Japan and baseball ('yakyu' in Japanese) go hand-in-hand. Baseball is a way of life in Japan. Locals eat, sleep and breath baseball. It is in their blood. The Japanese adore baseball, and I couldn't wait to experience their passion first-hand.
Traveling from Singapore, I was in charge of taking a group of 40 high school, junior high and elementary school baseball players to Yokohama.
Playing baseball games against local teams, including Shonan from the Japan Boys League, the Yamato Sky Hawks (high school team) and players from the Tokyo Polytechnic University, the on-field competition was very good, and certainly challenged our players. The supreme discipline and unwavering focus from every single Japanese player was definitely admirable, and aligned perfectly with the culture. The Japanese are always prepared, and are known for their incredible bat control, footwork and glove-handling skills. Watching them perform certainly was spectacular. Every element of their game is an art; a craft taught and learned daily at a very young age, and nurtured indefinitely.
The pre-game engagement between teams always started with the two squads outside of their respective dugouts. Like soldiers at war, the two teams charged at one another and met near home plate, where two lines were formed. With the teams facing each another and on their respective sides of the diamond, and the umpires facing the pitcher's mound, the head umpire spoke with both teams in Japanese, reminding everyone to play hard and to respect the opposition, the umpires and themselves. After a series of 45-degree angle bows (the angle is very important) toward the opposition and then toward the umpires, players shook hands with the players opposite to them in the line - and the coaches did the same - and a small gift was exchanged. This pre-game routine never got old, and really seemed to heighten the experience for me. One coach - the head coach for the Atsugi Boys - presented me his fungo bat after our final game against his team. The extremely lightweight Mizuno infield fungo was the gift of all gifts, and certainly will be put to use.
I learned that the Japanese pre-pitch and pre-at-bat routine of yelling out a word or phrase is done more to pump up the player yelling that it is to intimidate the opposition. Although, the latter seems to be equally as logical. 'Yes' or 'hit it to me', in Japanese of course, were commonly screamed out prior to each pitch being thrown. Hearing young Japanese players yell out before every pitch definitely showed their acute focus, and unique ability to be mentally and physically ready for every single pitch.
During our journey to one game, our bus passed a local shop, where three of its employees were outside, in a small parking lot, playing baseball. One of them was hitting fungos (ground balls) to the other two. These weren't your routine two-hop, easy-to-field ground balls; they were scud missiles, and the guys fielding them scooped them up like it was nothing. They made it look so easy, and it was awesome to witness.
I have no doubt that I will return to Japan at some point in the near future. A nation laden with culture and history, Japan is equally as passionate about yakyu, which makes a return trip a no-brainer. Hai!