Browsing Archive July, 2006

Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball in Japan

Last week (on July 4th) I watched the premiere of Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball on PBS. It is a documentary covering high school baseball in Japan, and specifically, “Koshien”.

Koshien Stadium is the home field of the Hanshin Tigers, except for two weeks in August when it hosts Japan’s national high school baseball tournament. Koshien, therefore, is the symbolic name of the tournament itself, and the mere mention of the word to a high school baseball player may very well elicit a smile, tears, or both.

I highly recommend this film to anyone who coaches or plays baseball (at any level), for several reasons. First, it’s a well-done, entertaining, and human account of the Koshien experience (and an insight into Japanese culture), from the perspective of the players, the coaches, and the fans; the director does a wonderful job of making the movie personal by capturing the emotions of each individual featured / interviewed. Secondly, the film exposes the remarkable passion exhibited by the people involved in baseball in Japan — be it a player, a coach, or a cheering squad member (yes, there are baseball cheerleaders in Japan, and they take their role VERY seriously). Unlike in the US, where the passion to win can be confused with the notion of “winning at any cost” and poor sportsmanship, the Japanese coaches and players hold a high respect for the game, playing it correctly, and honoring their opponent. How serious are the Japanese in regard to sportsmanship? As an example, at the end of one game, the losing team and their cheering squad sang a congratulatory song to the winning team.

In addition to passion and respect, there’s another virtue of Japanese baseball demonstrated in this documentary: dedication. Any US high schooler who thinks he works hard at baseball might have a different view after seeing this movie. In Kokoyakyu, there are several examples of players who have team practice for 6-8 hours per day, then practice another 2-3 hours when they get home. Now I don’t necessarily believe that 16-year-olds should be practicing baseball to those excesses, but I think this drives home the point that you will get out of baseball, what you put into it. Anyone who is trying to eschew the “instant gratification” fix plaguing many of today’s youth can point to this film and the quite opposite Japanese philosophy. While the Japanese want to win as much as anyone else, gratification comes more from the dedication, commitment, and hard work than the win itself. When a team loses (in Koshien, it is single elimination), the coach and the players commonly believe that they did not work hard enough to earn the win — as opposed to blaming a loss due to an umpire’s call, a bad day, or a “lucky” hit.

An interesting tidbit from one of the coaches: “When the team loses, it is the coach’s fault, not the players’ fault. It is the coach who prepares the players to win, and if the game is lost, the coach has failed.”

There’s nothing similar to Koshien in the USA — which is probably a good thing. The single-elimination tournament begins with about 4000 high schools throughout the country, and the final two weeks (held at Koshien Stadium) attract more attention than the Japanese professional version of the World Series � partly because the tournament has been around longer, since 1915. The only amateur series that compares in scope would be the Little League World Series; however, that corrupted travesty of a tournament has a long way to go in terms of respect and honor. The cheating and mishandling of youngsters that has gone on in the LLWS gives some idea of what could happen if the US had a countrywide high school tourney; the notion of winning here seems to operate on the philosophy of “the ends justify the means” — not at all what Koshien is about.

If you haven’t seen this documentary, keep an eye on your PBS station’s schedule; it’s a film you don’t want to miss. There is more information available on the PBS home page for Kokoyakyu .