Baseball is an undeniably popular sport in Japan, with the Nippon Professional Baseball league being the cream of the crop and the winners of its two circuits competing in the annual Japan Championship Series. But what many visitors don’t know is that Japan’s high school baseball is followed with just as much (or sometimes even more) fervor.
Perhaps it’s the energetic play of these highly-skilled youngsters or the passion they exude, with a desire to win that is not always apparent in the professional league. But the Japanese travel from near and far to watch their games and the enthusiasm is infectious!
The history of a national high school baseball competition in Japan stretches back to 1915 and prior to World War II, teams from Taiwan, Korea and Manchuria also competed as part of the Japanese Empire. But none have ever made it as far as the championship game, with local Japanese teams always being triumphant.
While there are amateur high school baseball games played throughout the year all across Japan, there is one event you shouldn’t miss.
The Holy Grail of Japanese High School Baseball – Kōshien
The biggest event on the annual Japanese high school baseball calendar is the Summer Kōshien (夏の甲子園 natsu no kōshien). It’s organized by the Japan High School Baseball Federation in association with national newspaper Asahi Shimbun and it’s the largest amateur sporting event in the country. It takes place during the summer school vacation, with a two-week final tournament held at Hanshin Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya City in Hyōgo prefecture.
The tournament includes 49 different high schools that are the regional champions for their prefecture, with two teams from both Hokkaidō and Tokyo. In the first round of the tournament, 34 teams meet, with the remaining 15 joining in the second round. Four games take place each day up until the quarter-finals when the successful teams battle it out during the semi-finals and grand final.
A second Kōshien tournament takes place in the spring, also organized by the Japan High School Baseball Federation but this time in conjunction with the Mainichi Shimbunnewspaper. For high school baseball teams, winning both the Spring and Summer Kōshien championships in the same year is a rare (but highly prized) occurrence.
Kōshien can be compared to the NCAA “March Madness” college basketball tournament in the United States when fans take their attention from the pro leagues to the country’s up-and-coming stars. The qualifying tournaments are televised on local TV and the final games at Kōshien are broadcast nationally by Japan’s public broadcasting organization NHK.
Baseball-loving students and devoted parents travel long distances from across Japan to join in the frenzied celebrations, while professional league recruiters have their eyes out for potential stars. The media picks out outstanding players to highlight, featuring their back story and discussing their professional baseball future, giving them celebrity status across the country.
This hype only increases the excitement surrounding the tournament which rides not only on the thrilling plays, but also the sheer passion on display. Players are often seen crying after being eliminated from the tournament, and follow a tradition where they collect soil from the stadium as a souvenir and motivation to return.
Competing in the Kōshien tournament is considered a stepping stone for a professional baseball career, with the likes of Yu Darvish of the Texas Rangers, Masahiro Tanaka of the New York Yankees and ambidextrous big-hitter Hideki Matsui having risen to fame here.