A pitcher winds up at the National High School Baseball Championship at Koshien Stadium in Osaka.
You want pure sports spectacle? You want the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat?” Forget about Olympic athletics, the American pros and even Friday-night football in Texas. Take a look at high school baseball in Japan. As shown in Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball, the first English-language film to examine the phenomenon, baseball has become a national rite of passage for the country’s youth. For thousands of Japanese teens, their families and teachers, as well as millions of spectators, the annual tournament that begins with some 4,000 teams and finishes with 49 teams competing for the national championship at Koshien Stadium in Osaka manages to be both pure baseball — and purely Japanese.
In March 2006, Japan beat Cuba to win the first-ever World Baseball Classic. While this came as a shock to some, many baseball fans weren’t surprised. Japan’s embrace of the sport, beginning in 1872 and today including Japanese players in the American big leagues like Seattle’s Ichiro Suzuki and New York’s Hideki Matsui, is well known. Babe Ruth and other American all-stars used to travel to Japan in the 1930s to play against the locals before adoring fans — in fact, in the very Koshien Stadium where Japan’s high school yakyu (“field ball”) tournament culminates every August. But just how strong and deep the Japanese love of baseball is — how they have remade the sport into a supreme expression of their spiritual and cultural values — won’t be as obvious. Unless one has experienced what the Japanese refer to simply as “Koshien.”
Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball opens up the world of Koshien by following the fortunes of two teams as they compete in regional games and then head for the 2003 tournament (the 86th annual games). Tennoji High School is a public school whose team is coached by a dedicated and self-effacing teacher, Masa-sensei, who becomes deeply involved in the lives and welfare of his students and their families. Tennoji, with its limited public-school resources and location in the most competitive region, always faces an uphill climb to Koshien. Chiben High School, by contrast, is an elite private school whose team is coached by the legendary Takashima, who has taken the team to Koshien more than 20 times and has won the national championship three times. So successful has Chiben been that some of the nation’s best high school baseball players go to great lengths to attend the school — and increase their chances of competing at Koshien.
Both coaches are obsessed with baseball and the values it teaches — and demands — of the students. Yet their different temperaments seem to mirror the contrast between the teams. The humbler Masa-sensei spares no feeling or attention to personal detail as he guides his students through a sports competition and trial-by-fire that will mark them for the rest of their lives. The depth of his emotional investment in his players becomes clearest at the tournament’s end. The great Takashima brings a more Olympian sensibility to the proceedings; as soon as the tournament ends, he’s already thinking of next year and the prospects for a Chiben championship. Kokoyakyu also brings us into the lives of the players, from the stars and captains to the second-stringers whose struggles to make a contribution become, perhaps, the purest expression of Japanese values in baseball.
In Kokoyakyu, the rules, uniforms and stadium hoopla may seem all-American. Even the cheerleaders and their uniforms, though oddly borrowed from American football, obviously derive from the U.S. But — in what may be a revelation to Americans, especially American kids involved in sports — the intensity, discipline, earnestness and unselfish dedication to team, school and family are all Japanese. High school baseball in Japan appears to have sublimated the country’s traditional samurai values in a markedly non-violent sport, whose essential grace and emphasis on teamwork strike a deep chord in Japanese hearts.
In what may be the most non-American touch of all, the Koshien tournament is kept rigorously non-commercial. Although the Koshien playoffs attract 60,000 fans per game to the stadium and are broadcast in full for 11 days on national television to millions of viewers, there are no commercial endorsements of any kind. The broadcasts are on public television, and no commercial recordings of the games are allowed. The stadium’s owners donate use of the facility (and bump the games of the hometown pro team). Virtually everyone involved, from umpires to trainers to coaches, donates his time. And though a few of the kids nurse ambitions to play professional ball, it’s quite clear that for the vast majority of the young players, Koshien is a rite of passage that calls on them to exhibit the highest Japanese values — hard work, dedication, selflessness and good sportsmanship. The same is true for the cheer squads, who marshal themselves with startling discipline and conviction, and the coaches, schoolmates, parents and fans who yearly brave searing heat or tune their TVs and radios to this national celebration.
“In Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball we wanted to capture the unique aspects of Japanese-style baseball and the way Koshien marks a rite of passage for the nation’s youth,” says writer/producer Alex Shear. “It’s really unlike anything in the United States, and the way Japanese kids approach this rite is also quite a contrast to youth culture — especially sports culture — in America.”
“It was great this March to see the World Baseball Classic bring so many diverse cultures together over baseball,” says director Kenneth Eng. “For us, it was even more exciting that Team Japan won, because we know how much baseball means to so many people there. We hope the team’s success, and our film, will inspire Americans to learn more about Japanese culture. ”
Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball is a production of Projectile Arts, made possible by grants from the United States-Japan Foundation, the Japan-US Friendship Commission and the Japan Foundation, with in-kind support from United Airlines.