In recent years, the arrival in the United States of players like Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui has enlightened Americans about the popularity of the sport in Japan. But most Americans don’t know that Japan has almost as long a baseball history as the United States.
The exact date that baseball was introduced in Japan is not known, but it is attributed to American professor Horace Wilson sometime between 1867 and 1912. The Japanese people were immediately intrigued by western baseball, seeing psychological similarities between baseball and their native sports of sumo and martial arts.
In the 1930s, a team of famous American baseball players including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig toured Japan and played games against Japanese college players. Even though the Americans won every game they played, the series helped build interest in baseball throughout Japan. The first Japanese professional team was formed in 1934.
During the years of World War II, as more men joined the military, baseball fell into disfavor and many baseball fields were turned into ammunition dumps or used to grow food crops. However, after Japan was defeated, Allied commanders assisting in the rebuilding of Japan turned to baseball to boost morale and build stronger ties with the west.
In 1950, the Japanese league took on the form it still holds today; two leagues of six teams each. The introduction of television in 1955 brought baseball to a wider audience in Japan as it did in the United States.
There are a few differences in the style and rules of play between modern American and Japanese baseball. The ball used in Japanese baseball is smaller and lighter than the ball used in American baseball. Also, unlike American teams, Japanese teams are only allowed four foreign players per team, two position players and two pitchers.
Stylistically, Japanese coaches focus more on the fundamentals of bunting, base running and fielding whereas American baseball has come to rely heavily on pitching talent and long ball hitting. Because of these differences, Japanese baseball games typically have closer and lower final scores than American baseball games.
In recent years, Japanese baseball teams have been hit hard by players defecting to American teams. The Japanese league and Major League Baseball have an agreement requiring the payment of fees by American teams wanting to recruit Japanese players, but the rules do not apply to free agents. Japanese people today are far more likely to watch an American team on television than they are a Japanese team. Players like Ichiro Suzuki are wildly popular in Japan and are considered national heroes.