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Tuesday, July 24, 2007
Japan baseball stars first shine bright at Koshien
When Japanese baseball stars like Hideki Matsui and Daisuke Matsuzaka joined Major League Baseball teams in the United States, fans could easily trace their trajectory backward to their roots in the sport.
The fame they gained in the Japanese pro league was predated by the glory they achieved at Koshien — the name of the Hyogo Prefecture stadium and the tournaments played there — where they first made names for themselves.
Unlike other school sports, the Koshien tournaments get huge media coverage, with NHK airing every game, and newspaper and magazine reporters covering the stadium, the students' hotels and hometowns.
Following are basic facts about Koshien:
When do the tournaments take place and when did they start?
The tournaments take place twice a year, in March and August. According to the Japan High School Baseball Federation, about 4,200 schools nationwide participate via regional rounds. But only 32 schools make it to Koshien in the spring and 49 in the summer.
The summer Koshien was first played in 1915 with sponsorship by the Asahi Shimbun. The spring tournament began in 1924, sponsored by the rival Mainichi Shimbun. Participants in both are decided in regional rounds.
The tournaments have taken place every year since, except for five years during and after World War II.
What does Koshien mean to high school baseball players?
It is a sacred place, reachable by a select few. It is the key venue for prospective professionals to demonstrate their abilities before they graduate.
Scouts from pro clubs watch the games closely, hoping to spot prospective players to draft in the fall.
Even for players who don't seek to go on to professional baseball, the media coverage gives them and their schools great public exposure.
Yuki Saito, a former ace pitcher at Waseda Jitsugyo High School, which claimed last year's championship, was nicknamed "handkerchief prince" by the media for his habit of wiping his face with a handkerchief during games, attracting female fans. He is now a star player at Waseda University and pro scouts watch his every move.
Slugger Matsui gained fame in the 1992 Koshien because he was intentionally walked in five at-bats. And Matsuzaka won the Koshien championship as a pitcher in 1998 after hurling a 17-inning game in the semifinals.
Why does it get so much media coverage?
Nationwide newspaper companies sponsor the tournaments as part of a strategy that also entails extensive coverage of the behind-the-scenes dramas.
NHK lends to the drama by shooting closeup images of pitchers and batters, of female fans of a defeated team crying after the game, and of hometown fans sitting in front of televisions cheering their teams on.
Are there traces of militarism in the ceremonies and customs of high school baseball?
Arguably, yes. Players have to march in straight lines in the opening ceremony, sing school songs, proclaim their oath of sportsmanship and have their heads shaved.
The militaristic custom seen in today's school sporting events dates back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Japan was engaged in war against China and Russia.
"Since military officers often visited schools to give military training to students (during physical education), the training method, ritual and mind-set penetrated all kinds of sports," said Satoshi Shimizu, an associate professor of sports sociology at the University of Tsukuba in Ibaraki Prefecture.
When baseball was introduced in Japan from the U.S. in the late 19th century by American missionaries and teachers, and Japanese students returning from the U.S., it first spread among college students.
Elite students of what is now the University of Tokyo also introduced the Bushido spirit to the sport, Shimizu said.
According to that spirit, intense practice was considered vital to cultivating one's mind. The importance of propriety and not disgracing oneself in public are also embodied in the spirit.
Is it true the Japan High School Baseball Federation has strict rules against high school baseball players receiving scholarships and other financial assistance?
Yes. To prevent scouting excesses, the Japan Student Baseball Charter, which governs amateur baseball, stipulates that baseball players at both high schools and universities not receive free tuition, money for daily needs and other forms of financial assistance for their baseball talent. They can receive monetary assistance for other reasons, including for good grades.
The rule, however, has not been followed, and the federation is now forced to revise it — at least tentatively.
In March, it was revealed the Seibu Lions team had paid Waseda University player Katsuhito Shimizu since he was in Senshu University Kitakami High School because Seibu wanted him to join the team when he graduated. An investigation by the baseball federation also found Shimizu received a scholarship from the high school in violation of the charter.
Shimizu was kicked off the Waseda team and Sendai Kitakami's baseball club was disbanded.
At the same time, the federation determined that about 8,000 high school students were on baseball scholarships.
In light of this, and because private schools lobbied for baseball scholarships to be allowed, the federation had no choice but to tentatively allow them in cases of financial hardship. It plans to reach a final solution by the end of November.
How do scouts approach amateur baseball players?
A former scout reportedly said he looked for players in junior high schools, introducing promising ones to high school coaches he was acquainted with, and had his pro team draft them after they graduated.
He wined and dined the players' parents and paid several million yen when they had financial difficulties.
Scouts giving money to players, as was the case with Shimizu, and to coaches has been rumored to be the norm in high school ball.