including alcohol. However, there are paper cup stations at every entrance, where you are required to give your drinks to a uniformed guard, who will pour them in cups for you, as they want to make sure all the metal cans and plastic bottles are recycled, and to minimize any mess. And there is no mess: every stairwell, hallway, stadium seat, and toilet is spotless. The stadium had an almost antiseptic feel to it, like a hospital: as an American, it felt utterly antithetical to any previous stadium experience of mine. I had to restrain a fit of laughter partway through the game, when a man sitting across the aisle spilled his beer (by then we had snuck into some empty seats in the nosebleed section behind home plate). Not only did he immediately get up and run to report the spill to a stadium attendant, the attendant than grabbed another attendant, and they rushed back to his seat with a pile of paper towels and a plastic bag to frantically clean it up.

Like in the US, beer is the drink of choice for many at baseball games, but hard liquor is also for sale. The people working hardest during the game aren’t the players, it’s the beer girls. They’re all young and pretty (presumably a requirement for being hired), and they carry pony kegs on their backs, so they can serve draught beer. They are in constant motion, huffing up and down the steep stairwells, serving beer and dripping sweat, but always with smiles on their faces. It was like watching marines doing basic training, but high on happiness pills. I felt exhausted just watching them. I noticed none of the same girls were around for more than a few innings, so presumably (hopefully) they were allowed decent breaks.

The most remarkable thing was the choreographed cheering, which started before the first pitch and went on continuously throughout the game (see the video above for a sample). Actually, there were a few brief breaks when the cheerleaders – yes, cheerleaders for baseball – came out to dance (so they should call them dancers instead, since they were definitely not cheerleading). The left outfield seats were occupied exclusively by the Toraki-chi (crazy Tigers fans), and the right outfield was for the Giants, and then fans for both teams were mixed together in the rest of the stadium. Each side had chants they sang when their team was at bat, and the other side mostly would stay deferentially quiet, except for especially good defensive plays. The stadium-wide coordination was impressive. Each team had a specific way to express their enthusiam for home runs. For the Giants, aside from an explosion of cheering, every fan has a small orange towel to wave, and in the center of their fan section were people waving two enormous flags (see the video below). Unlike in the US, nobody brings home-made signs. I thought it was all really a lot of fun for the first few innings, but by around the sixth inning the constant cacophony became numbing. But I wasn’t drinking, so that was probably a big part of my problem.

What also stood out to me was the lack of an announcer. Not a word was ever spoken over a PA system. The name of the current batter was usually incorporated into the crowd’s chant, so everyone was following the state of the game just fine without an announcer. My favorite chant was for the Giants’ American player Edgar Gonzalez, whose name is impossible for the Japanese to pronounce, but they did the best they could, chanting “Ed-o-ga! Ed-o-ga!”

Which reminds me, I did also pay some attention to the game 😉 The Giants clobbered the Tigers 10-2, mainly because the Tigers opening pitcher gave up 7 runs in the first few innings before they finally took him out. Here are the game’s full stats if you’re curious. Since I was still a bit jet lagged, it was a pleasant way to relax on the 4th of July, and have an experience that felt both American and uniquely Japanese.

Originally published July 10, 2012

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