Baseball is likely a more popular pastime in Japan than it is in America. Perhaps it is because it is a sport which is somewhat meditative, involves little advantage based on a player’s height, and also usually involves little or no strenuous body contact. The Japanese have been playing baseball since 1872 when it is documented to have first been introduced by an American professor by the name of Horace Wilson. The first Japanese baseball team was formed a few years later by one of Japan’s national railways employees who had studied engineering abroad in America. He and his co-workers joined together as Japan’s first team and were known as the “Shimbashi Athletic Club”.
While this team reportedly did quite well playing various teams which later formed around Japan, the nation apparently showed passing interest until the famous Tokyo University formed a team of its own. In 1896 the team won by a considerable margin in a game against a group of Americans from a country club near Tokyo, in what is historically regarded as the first international baseball game in Asia. Following such a victory, universities around Japan began to form baseball teams of their own. University teams then began to travel to America to better improve their skills and also play in games with more formidable American teams. In 1905, the first such journey was made by a team from Waseda University, another famous Tokyo school. Teams from the U.S. also traveled to Japan and American baseball stars even held training workshops to help Japanese players hone their skills.
Professional baseball in Japan is called “Puro Yakyu” (pronounced “poo-roe yah-kyoo”) which simply translates to English as “Professional Baseball”. The first professional baseball league in Japan was known as simply “The Japanese Baseball League” and was reportedly established in 1936. In 1950, the league reorganized itself as the “Nippon Professional Baseball” league, also known as the “NPB”. It is this league that is currently considered to be the highest level of professional baseball in Japan today. Some notably unique characteristics of the NPB in comparison with Major League Baseball in America include a slightly smaller ball (potentially due to it being wound more tightly), a strike zone which is larger near the batter and smaller away from the batter, less aggressive play, and also less home runs. Also unique is the fact that teams have generally been associated with their corporate sponsors rather than the cities where they are located. This is changing and one team now, the Yokohama BayStars, has even chosen to omit the name of its corporate sponsor in favor of its location (Yokohama).
Until as recently as 1993 the sport of baseball was the only professional league team sport in Japan. This alone is a shining testament to the sport’s lasting popularity. Baseball heroes of Japan have been given media coverage the likeness of a celebrity funeral upon their retirement and tears are even shed on camera, something not often seen in a publically unemotional country like Japan.