Over the past few years, the world has grown to learn just how popular baseball is in Japan. In particular, when Shohei Ohtani struck out Mike Trout to secure the victory for Team Japan in the World Series Championship game even casual baseball fans became familiar with the superstar. Now with Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers for a combined $1.25 billion, the importance of baseball in their home country has become a headline.
With the emergence of Japanese players coming over to the MLB and showcasing all of their skills globally, we thought it would be worthwhile to attack the question - Why is baseball popular in Japan? In this blog, we will tell you about the history and evolution in Japan, the creation and success of the NPB, the influence this has on global baseball culture, and more. As they say in Japan, “さあ行こう” (Translation: alright, let's go!).
History and Evolution of Baseball in Japan
The history of baseball as a whole is rather confusing as there are many different backstories when you start to deep dive into this subject. The most credible answer we found is that the game of baseball dates back to the 18th century when games were played that resemble what it is today. Specifically, the real start of organized baseball came in 1845 by a group of New York City men.
The history of how the game got started in Japan is rather simple, and only 27 years later. An American teacher by the name of Horace Wilson introduced the game in Tokyo and it grew from there. The two countries started to bond in their love for the game as early as 1934 when a batch of future Hall of Famers made their way to showcase the sport. The team included the most famous athlete of his day, Babe Ruth, along with other legends like Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx.
Creation and Success of the Nippon Professional Baseball League
In 1950 baseball's popularity in Japanese society started to increase as a Japanese professional league – the Nippon Professional Baseball Organization – was formed. Over the years the league has evolved into what it is now with 12 teams with two different conferences in the Central and Pacific leagues. Teams like the Yomiuri Giants have dominated the league as they hold the most championships in nine with Hanshin Tigers in second with four.
The NPB has an interesting naming system as the teams are an extension of promoting major companies. For example, the Tigers are named after the Detroit Tigers and are owned by Hanshin Electric Railway. This has had the effect of making the teams in the NPB more noticeable and the game of baseball increasingly involved in people's day-to-day lives.
One of the most noticeable ways that the NPB has shown how successful they are is in their attendance charts. In the 2019 season, the average attendance at a game was 30,930 people, which was high in the chart that dated back to 2016. That number took quite a hit during the COVID-19 Pandemic, however, the number is almost back as of 2023 where the average attendance was 29,220. They know how to fill their seats as the MLB attendance per game in 2023 was 29,295.
Japan’s Success on the International Stage
The league has been around for some time now but it is the outstanding talent that has created the buzz around the sport in the recent past. In the Japan series this past season the Tigers were the 2023 champs as they beat the Orix Buffaloes. Even though the Buffaloes carried the most notable player in Yoshinobu Yamamoto, it was the Tigers that brought Shoki Murakami into the spotlight. Murakami won both the Central League MVP and Rookie of The Year on his way to the championship.
But, it wasn’t just in their league that the Japanese showcased their baseball madness. In the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo and the 2023 World Baseball Classic, Team Japan beat Team USA to capture the gold medal and the WBC title, respectively. Japan will look to defend its title of the WBC in 2026 since the 2024 Olympic games will not include a medal for baseball.
The exciting part of baseball in Japan is that the dominance at the adult level isn’t a shock as they have dominated the Little League World Series. With their most recent championship coming in 2017, Japan has won the LLWS 11 times as they are rarely not a contender for the title.
Famous Japanese Baseball Players in MLB History
The NPB has produced a lot of huge stars that crushed their time in the league. But, some of the most talented players ended up making their way to American baseball to play in the MLB. With the crossover of the leagues, the popularity and attention of the two leagues has grown no matter if the players are going to the NPB or the MLB. Here is a small list of some amazing athletes that left legacies behind in both leagues.
After playing nine seasons in the NPB where he slashed .353/.421/.522, won seven consecutive batting crowns, five hitting crowns, and won seven Golden Gloves, Ichiro Suzuki took his talents to Major League Baseball where he played 19 seasons with the majority as a Seattle Mariner. While with Seattle, Suzuki accomplished 10 All-Star appearances, 10 Golden Gloves, three Silver Sluggers, AL Rookie of the Year, and AL MVP. Ichiro currently holds the MLB record for most hits in a season with 262. Suzuki was the first MLB player to be inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame.
Hideo Nomo only played five seasons in the JPPL of the NPB but he tossed a 3.15 ERA with an overall record of 78-46. After finding success in Japan, Nomo traveled to the USA to accomplish some impressive things in the MLB. Hideo pitched for seven different teams with the majority of his seasons being with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Nomo finished his career with a 4.24 ERA and is one of five players to throw a no-hitter in both the NL and AL, however, he left a mark that was bigger than stats. Hideo helped to inspire other Japanese players to make the journey to the MLB, players like Suzuki and Hideki Matsui.
In the NPB, Matsui played 10 seasons with the Yomiuri Giants accomplishing nine All-Star appearances, three Central League MVPs, and three Japan Series Championships. While in the MLB, Hideki played mostly for the New York Yankees and collected two All-Star tags in his first two years in the USA. Matsui also aided in winning a World Series in 2009 with the Yankees.
Shohei “Shotime” Ohtani
Japanese players have been a major hit when coming over to the MLB. But we would argue that none have been as groundbreaking as Shohei Ohtani has been since coming to the US in 2018. Since signing with the Los Angeles Angels and making the career change to the MLB, Ohtani has taken the league by storm. Shohei has three All-Star appearances, won two Silver Sluggers, Rookie of the Year, led the league in home runs with 44 this past season, and won two AL MVP’s. Ohtani is not just a talent because of his bat, he also dominated from the mound as he was the first MLB player to make the All-Star game as both a pitcher and a hitter. Shohei’s immense popularity has only grown as his experience in America has and now his status is cemented in the history books. Ohtani signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers this off-season for a record-setting amount of $700 million over 10 years deferring a shocking $680 million to be paid out at a later date. This financial freedom will give the Dodgers an edge for years to come.
Baseball’s Influence and Popularity
When thinking of the Japanese culture in sports baseball isn’t the first sport that comes to mind. Sumo wrestling (Japan's national sport) is the one that seems to always come up, yet baseball surpasses it despite sumo predating it. The sport isn’t just popular because of the superstars, it is also popular with Japanese children and high school students. Based on a chart from statista.com, age ranges of 10-14 and 15-19 make up the largest participation rates of baseball in Japan. A lot can be attributed to the amount of success they find with starting young in the sport and the wealth of facilities. The Koshien Stadium was built for high school tournaments as well as the Tokyo Dome, drawing a lot of attention to the sport. Even so, the amount of success that is displayed by foreign players in Japanese baseball is enough motivation to pursue the sport.
The Impact of Japanese Influence on Global Baseball Culture
The inclusion that both cultures have for one another, at least when it comes to baseball, can only be seen as positive. Japanese baseball has been a success for both the major and minor leagues in the United States as it draws eyes from a whole other country and we have already seen the world becoming more involved with baseball. With rule changes that cater to the fan experience and the global popularity of the sport increasing, the sky's the limit for the audience that baseball can continue to bring in.