A Quick Start Guide To Baseball In Japan

In the United States, the national pastime is called “baseball.” But in Japan, the same sport which they call ““yakyuu” (which literally means “field ball”)  is also one of the country’s most popular sports, both in terms of watching and playing the game.

The Early Days of Baseball in Japan

Baseball was brought over to Japan by Horace Wilson, a 19th-century professor who was hired by the Japanese government, as part of the country’s fast-paced modernization movement after the Meiji Restoration. While teaching at what would later become Tokyo Imperial University, Wilson decided that his students needed more physical exercise, and used baseball as a way to facilitate said physical activity. From there, as they say: the rest was history; both figuratively, and literally.

Whereas in the United States, we have Major League Baseball as the premier professional baseball league, in Japan, there is the Nippon Professional Baseball league, or NPB. The MLB has 30 teams, and the NPB has 12 teams located in many of Japan’s largest and most populous cities.

The MLB is split up between the American League and the National League, and the NPB is split up between the Central and Pacific. For those of you who subscribe to the idea that the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox might be the MLB’s two most popular teams, with both of them being in the American League East division.

In the NPB, the two most popular teams in Japan the Giants of Tokyo and the Tigers of Osaka  are both in the Central league. And while the winners of the American League and the National League face off in the World Series, the winners of the NPB’s Central and Pacific leagues take on each other in the Japan Series to determine the league champions.

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Japan – These Days of the Game

While the Japanese still maintain the essence of the sport of baseball, it’s not the exact same version of the sport that you’ll find back home. In Japan, the baseball is smaller, the strike zone is narrower, and the playing field is reduced. In fact, five teams in the NPB play in fields whose dimensions are too small for the MLB, and would violate the American Official Baseball Rules.

Also, one major departure between the American and Japanese version of the game is that the latter is timed. As we all know, a baseball game in the U.S can last just a couple of hours, or extend upwards of three or four hours (or more), depending on what’s going on in the game. In Japan, not only are the games regulated for time, but they can also end in a tie if nobody is winning by the end of extra innings; in the NPB regular season, games can only go twelve innings, while in the playoffs, there is a fifteen-inning limit.

Over the years, the NPB has imposed rules on how many non-Japanese players can sign with any given team. And yet, the irony is that many of the NPB’s stars will find their way into Major League Baseball, if they feel like they’ve outgrown the NPB.

Starting with Hideo Nomo in the 1990’s, players like Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, and Yu Darvish all came to the MLB seeking a greater challenge, and more importantly, a greater income potential. Don’t expect that pipeline to dry up anytime soon, either.

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