The Sportsworld of the Hanshin Tigers: Professional Baseball in Modern Japan

       Published by University of California Press, 2018


What the book is about

Baseball has been Japan’s primary sport, to watch and to play, for over a century. It has been popular at all levels from youth Little Leagues to high school and university teams, industrial semi-pro leagues. Since 1950, professional baseball in Japan has been organized into two six-team leagues, whose champions meet at the end of the season in the Japan Series, paralleling American baseball’s World Series. As the premier sport in secondary schools, baseball has been a model for adolescent masculinity. As a staple of media promotion and in huge stadiums of urban leisure, baseball has been among the most popular forms of metropolitan entertainment. As a league sport of local teams, baseball has been a vehicle for regional loyalties and rivalries. As Japan’s dominant professional team sport, baseball has been a metaphor for corporate organization and a vehicle for corporate public relations. And its imagery of players as samurai with bats has fostered a continuing sports nationalism in US-Japan relations.

This book analyzes baseball in Japan ethnographically by focusing on the world of a single professional team, the Hanshin Tigers, whose features and fortunes reveal much about the sport in modern Japanese society. For the last half-century, the Hanshin Tigers have been the second most popular professional baseball team in Japan. They are based on the edge of the country’s second city, Osaka, and over those decades, their rivalry with the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants, the most powerful and popular team in Japan, has borne the frustrations of regional subordination to the national center. The team’s corporate owner has been a small parent company that constantly intruded in team and front office affairs. The team has had the added pressure of playing on the “sacred ground” of Kōshien Stadium, revered throughout Japan as the permanent site of the annual national high school baseball tournaments. The Tigers have long been the object of a voracious, prying sports media, scrutinized even more than the sports teams of New York and Boston and Barcelona are by their local media. And the team is followed passionately by organized, independent fan club associations, which rock the stadium at every home game, and by knowledgeable and concerned fans across the Kansai region.

Their popularity, however, has not been based on strength and success. In the 20 years from 1983 to 2003, they finished in last place 10 times and only managed a winning record three times in those two decades. It was in spite of—and in no small way, because of—perennial loss, frustration, and in-fighting that they remained the overwhelming sentimental favorite in the Kansai region. This book analyzes the Hanshin Tiger baseball world and offers an account of why it was so compelling and instructive over those decades.

My answer to this ethnographic puzzle is the conjunction of three lines of analysis. Analytically, the book formulates the Tigers as a sportsworld, by which I mean it is the collective product and the converging actions of a large roster of players, a very hands-on coaching staff, an intrusive management, a large and prying media, and millions of passionate and organized fans across the Kansai region.

This concept is adapted from the sociologist Howard S. Becker’s notion of a social world, which he originally developed to understand the social conditions for the production and circulation of art. Most sport studies tend to focus on a single sporting site (a team or a training center or a stadium) or a category of actor (the athletes, the fans, or the media). My perspective here is different. Rather than focus analytically on a single location, I argue that these places and people necessarily and mutually constitute something larger that brings the Hanshin Tigers into collective being as a sportsworld. The book is thus a contribution to methodology and analysis in sport studies by using Hanshin to show the usefulness of this concept. Secondly, I draw affinities to the genre of soap opera to show how this was a sportsworld infused with continuous, multiple, overlapping narratives, the melodrama of overflowing emotions, both felt and displayed, the moral imperative of clear-cut contests, the nature of suspense in an interval sport like baseball, and the radical uncertainty of sports accountability (who gets credit, who gets blame). The contentious hierarchies of authority among parent company, front office, and team, the central role of the sports dailies, and the unusually assertive independence of associations of fan clubs combined to heighten this compulsive mix of stories, stats, emotions, and moral accountability.

A final line of analysis begins with the recognition that few teams are as embedded within worlds as densely developed as that of the Hanshin Tigers, and not all teams generate such compelling soap opera. Why did the Hanshin Tigers stand out so prominently from the two other Kansai teams, and indeed from all of the other 11 pro teams? The book advances two reasons for this, which connect Hanshin to the wider Japanese society. Central to understanding Hanshin was the fascination of this sportsworld as a workplace to those within it. All professional sports are just that—workplaces of professionals—and the conditions of employment, the forms of ownership, the authority of the manager, the trajectories of careers are of interest and concern to athletes, media, and fans. This was especially true for the Hanshin Tigers. Hanshin baseball, for many, was savored as a long-running corporate melodrama. In the second half of the 20th century in Japan, the corporation—the large organization workplace—emerged as a central institution in the life experiences of Japanese, whether male or female, white-collar, blue-collar, or pink-collar. It shaped aspirations even for those who never made it into the ranks of the top companies and found themselves somewhere in the many tiers of workplaces below Toyota and Sumitomo Bank or a prestigious national ministry. Indeed, Osaka was famously a city of smaller companies, often subsidiaries or independent businesses. So too was Hanshin, the team within and below the front office, the club within and below that parent company. Part of the fascination with Hanshin was not the ideal forms of legitimate authority and smooth workplace relations that burnished the image of Japan, Inc. in those days. Rather it was the more common reality of rivalries and office politics, of unpredictable and sometimes undeserved success and adversity–in short, conditions of work familiar to the team’s followers in their own lives.

There was a second source of fascination that complemented its features as a workplace, and this constitutes the other major thematic in the Hanshin Tiger soap opera. One reason why the Osaka regional economy had become so characterized by what Japanese economists call the medium-small business sector is that so many of the major corporations that used to be headquartered in Osaka had been moving up to Tokyo since the 1960s. For the first two-thirds of the century, Tokyo and Osaka were relatively balanced in economic power and prestige. Tokyo was the nation’s political capital, to be sure, with the government ministries, major universities, and much economic clout. However, it was not until the 1960s, the decade of the Tokyo Olympics, the Shinkansen bullet train (going “up” to Tokyo and ‘down” to all other cities), and Japan’s sudden burst of GNP growth and export manufacturing that the center of gravity tipped decisively to Tokyo. Like France, Greece, and Mexico and many other nations, Japan became decidedly unipolar, and Osaka and the Kansai region more broadly slipped to second-city status—and a second-city mentality. By the 1980s and 1990s, as the only Kansai area team in the Central League, the Hanshin Tigers had to carry the full weight of Kansai struggles against the national center through the season. In this thematic as well, an analysis of Hanshin as a sportsworld turns out to be diagnostic of political-economic changes that have fundamentally reconfigured Japan in the twenty-first century.

Additional resources

A book is constrained by the format of the printed page, the budget of the Press, and the patience of readers. As I noted in the book, I am using the platform of this site to add further resources that were necessary to my own research and writing, that were excluded from the book itself, and/or that might be of interest to some readers.

As of late 2018, I still have not finished constructing these pages, but they include the following.

An expanded bibliography on the Hanshin Tigers and Japanese baseball

The book’s illustrations in color

A gallery of other illustrations

A English-Japanese glossary of baseball terms

The layout of a Japanese sports newspaper

Outakes and other short essays

Documents and other materials

Links to Hanshin Tigers websites

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