SPORTS

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April 2, 2010

In Japan, fandom takes on new levels

We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

There exists no sporting experience in America quite like a baseball game in Japan. The dynamic relationship between players and fans is uniquely Japanese: a mix of traditional Eastern values and a rabid intensity more typical of modern Western culture.

This past spring break I was given the opportunity to see a Japanese baseball game while on vacation in Tokyo. While this was not my first ever game in Japan, this pilgrimage back to the Mecca of baseball fanaticism reminded me why baseball in the Far East is such a joy to behold.

Fanaticism in Japanese baseball is epitomized by its exceptional cheering sections. One set of bleachers is designated as the home team’s cheering section while the other (usually smaller) set of bleachers is where the visiting fans make their presence felt. Deafeningly loud chants are led by a central conductor who stands on a large step ladder, wearing white gloves, yelling out instructions to the legion of fans whose numbers regularly reach into the thousands. Each hitter has two or three songs or chants dedicated just to him, along with five or more songs to support the team as a whole.

These cheers are memorized by all of the fans in the cheering section; one cannot help but wonder when these devoted followers have the time to learn upwards of 30 songs for their team. They use small plastic sticks, similar to the Anaheim Angels’ Thunder Sticks, to cheer and make more noise and complete the motions that are associated with each song.

This is not your average group of baseball fans. A small orchestra lines the back of the cheering section to lead the songs — tubas, trumpets, trombones, and giant drums are the norm. A cacophonous symphony mimicking the sweet sounds of oak on stitches.

Furthermore, these hardcore fanatics often travel long distances to attend their team’s away games. Train trips up to five hours long are not uncommon in support of their beloved squad, to lead the songs of support in the cheering section.

Fans serenade their beloved players with a passion matched only by legions of college football fans here in the US. But the organization of these devoted followers sets these Japanese fans apart and brings to mind Eastern traditions and cultural norms that make sports—specifically fanhood—distinct from its Western cousin. There is a rigid structure of proper rituals and overall respect directed towards the game that makes it a very Japanese spectacle.

First of all, cheering is unheard of while the other team is at bat. Fans of the fielding team sit in reverent silence, as if they were at a Shinto shrine or Buddhist monastery. Heckling or even cheers directed at the opposition is very taboo.

In stark contrast, in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field, one can often hear someone yelling, “What’s the matter with [Insert Opposing Outfielder]?” “He’s a BUM!”

Not so at a Japanese baseball game. There is far too much respect for the game and the players to display such vitriol at a sporting event. Players on the home team bow towards the cheering section as they take the field every inning, and fans return the respect with a loud roar.

While a Japanese baseball game will not bring you back to the heartland of Kansas any time soon, it is a unique experience that should not be missed if the opportunity presents itself. It will truly be an experience all its own—distinctly reflective of the culture of Japan and one rocking time.