Technically speaking, Sumo is the national sport of Japan, but with sold-out stadiums around the country, baseball is very popular. Japan’s twelve professional baseball teams garner a devoted following from people of all ages. At every game, there are always fans enthusiastically cheering on their favorite players and teams in many ways, such as: waving banners, releasing balloons into the air in unison, and chanting to the beat of instruments played by their team’s fan club in the stands. Baseball is so popular that even the high school baseball tournaments held at Koshien Stadium in Hyogo Prefecture are broadcasted into the homes around the country via national television and radio stations.
Baseball originally made its way across the Pacific to Japan in the 1870s. The sport quickly gained popularity, and amateur college club teams began appearing by the end of the decade. The first exchanges between Japanese and American players occurred through these clubs. Japanese professional baseball began in earnest during the 1920s and the Japanese Baseball League, the predecessor to present day Nippon Professional Baseball, was formed in 1936 in part due to the influence of the American all-star teams that came to promote the sport.
Perhaps the most famous all-star team to tour was the one of 1934, which included legendary players like Babe Ruth of the New York Yankees and "Lefty" O'Doul of the now defunct New York Giants. The latter of these two legends provided the inspiration for the formation of the Tokyo Giants, which in turn has contributed significantly to the success of Japanese professional baseball. Babe Ruth also left an indelible mark on the evolution and popularity of baseball in Japan. In the words of the U.S. Ambassador at the time, Joseph Grew, in his book “Ten Years in Japan,” the Bambino was “A great deal more effective Ambassador than [he] could ever be.” In part due to this legacy, there are many foreign players on Japanese rosters who attract loyal fans through their exploits on the field to this day. Notable players have included former Mets Manager Bobby Valentine and Hall of Famer and former Yankee Goose Gossage.
Since the 1960s there have also been many Japanese baseball players who have spent significant portions of their careers in the MLB. Some famous examples who have played for New York area teams include Hideki Matsui, Masahiro Tanaka, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Ichiro Suzuki. Ichiro, as he is commonly known, is possibly the most famous currently active Japanese player in the MLB, beginning his record-setting career playing for the Seattle Mariners, continuing as a Yankee between 2012 and 2014, and most recently as a part of the Miami Marlins. The delight of seeing Ichiro play was even mentioned by President Obama in his speech at Pearl Harbor with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in December 2016 as an example of the “the shared pride of two peoples… united in peace and friendship.