What Are the Differences Between Japanese and American Baseball Games?

Going to a baseball game is one of the best thing a sports fan can do. Every game is different, and you never know what you will see. Mike Richmond shares with us the differences between Japanese and American baseball games in his report from a trip to Japan.

On August 16, I was lucky enough to be watching a baseball game in Japan, specifically this game between the Yakult Swallows and the Hanshin Tigers. I had a great time my brother, Chris, was sitting next to me and snapping amazing pictures (some of which you’ll see in a bit), our neighbors in the row were a family of Americans who had just two weeks earlier moved to Japan and turned out to be Red Sox fans, and it was the lazy end of a beautiful sunny day.

As the evening progressed, I noticed a number of differences between my experience as a fan here and my prior trips to American ballparks, beyond simply the PA making announcements in Japanese instead of English or that Japan Airlines was a major sponsor instead of United. Although I’d heard rumors of a couple of these differences, most caught me by surprise,often in a pleasant way. Allow me to discuss these notable nuances, so that you may be ready the next time you find yourself in a Japanese ballpark.

An umbrella?!

When I picked up my tickets at the stadium, I was also given a very small umbrella. It was much too small to provide any real shelter from the rain. What was I supposed to do with it? I put aside that puzzle to solve a pressing problem of a different kind.

As you will see, I did eventually find out.

Getting a drink

There are plenty of concession stands in the Meiji Jingu stadium (home of the Yakult Swallows), and they look pretty much like those in Fenway or Camden Yards: nothing new there. But why leave your seat and miss any action? At Jingu, a veritable army of young women (and a few men) endlessly wander up and down the steps, ready to quench your thirst.

Some carry a backpack full of beer and use a nozzle to dispense the liquid,

while others open a fresh can for each customer and pour it into a cup right then and there.

There’s quite a variety of beer, too: vendors selling Kirin, Yebisu, Suntory and Asahi all wandered through our section. Prices were quite reasonable: between 500 and 700 yen per drink, which is a bit less than $5-$7 at current rates.

Many of the vendors held bills to make change between their fingers as they walked. It looks precarious, but I guess it works.

But why stop at beer? You can get other tasty beverages without leaving your seat:

Staying safe

In order to prevent foul balls and broken bats from striking people in the stands, the netting in Jingu Stadium extends well past the home-plate area. In fact, it reaches all the way down the field to the foul poles!

Although the netting was annoying at first, the eye quickly adapted to its presence. As the game went on, the sky darkened and the stadium lights came into play. Against the brightly-lit field, the netting seemed to disappear.

Considering the potential for accidents like the one in Fenway this past June 5,I certainly don’t have a problem with it.

Warming up the pitcher

We sat about halfway down the right-field line, close to the home team’s bullpen area. As the players took batting and fielding practice, we watched the starting pitcher for the Swallows, Taichi Ishiyama, toss the ball to his catcher.

But then, he did something I didn’t expect: He walked away from the bullpen’s rubber, out away from the plate. The catcher also moved, but in toward home plate. After each had moved 30 feet, they turned back to each other and resumed their game of catch. They were now throwing the ball about 120 feet each time.

After a minute or two, they moved back again.

And then again.

Finally, Ishiyama was nearly standing on the warning track in the right-field corner

and his catcher close to the on-deck area.

They must have been hurling the ball over 300 feet in their final few exchanges.

I don’t think this is a common warm-up exercises for MLB pitchers is it?

Scoreboard conventions

If one ignores the different writing systems, the big scoreboard at the Meiji Jingu stadium looks similar to those in American stadia at first glance. But in the picture below (thanks to Jeff Moeller), can you spot the difference?

Hint number 1: focus on the lineups.

Hint number 2: American scoreboards usually display the batting order with uniform numbers and an abbreviation for the position:

Look again at the list of players on each team in Japan. The players for the visitors (on the left-hand side) appear to be wearing uniform numbers 8, 4, 3, … , 2, 1. Hmmm. All the numbers between 1 and 9. The same is true of the players on the home team: again, we see the numbers 1 through 9.

Actually, these aren’t their uniform numbers, but their positions. The leadoff hitter for both teams is the centerfielder, and the second-place hitter for both teams is the second baseman

I learned his identification of the numbers 1 through 9 with the positions on the field is so strong in Japan that in the Koshien high school baseball tournament, players wear uniforms with the numbers pinned on; that way, when substitutions are made, coaches can quickly place the appropriate digit onto a player’s back.

Cheerleaders

The Yakult Swallows do have a mascot,

but it plays a pleasantly small role in the night’s action. The real stars of the show between innings are the cheerleaders.

Cheering for the home (or away) team

We arrived for the game about an hour early. As fans filed into the stadium, I noticed that the left-field stands were accumulating a strong yellow tinge

while the right-field stands (closer to us) were dominated by green.

Yes, it’s just like a soccer or college football game: The fans of the home team sit on one side of the field, and the fans of the visitors sit on the other.

But wait, there’s more the fans of each team take turns cheering. They sing and chant and play instruments while their team is at bat, then sit quietly when their men are in the field. And when they cheer, it’s in an organized fashion. There’s a different song for each player when he comes up to the bat, with unique music and words. The sentiment is always pretty much the same, something along the lines of

I — SHI — MU — RA, you can do it!

I — SHI — MU — RA, do your best!

Neither Chris, nor I, nor the family of transplanted Americans, had any familiarity with these ditties, and most of us had no idea what they meant. Nonetheless, by the fourth inning, we were chanting along. You can listen to the Hanshin supporters root for first baseman Mauro Gomez in the audio clip below.

  (Audio clip of Gomez chant)

During a long mid-inning break, while the grounds crew was smoothing the infield, the cheerleaders led the home crowd in the Swallows fight song. I finally understood the purpose of my little umbrella.

When the Swallows scored, the fans once again unfurled their umbrellas and pumped them in the air to celebrate.  Alas, that was their only run of the game.

If you like becoming part of a big, happy chorus, or enjoy drinking a wide variety of beverages, or appreciate players (and ballboys!) who hustle on every play, or just want to watch some solid baseball, try going to a game during your next trip to Japan. But be careful: It could end up raising your expectations for the American version.

Mike Richmond has also written our Pitches and Stuff series and .300 hitters.

Follow us on Twitter @SoSHBaseball.

Check out Rick Rowand’s look at the 2016 Red Sox managerial situation.