Why is Baseball so Popular in Japan? Read This First! - Baseball Scouter (2023)

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Baseball has truly become a global sport, and besides America, probably no nation has embraced the game more than the Land of the Rising Sun. Why is baseball so popular in Japan?

Japan has embraced baseball for a slew of reasons including a history with the game dating back about 150 years, notable visits by hugely popular American players, a post-World War II re-growth for the love of baseball, and eventually the integration of top Japanese players on American professional clubs.

Since becoming established on the islands, baseball in Japan blossomed with growth of the nation’s own professional leagues, international player stardom, Olympic glory, and an infiltration of hometown players into America’s Major League Baseball (MLB).

Attention to Sadaharu Oh’s career home runs, Hideo Nomo’s pitching feats for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Ichiro Suzuki’s Hall of Fame-caliber MLB career all contributed to solidify Japan’s place in baseball lore.

However, those players and feats alone are not responsible for the popularity of baseball in Japan — where it’s considered the national sport. As with baseball in the United States, fans’ ties with baseball in Japan were nurtured over a dozen or more decades, eventually amplified with the introduction of mass media.

Baseball’s History with Japan

Baseball has been around in Japan longer than major league baseball has existed in the United States. Baseball was introduced in Japan in 1872 by Horace Wilson, an American English teacher in Tokyo. (Major League Baseball began in 1876 with formation of the National League).

Other teachers and missionaries from the United States then continued to popularize baseball throughout the eastern nation in the decades that followed. Progression and growth of baseball there was steady, with a victory by a Tokyo high school team over a squad of foreigners early in the 20th century solidifying baseball as a school sport for high schools and colleges, and attracting significant media attention.

Much like old-time Harvard-Yale battles promoted growth of college football in the United States, Japanese school rivalries like Waseda University vs. Keio University did so for Japanese baseball. A trip by a Waseda University team to America in 1905 is a notable event in the history of Japanese baseball, as over the next three decades American professional players would trek to Japan for promotional tours after the MLB seasons concluded.

All this helped nurture slow growth of baseball in Japan, until the watershed year of 1934 when the first Japanese professional baseball team was born, and big-name American players arrived one off-season to fully propel baseball forward in Japan.

The Babe, Other MLB Stars & Pro Baseball in Japan

A post-season tour of Japan by Babe Ruth in 1934 generated enough new interest to nurse formation of Japan’s first professional baseball league, in 1936. In the mid-1930s, major league players like Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx, along with Ruth at times, played exhibition games against Japanese teams.

The Japanese pro league was halted in 1944 due to bombing to end World War II, but soon thereafter began the real blossoming of baseball for the island’s inhabitants. Then during the Allied Occupation and reconstruction — and backed by the recommendation of General Douglas MacArthur who wanted baseball returned to its pre-war popularity to boost citizen morale — baseball truly started to take off in Japan.

It culminated in 1950 with formation of what would become Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), which exists to this day. The league started large enough to host two leagues, the Central League and the Pacific League. Those leagues still operate, supplemented by what are essentially its minor leagues, the Western League and Eastern League, with short schedules to develop young players just like in the United States.

Japanese pro teams, including the popular Yomiuri Giants, the Hanshin Tigers of Osaka and the Seibu Lions in the Tokyo region, are delivering top players to Major League clubs to this day. More than 50 former Japanese pro league players now populate MLB rosters.

More Information

Slow Japanese Player Penetration of Major League Baseball

The trend of so many Japanese players today in MLB did not occur overnight. In fact, the first Japanese player to don a major league uniform did not occur until 1964 with pitcher Masanori Murakami of the San Francisco Giants. Still, real establishment of Japanese players in the MLB did not occur for 30 more years.

All this despite international attention to Japanese baseball hero Sadaharu Oh, as he surpassed all American career home records and ended up with 868 over a 22-year career ending in 1980.

It took Hideo Nomo’s success with the Los Angeles Dodgers starting in 1995 to solidify the trust of Major League clubs to sign and develop players from the Japanese pro teams. Relatively soon thereafter Japanese players became outright stars in America, most notably Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners, arguably the All-Time Hit King regardless of the league.

Each year it seems Japanese signees make a splash in baseball news outlets, including Shohei Ohtani when he signed with the Anaheim Angels. With prodigious power at the plate and a fastball approaching triple digits, Ohsani signed with the Angels in part to allow him to both pitch as well as bat.

More on Sadaharu Oh

Sadaharu Oh is known as the Babe Ruth of Japanese baseball, for good reason. Not only did he surpass the MLB career home run record of 755 by Henry Aaron (at the time, before Barry Bonds set the steroids-aided, asterisk-noted record years later), he did so not very long after Aaron made the chase of the record a national news item.

Oh was an unusual slugger both due to his moderate size, at 5-feet, 10-inches tall and weighing 173 lbs., but also for his unique batting stance and hitting style. After a tepid start to his career in the late 1950s, a batting coach instructed him to adopt a pre-pitch style of standing on one leg like a flamingo, lifting his lead leg high and tight to his body before exploding into pitches.

It worked, and has yet to be fully imitated by other players, at least for the power. Ichiro applies a similar batting approach, but he utilizes bat control more to spray the ball to all fields and take advantage of his superior speed.

American Players Heading East

Nippon Professional Baseball teams now can carry up to 4 foreign players on their roster, up from the limited 2 of past years. Stories of American players heading to Japan abound, and some gain experience and achieve enough success to return to the States and the MLB.

Often it’s longtime minor leaguers or borderline major leaguers who head east, either because they were targeted and scouted by Japanese teams, or to pursue a more consistent professional career. Notable successes in the NPB include:

  • Willie Davis, the former Dodger all-star and Gold Glove winner who batted over .300 and hit 43 home runs in 2 seasons in Japan;
  • Warren Cromartie who left the Expos at age 30 to spend many seasons in the NPB including 1989 when he was named most valuable player (MVP) of the Central League.
  • Tuffy Rhodes, known for hitting 3 home runs on opening day once for the Chicago Cubs, actually played 13 years in the NPB and holds the record for most home runs by foreign players with 474 (placing 11th overall in the Japan league’s history).

Three non-Japanese players toiled so long in the NPB that the league granted them “Japanese Player” status, eliminating foreign-player restrictions. (Interestingly, Rhodes was not one of them).

It is important to note that cultural differences between the Japanese and American games — as well as in their societies — often results in short stays for American players abroad. Player salaries in the NPB do not compare with what players make in the MLB, though Japan’s league pays more than what American minor leaguers can make hence so many moves of young players east.

Differences between NPB and MLB

Why is Baseball so Popular in Japan? Read This First! - Baseball Scouter (1)

It’s notable that player records in Japanese and American pro baseball are difficult to compare, because the Japanese league has shorter season schedules and generally smaller fields on stadiums.

The 6 teams in each NPB league play 146 games per season, basically 6 games a week with Mondays off, late March or early April to October (just like MLB). (A regular MLB season is 162 games). The top NPB teams then play in the Nippon Series (or Japan Series) championship tournament playoffs — their version of the World Series.

Overall, NPB rules are basically the same as in MLB, with some notable exceptions. The NPB uses slightly smaller baseballs that are wound tighter than those used in the United States; the strike zone is smaller; and many Japanese stadiums’ playing fields are smaller resulting in “cheap” home runs. Five NBL clubs have fields that violate the MLB’s minimum field sizes for stadiums per the distance from home plate to outfield fences.

Many American baseball pros call the NPB’s level of play “AAAA,” meaning a notch above the triple-A highest level of American minor league baseball, but not as competitive as in the Major Leagues. Cultural differences between the games include a less aggressive, more polite or respectful game in Japan. (Read: No beanballs or rushing the mound, vicious slides to break up double plays are rare).

Related Questions

Question: Are other nations as into baseball as Japan?

Answer: Yes. It’s not so much nations as it is regions. In the Far East, joining Japan in baseball popularity terms are Taiwan, South Korea and even MainLand China. Another region where the sport has a stronghold is Latin America, particularly in Caribbean islands like the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

Q.: Why do Japanese pro teams seem to adopt team names used by MLB clubs?

A.: Think of it along the lines of Japanese residents emulating American pop culture. When a brand of jeans gets hot in America, odds are that the phenomenon will repeat in Japan. Same held true long ago when the NPB clubs were formed and named: team owners liked the brand-name recognition that came with use of Giants, or Tigers. (Note: this occurred often in the old Negro Leagues in the United States, also).

In summary, Japanese names for teams could be awkward for Americans to pronounce or remember, so part of adopting team names (and even uniform styles) of MLB clubs was an effort to be more easily accepted by baseball fans in the United States. Broadly, they are marketing moves.

See Also:
Can You Watch Spring Training Practices for Baseball?
What Age Do Baseball Players Retire?
Why Is The Pitcher’s Mound Raised?


Why is baseball popular in Japan? ›

The convincing victory of a team from Tokyo's Ichikō High School in 1896 over a team of select foreigners from the Yokohama Country & Athletic Club drew wide coverage in the Japanese press and contributed greatly to the popularity of baseball as a school sport.

Why do the Japanese like baseball so much? ›

It became widely popular when a team from Tokyo University started playing and managed even to beat an American team based in Japan at the turn of the 20th century. More people became interested in the sport and more teams were formed. Teams in the early 20th century would even go to the US to improve their game.

Why is baseball so popular in Japan reddit? ›

Baseball in Japan dates to the Meiji period and a focus on 'self-improvement'. One of the most popular books during the Meiji era was Samuel Smiles' Self Help, and a consistent focus on physical interpretations of manliness was pushed in school curricula.

How and when did baseball become popular in Japan? ›

Baseball was first introduced to Japan in 1872 after the Meiji Restoration, but it was not until the end of World War II that the sport flourished to become one of the most popular sport in Japan. The formation of the professional league was initiated by American baseball players.

Is baseball a popular sport in Japan? ›

The most popular professional sports in Japan are baseball, association football, golf, tennis and sumo wrestling.

Where is baseball most popular? ›

Baseball is played around the world, though it is more popular in certain countries. Here we use online search traffic for the term 'Baseball' to analyze which countries it is more popular.
Popularity of Baseball Around the World.
rankingCountryRegional Popularity *
1United States100
2Dominican Republic43
4Puerto Rico41
71 more rows

Why is high school baseball so popular in Japan? ›

However, a large part of baseball's popularity is due to the dream of playing in the iconic Japanese National High School Baseball Championship, known as the Koshien tournament.

Is baseball more popular in Japan than the US? ›

America has competition when it comes to claiming baseball as its national pastime. The Nippon Professional Baseball League (NPB), the country's equivalent of Major League Baseball (MLB), boasts approximately 27 million fans — about 20% of the entire population.

Is Japan really good at baseball? ›

Japan is already the only team to have finished in the top three in the first four tournaments, with title wins in both 2006 and 2009. Japan also won the gold medal in baseball as part of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, cementing a status as the most dominant country in international baseball competition.

Do the Japanese love baseball? ›

Baseball was introduced to Japan in 1872 and is Japan's most popular participatory and spectator sport.

How many people like baseball in Japan? ›

(Although the U.S. team has played all of its games on American soil, some of its games have felt more like home games for the other team.) For what it's worth, the opposite is true of Japan: Only 26 percent of Japanese respondents said they were interested in MLB, but 30 percent said they were interested in the WBC.

What's the most popular sport in Japan? ›

1. Baseball (Yakyū) Known as Yakyū, baseball is hugely popular in Japan. Even though it came from the US, baseball is often jokingly referred to as Japan's national sport, as it's by far the most popular sport in Japan.

How did baseball become popular? ›

Baseball's growing popularity in the 1920s can be measured by structural and cultural changes that helped transform the game, including the building of commodious new ballparks; the emergence of sports pages in daily urban newspapers; and the enormous popularity of radio broadcasts of baseball games.

What is the history of baseball in Japan? ›

When was baseball first played in Japan? It was in the 1870s that baseball was first played at Japanese schoolyards. The game was introduced to students at Kaisei Academy in Tokyo by American professor Horace Wilson in 1872, according to MLB.com.

Do kids play baseball in Japan? ›

Japanese children play a variety of sports through clubs at school or near where they live. Soccer (football) and baseball are two of the most popular sports among boys, while many girls enjoy playing tennis or dancing. Swimming is popular with both boys and girls.

What is Japan famous for? ›

Japan is known for everything from onsen hot springs and kabuki baths (dating to the 6th and 16th centuries, respectively) to all-night neon-lit dance parties, anime, and sushi boat restaurants, all of which are decidedly more modern.

What type of baseball does Japan use? ›

Japanese-style baseball, or rubber-ball baseball, (Japanese: 軟式野球, romanized: Nanshiki yakyū, lit. 'soft baseball') is a game that was created in Japan and is derived from baseball. It uses a hard rubber ball instead of a regular baseball made of leather.

Do Americans play baseball in Japan? ›

American expatriate baseball players in Japan have been a feature of the Japanese professional leagues since 1934.

How many people play baseball in Japan? ›

Number of people engaging in baseball in Japan 2001-2021

According to a survey conducted in October 2021, about 7.05 million people in Japan engaged in baseball (including playing catch).

What is the #1 sport in America? ›

American football takes the crown when it comes to popularity, and this is the most-watched sport in the US.

Who is the most popular in baseball? ›

Most Popular MLB Teams
  1. New York Yankees. The New York Yankees are the most popular MLB team, and one of the most popular sporting teams in the world.
  2. Chicago Cubs. ...
  3. Boston Red Sox. ...
  4. St. ...
  5. Philadelphia Phillies. ...
  6. Los Angeles Dodgers. ...
  7. San Francisco Giants. ...
  8. New York Mets. ...
Mar 1, 2023

Are baseball cards popular in Japan? ›

Baseball cards in Japan have been around in some form since the turn of the 20th century, offering collectors a wide variety of options. Modern cards in Japan present hobby enthusiasts with many of the same collecting choices as products sold stateside.

Are there a lot of Japanese baseball players? ›

A total of 64 Japanese-born players have played in at least one Major League Baseball (MLB) game. Of these players, five are currently on MLB rosters.

What does the name Japan mean? ›

The origin of the name Japan is not certain, but researchers say it probably came from the Malayan ″Japung″ or the Chinese ″Riben,″ meaning roughly land of the rising sun.

What is different about Japanese baseball? ›

Unlike North American baseball, Japanese baseball games may end in a tie. If the score is tied after nine innings of play, up to three additional innings will be played; this includes the playoffs, but not the Japan Series going beyond Game 7.

What's more popular in Japan baseball or soccer? ›

Baseball - the national sport in Japan

Baseball has therefore become the undisputed favorite in team sports.

What is more popular than baseball? ›

The most popular team sports in the United States are American football, baseball, basketball, ice hockey, and soccer.

Do the Japanese watch baseball? ›

Watching baseball in Japan is an exciting way to experience modern culture. It is one of the most popular sports and played at all levels. The rules are the same as American baseball, so it is easy to follow along.

Does Japan have a Baseball Hall of Fame? ›

Take a tour of Japan's Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

Walk about 100 steps outside the legendary Tokyo Dome -- home to some of baseball history's greatest moments -- and you'll come across another site holding some of baseball's greatest mementos: Japan's Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

How many times has Japan won in baseball? ›

Munetaka Murakami and Kazuma Okamoto homered, and Samurai Japan edged the United States, 3-2, to become World Champions for the first time in international baseball history. It's the third consecutive title for Japan after claiming the WBSC Premier12 2019 and the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Can girls play baseball in Japan? ›

This baseball-mad country has the most robust infrastructure in the world for girls' and women's baseball. There are roughly 21,000 girls and women participating in baseball in Japan. There are teams at the youth, high school, university, and club levels.

What is Japan's national sport? ›

Technically speaking, Sumo is the national sport of Japan, but with sold-out stadiums around the country, baseball is very popular. Japan's twelve professional baseball teams garner a devoted following from people of all ages.

Are baseballs smaller in Japan? ›

In Japan, their baseball is referred to as 'yakyu' (professional baseball), and in America, it is, of course, just American baseball. One of the major differences between these two baseball games, is the actual size of the ball. The Japanese baseball is bigger (and harder) than the American baseball.

How many Americans are allowed on a Japanese baseball team? ›

On their 25-man rosters, NPB clubs are allowed to have a maximum of four foreign players. Since there are 12 teams in the NPB, the crude math says that no more than 48 of 300 players on active rosters can be foreign players. That's 16 percent of the league.

What is the difference between American and Japanese baseball? ›

In addition, the strike zone is bigger, pitchers throw more breaking pitches, and batters have a much shorter swing in Japanese baseball (Whiting). Players are neither as large or as swift as Americans, in general, the ball parks are smaller, and some infields in Japan are all dirt.

Can foreigners play baseball in Japan? ›


Many of the best performing foreign players were little known journeyman in the Major Leagues who are signed for a few hundred thousand dollars. Each Japanese team is allowed to have four “gaijin” (foreign) players.

What is the number 2 sport in Japan? ›

2. Sumo wrestling. Despite the popularity of baseball, the national sport of Japan is considered to be sumo wrestling. This form of martial arts originated in the 1600s from a Shinto ritual of a human wrestling a god, and professional tournaments began towards the end of the 17th century.

What American sport is very popular in Japan? ›

1. Baseball. This sport has grown over the years to become the most popular sport in the country. In fact, many Japanese fans are surprised to learn that Americans also considers it their national sport.

What American sport is popular in Japan? ›

1. Baseball. Baseball is without a doubt one of the most popular sports in Japan. It was first introduced to Japan by the American Horace Wilson, who came to Japan as a professor working at the University of Tokyo in 1871.

What is the #1 sport in the world? ›

Soccer, also known as association football, is by far the most popular sport in the world, despite the fact that it may not be obvious in the United States. Soccer is the most popular sport in practically all of Europe, South America, Africa, the Middle East, Central America, and Asia.

Where was baseball first popular? ›

In the mid-1850s, a baseball craze hit the New York metropolitan area. By 1856, local journals were referring to baseball as the "national pastime" or "national game." A year later, 16 area clubs formed the sport's first governing body, the National Association of Base Ball Players.

Why is it called baseball? ›

Rules for "baseball" appeared in 1796, in a German book by Johann Guts Muths, who called the game "English base-ball". In the game described by Guts Muths, the number of bases varied with the number of players, and a single out retired the entire side.

How big is a Japanese baseball field? ›

All of the parks conform to a symmetrical design. Typical dimensions are 309-320 feet down the lines, 340-350 feet to straightaway right or left, 360-365 feet to the gaps, and 400 to dead center. A typical fence is 13 feet high.

Why is baseball popular in Japan and Korea? ›

1. History: Baseball was introduced to these countries during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mainly by American missionaries, educators, and soldiers. As a result, the sport became closely associated with western culture and became a symbol of modernization and social change.

What is the Japanese comic about baseball? ›

Touch (Japanese: タッチ, Hepburn: Tatchi) is a Japanese high school baseball manga series written and illustrated by Mitsuru Adachi.

How long are Japanese baseball games? ›

You'll get your money's worth too - expect to be in the stadium for around 3 hours. Tip: it can be difficult (sometimes impossible) to buy tickets on the day of a game for the most popular teams like the Tigers and the Giants. So, if you can, better to buy your tickets in advance.

What do they play in Japan? ›

If you travel to Japan, perhaps you too can experience one of these sports firsthand whether it's just observing or actually doing!
  • SUMO. One of the most famous and well-known of the Japanese sports is sumo. ...
  • KENDO. Kendo, "the way of the sword", is another traditional sport in Japan. ...
  • JUDO. ...
  • YABUSAME. ...
  • AIKIDO. ...

What is the number 1 sport in Japan? ›

Baseball (Yakyū)

Known as Yakyū, baseball is hugely popular in Japan. Even though it came from the US, baseball is often jokingly referred to as Japan's national sport, as it's by far the most popular sport in Japan.

Why is baseball so big in Japan and Korea? ›

In these countries, baseball is seen as an important part of culture. Baseball is popular in Japan and Korea because it was a Japanese sport during the 1910-1945 era. During this time period, baseball was enjoyed by people of all social classes due to its universal appeal.

How good is Japan in baseball? ›

The national team is consistently ranked one of the best in the world by the World Baseball Softball Confederation.

What is Japan's national game? ›

Technically speaking, Sumo is the national sport of Japan, but with sold-out stadiums around the country, baseball is very popular.

How many Americans play baseball in Japan? ›

More than 600 Americans have played NPB, although very few last more than a single season in Japan. American players hold several NPB records, including highest career batting average (Leron Lee, . 334), highest single season batting average (Randy Bass, .

Why is baseball so popular? ›

Very Accessible

The minor league system allows many players to grow, rise-up the ranks and, with time, join the major league. This is in contrast with basketball, hockey, and football, where there's always a junior player being hyped as the next big thing. Early hype around a baseball prospect is unlikely.


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