Spring is here! That means a brand new school year with new students and staff, your un-insulated house is finally livable again, and you can day-drink under the cherry blossoms. It also marks the return of something else incredibly important: baseball season!
I was first introduced to Kansai’s most famous team during my second month of JET. I had a passing interest in baseball and was curious about the local team, but I mainly went so I could drink beer and meet new people. Little did I know that that first game would lead me to joining the official fan club, making some fabulous friends, following the team across Japan, and spending nearly every week at Koshien Stadium.
The Hanshin Tigers are one of the oldest baseball teams in Japan. They are owned by the Hanshin Railway Corporation and represent the Kansai area in the Center League for Nippon Professional Baseball. Their home stadium, Koshien, is the host of the Spring and Summer National High School baseball tournaments and is considered holy ground amongst Japanese baseball players. There is actually a Shinto shrine just outside the stadium.
Baseball in Japan is unlike any other baseball game I have ever attended. I think the group mentality of Japanese culture lends itself quite well to team sports. The result is massive, choreographed cheering. The fans actually take turns and when the opposing team is batting, and you get a rest. (I mean, how else would you have time to drink your beer?) When your team is up to bat, however, you best put down the Asahi, because things are about to get crazy. I’m talking about a full brass band, thunder sticks, giant flags, synchronized chanting and cheer leaders. (Cheer leaders in the truest sense of the word– these people will actually be leading your section in which cheer to chant.)
If you haven’t memorized all the players’ cheers, lyric booklets are provided, and you can still clap along to the beat. Even with limited Japanese knowledge, it’s not difficult to figure out “go, go, rettsu go!” or “kattobase, <Player Name>!”
Like everything in life, a little effort goes far. Learning a cheer and belting it out alongside all the other fans can absolutely be one of the most rewarding experiences you do in Japan. It is said that Hanshin fans are known amongst Japanese as some of the craziest, most die-hard fans of baseball. I would have to agree, but I have also found them to be the most accepting group of people. There is something magical that happens at Koshien. When you’re sitting in the crowd and cheering and clapping along, you are no longer gaikokujin, you are simply a fellow Hanshin Fan. Day after day, being seen and treated as a perpetual outsider is tiring. The rare sense of community and belonging one receives at a Hanshin game always heals my cranky jaded heart.
This magic transcends the baseball diamond, too. My interest in Japanese baseball has led to meeting some very interesting people in Japan. It has been a constant source of new friendship and even helped my relationships with my coworkers. Teachers and staff whom I would otherwise never interact with sometimes seek me out to talk about the team or to sing the cheers together. My students undoubtedly find it hilarious to see me at the station in my Hanshin gear, but they usually just wish me a hearty “itterasshai!” The Hanshin charm on my phone has led to many impromptu conversations with strangers on trains, in super markets, and on the street. Being out and about in my jersey has even led to the occasional free drink or some food at izakayas.
I think that Japanese people like it when a foreigner embraces their culture arms-wide open, not caring about looking silly or foolish. My experience is that Japanese people are less likely to seek you out and that you have to put yourself out there if you want to make friends. It is undoubtedly worth it, and can be a window into a side of Japan life you might not ever see. For me, the absolute best way to do this has been baseball, but it could just as easily be something else for you.
Stay tuned next month for my tips on how to get the most out of a visit to Koshien. And be sure to RSVP for the HAJET Hanshin Game event on May 21st!