Amateur hour in Japan: For many, the baseball focus shifts from pro to high school

Photo by Jun Sakahira
Photo by Jun Sakahira

Amateur hour in Japan: For many, the baseball focus shifts from pro to high school

by Takahiro Takiguchi
Stripes Japan

Undeniably one of the most popular sports in Japan, baseball dominates when it comes to summer in The Land of the Rising Sun. Many Americans are aware of the Nippon Professional Baseball league, but come August each year, the pros take a back seat to the “Joes,” or in Japan’s case, the high schoolers.

While high school baseball is always popular among the Japanese, the interest in the sport peaks during Japan’s annual National High School Baseball Championship, or Kokoyakyu, every August. Established in 1915, the beloved amateur tournament begins with one team from each of the 47 prefectures (two teams from Tokyo and Hokkaido) and eventually ends with a team being crowned National Champion.

For the NPB’s Hanshin Tigers, the tournament means a yearly road trip each August, as the 49-team tournament is held at the home of the Tigers. As if the weight of a national tournament isn’t enough, the venue, Koshien Stadium, is the largest in Japan and holds 47,500 people. While many of the games, typically held during the daytime, won’t sell out, all the games are televised on NHK. Games this year will run from Aug. 9 through 25.
Last year’s summer tournament was canceled due to COVID-19. This year, however, the stands will hold classmates, parents and relatives of the playing teams. To catch one of these games, you’ll have to tune in on the TV or online.

People throughout the nation rally to support their local team by tuning in to the NHK television and radio broadcast, which covers the tournament from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day for the duration of the championship. Just like March Madness in the States, the daytime games during the work week may lead to a few extra people calling off work to watch their team.

The 17-day tournament features as many as four games in a day, with the champion needing to collect six wins to be crowned. Koshien is located near Osaka – roughly a three and a half hour bullet train trip from Tokyo Station.

With history that dates back over 100 years, there’s sure to be plenty of tales and infamous stories from the tournament. One in particular involves the heroics of a then-17-year-old Daisuke Matsuzaka in 1998. At the time, the future Boston Red Sox pitcher was the ace for Yokohama High School.

The fresh-faced righty threw 250 pitches to earn a 17-inning win in the national quarterfinals. The day before, Matsuzaka led his team to victory with a 148-pitch shutout. If that wasn’t enough, he pitched the final inning of the semifinal win and then tossed a no-hitter to lead Yokohama to the National Championship.

Although Matsuzaka went on to star as a professional, he was once just like everyone else competing – an amateur. Many are drawn to the amateur status of high school baseball. Players show their enthusiasm and passion solely for the love of the game. Well-organized cheering parties made up of cheerleaders and brass bands encourage their supporters to sing their school songs or get loud.

At the end of game, the winner is celebrated with the playing the school song and its flag is hoisted, while the losers leave the stadium in tears.
Although national competitions are held in spring and summer every year, the summer tournament is much more popular, as it gives every high school the opportunity to qualify for the event. The spring tournament, on the other hand, is an invite-only event.

In order to qualify for the summer tournament, a team must conquer its prefectural tournament, much like a regional or district tournament in the U.S. These July tournaments narrow the more than 4,000 high schools down to 49. The prefectural tournaments vary in size depending on how big it is. In Kanagawa Prefecture, which accommodates the largest number of high schools (196), a school needs to win seven to eight times, while a school of Tottori Prefecture, which has only 25 high schools, can become prefectural champion with only four wins.

You may not be able to make it down to Koshien Stadium, but why not immerse yourself in the local culture by picking a team to root for as you watch on TV. If nothing else, it’s a good reason to call off work and spend the day watching baseball.

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