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Embassy Exhibition Showcases Unique U.S.-Japan Relationship through Baseball

By Candace Huntington

Often considered America’s favorite pastime, baseball has played a major role in American culture since its invention in the mid-1850s. Yet Americans may be unaware that the U.S. shares this passion for baseball with one of its closest allies, Japan.

Following the ravages of World War II, the U.S. and Japan forged a strong economic and political relationship. An often unrecognized facilitator of this relationship is baseball. Today, the exchange of players between the U.S. and Japan is at its peak, with an increasing number of Japanese professionals playing in the Major League. In fact, Japanese baseball leagues has long been considered among the highest caliber circuits outside the United States.

The Japanese Embassy is hosting the exhibition “A New League” to showcase the historical ties between the U.S. and Japan influenced by baseball with a collection of memorabilia, including photographs, jerseys, signed baseballs, pamphlets and classic baseball cards.

Presented at the Japan Information & Cultural Center (JICC) in collaboration with the Gordon W. Prange Collection, the University of Maryland Libraries and Adam Berenbak (a Japanese baseball specialist), the exhibit focuses on the goodwill tours by the American Major League teams during and after World War II.


A collection of baseball memorabilia is on display at the JICC, a division of the Public Affairs Section of the Japanese Embassy that aims to strengthen the relationship between the U.S. and Japan through culture exchange. (Photo: © Japan Information & Culture Center, Embassy of Japan)

In an interview with the Diplomatic Pouch, Takehiro Shimada, the Japanese Embassy’s minister of communications and cultural affairs — and an avid baseball fan himself — explained the important role baseball has played in Japanese culture. First introduced in 1872 through Horace Wilson, an American expatriate and professor, baseball quickly spread throughout Japan, primarily through Japanese students who picked up the sport.

Japanese students studying abroad in the U.S. who brought back their knowledge of baseball also contributed to its rapid popularity. With the help of American educators, Japanese high schools began developing baseball programs in the 1880s. Teams of Japanese students played against American expatriates and teams of Navy sailors. One series of games in 1896 between the Japanese high school team Ichiko and a team of foreigners from the Yokohama settlement put Japan on the map after Ichiko’s triumphant win. Shimada said the win led to more widespread interest in the sport, as players sought to follow the “fighting spirit” of the Ichiko victory.

The early 20th century saw Japan increasingly grow as an international power after the Russo-Japanese War. At the same time, Japanese baseball players were traveling overseas to participate in international games. The most notable game took place in San Francisco in 1905, when the Japanese collegiate team from Waseda University in Tokyo competed against Stanford’s team. The competition launched a string of tours, one of which featured the Chicago White Sox and the New York Giants, both considered some of the best teams in the U.S. at the time.


Many American Major League Baseball players were widely known in Japan. This 1953 cover from the Japanese newspaper The Mainichi features New York Yankees player Eddie Lopat, with the two nations’ flags side by side. (Photo: Adam Berenbak / Japan Information & Culture Center, Embassy of Japan)

The tours temporarily slowed, however, after the U.S. suffered an embarrassing loss against a Japanese team. Yet individual American players and baseball enthusiasts continued to visit Japan. Herb Hunter, dubbed the “baseball ambassador” to Japan, launched his own U.S. All-Star tour in the early 1930s that featured the most notable American players at the time, such as Frank “Lefty” O’Doul and Lou Gehrig.

Hunter’s tour paved the way for future star-studded tours to Japan. The following 1932 tour featured a mix of American and Japanese professionals, including the massively popular Babe Ruth. The high-profile players attracted masses of fans to the games, leading the organizers to take the tour to the West Coast, exposing American baseball fans to lesser-known Japanese players.

The overwhelming success of the tours prompted the creation of Japan’s own professional league in 1936, comprised of seven of the best teams in the nation. Yet the dawn of World War II halted the international tours and the newly formed league quickly dissolved as many of the players were drafted.


Various forms of baseball memorabilia are featured in “A New League,” including collections of classic baseball cards featuring popular Japanese players. (Photo: © Japan Information & Culture Center, Embassy of Japan)

During America’s postwar occupation of Japan, Shimada said the sport continued to spread in Japan despite ongoing political tensions with the U.S. Efforts were made by both Japanese and American players to rekindle the relationship — O’Doul was a particularly passionate advocate for the continuation of international games.

Shimada emphasized the role of baseball in fostering reconciliation during the occupation period. By the end of 1945, baseball had taken on a whole new meaning in Japan. Amid the postwar ruin and rebuilding, baseball served as a symbol of freedom, democracy and liberation, all values that the U.S. and Japan shared as the foundation for their future relationship.

Japan entered the “golden age” at the end of the occupation as its rapidly growing economy further boosted the fortunes of its baseball league. Teams from both countries were traveling with more goodwill tours than ever before.


The exhibition featured baseball equipment signed by famous American and Japanese players. (Photo: © Japan Information & Culture Center, Embassy of Japan)

Today, the rules of American and Japanese baseball are nearly indistinguishable, yet the cultures surrounding the sport in each nation are unique. Because of its origins in high schools, local baseball is a much larger part of the sport’s culture as a whole in Japan. Rivalry between local teams is common; Shimada noted that the competitive aspect creates a sense of belonging to one’s hometown community. He also pointed out the emphasis on strategy as one of the reasons for the sport’s popularity in Japan. The combination of individual skill within the larger framework of a team appealed to many Japanese students and players, said Shimada.

Shimada said that baseball is a quintessential example of the power of sports diplomacy, having forged a lasting political and cultural connection between two nations on opposite corners of the world.

The display will be open until Aug. 10. In conjunction with the exhibition, the JICC will hold an event on July 20 featuring baseball historian Robert Fitts and the first Japanese professional player to play in the Major League, Masanori “Mashi” Murakami, to celebrate the 2018 Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Washington, D.C. The event will also include an exclusive screening of “Diamond Diplomacy” presented by filmmaker and director Yuriko Romer.

 


Candace Huntington is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.

 
 

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