Jun Shigeno hung up his baseball glove because he was tired of having to shave his hair almost to the scalp just to fit in with the rest of the players on the team. Similarly, Kazuma Suzuki stopped playing because of the demands for uniformity and the criticism that would be heaped upon any member of the team who showed the slightest hint of individuality.
Once virtually the only sport accessible to most Japanese, baseball is now in a gradual but seemingly inexorable decline, with the Japan High School Baseball Federation announcing on June 29 that just 153,184 children were members of school clubs, a record fall of 8,389 from the previous year and the fourth consecutive year that numbers had contracted.
In addition, 428 schools are now affiliates of the federation, down eight from last year, while 8,755 adults are registered as helping with school teams, a fall of 548.
In a separate nationwide survey by the federation and the Asahi newspaper, more than 70 per cent of high school baseball coaches and club supervisors said the game was no longer Japan’s national pastime. A majority said baseball had either been surpassed by football or would be soon.
Given Japan’s solid showing at this year’s World Cup Finals in Russia, and the arrival of a number of high-profile players at Japanese clubs this summer, baseball may struggle to regain its former glory.
“I used to really enjoy playing when I was younger because all my friends played at school or in the park on the weekends, and a game is pretty much always on TV during the summer,” said Shigeno, now a 19-year-old student at Tokyo’s Meiji University.
“But when you get into the team at high school, it’s not so much fun any more,” he said. “The team captain told us we all had to have the same shaved heads to be on the team. At the time I did not question it and I shaved my head, but after a while I began to ask why we all had to be the same.
“And when I realised that there was no good reason, it was just what we were expected to do because that was the way it has always been done, then I stopped.”
Shigeno then took up American football until he was injured. Now at university with time on his hands, he says he has no interest in picking up a baseball bat again.
It was a similar story for Suzuki, also 19 and a student at Komazawa University in Tokyo.
“As I got into my teens, I wanted to have my own style in how I dressed and the way I looked, and that was just not possible if I was on the baseball team,” he said. “We were not ‘ordered’ to cut our hair short, but if the rest of the team did it, then I had to as well.
“And as I grew up, it was impossible to be me and play baseball,” he added.
Suzuki now plays handball, which he says is a more “democratic” sport because no one demands that the rest of the players on the team dress in a certain way or follow unwritten rules.
Fred Varcoe, a sports journalist who has been in Japan for 30 years and has watched baseball’s slow decline from its heyday, believes the game has wilted in the face of alternatives.
“Baseball was king in Japan in the 1960s and 1970s, and even up to the end of the economic bubble in the early 1990s, because it was a corporate sport, which was part of both its success and its problem,” he said. “There was a lot of money in the game back then, it was on television all the time and great for advertisers.
“But in the last 25 years, football has emerged as its rival. Japan’s national team won the Asian Cup 26 years ago, the J-League started the following year and there has been an incredible transformation in a game that was until then effectively an amateur sport attracting crowds of less than 1,000 people.
“In the space of six months, teams were getting crowds of 60,000 people. And that took it from a minority sport to effectively the national sport.”
Varcoe says with the same 12 clubs still in the same cities, Japanese baseball has stagnated rather than evolved, and that includes many of the rules that are imposed on young players.
“Soccer players dye their hair, have beards and even earrings, which would be unthinkable in baseball,” he said. “And when they are interviewed, players have opinions and say what they think, while baseball stars just lack any sort of personality and are painfully regimented. And young people today want to be individuals, which means they more readily identify with footballers.”
Football has also benefited from a surge in popularity among female fans, he added.
Baseball’s declining popularity mirrors that of the other two staples of a salaryman’s sporting entertainment: sumo and golf.
Instead, sports in which individuals can express themselves are breaking through, such as basketball or surfing, which at the 2020 Tokyo Games will make its debut as an Olympic sport. Similarly, rugby is expected to receive a boost when Japan hosts the Rugby World Cup next year.
Baseball is also clearly a victim of Japan’s declining birth rate, as there are fewer youngsters around to pick up a bat. There are also countless other modern distractions, not the least of which are computers and mobile phones.
For these reasons and more, Varcoe believes baseball will continue to decline in popularity.
“A country can be rejuvenated by sport and I am convinced that football can help young Japanese break away from the notion that you have to suffer to take part in a sport,” he said. ■