Yakyu is Japanese for "baseball." While soccer is rapidly overtaking baseball as Japan's national pasttime, baseball is still much more part of the national consciousness here than back in the sport's birthplace... wherever that might be, records dating back to baseball's supposed origins being scarce and hard to come by.
While scientists in the West believe baseball to have been handed down to the Ancient Greeks by Zeus himself, Japanese experts theorize the game was created by Babe Ruth sometime in the late Renaissance, probably around 1519 or so. The words "base" and "ball" first appear together in print- albeit in separate dramas- in the First Folio (1623), a collection of many of Shakespeare's plays. In his classic novel Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts, by Lemuel Gulliver, first a surgeon, and then a captain of several ships (1726), Jonathan Swift depicts the Liliputians playing game he called "base-ball" (the hyphen would be lost in the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906). This satirical passage includes allusions to the tiny ball-players using a strange substance to improve their physical strenght, but then dying prematurely of liver failure and cancer.
Regardless of where it came from or where it's going, baseball is on my mind right now because I just came from my apartment where I ate frozen pizza for lunch (remind me to heat it next time) while watching some high schoolers battle it out on the diamond.
It's high school tournament time here, a time of the year not quite as frenzied as March Madness back home, or September Sullen Slouchiness in parts of Lithuania and Estonia. I think the whole thing is set up regionally, but I'm not really sure. A Nova student once explained it to me, but to be honest I tuned him out part of the way through and started thinking about Star Wars.
Today's lunchtime contest featured Imabari beating up on Higashi. The game was scoreless through 4, but in the bottom of the 5th Imabari started scoring. They scored 4 runs, then added 7 more in the 6th.
The amazing thing about Japanese high school baseball is, these kids look like pros out there. They do some crazy thing from time to time, like turn the wrong way on a pop-up (the Higashi shortstop did this but still made the catch) or overthrow the cut-off man (the Higashi rightfielder did this, allowing 2 runs to score that same inning) but for the most part, their level of play is outstanding. They certainly look better than any high school baseball I ever watched back in southwest Georgia.
I have a feeling either of these teams would literally destroy the best SOWEGA team, no problem.
Another spectacular things about this game was the crowd. There must've been 30,000 or more in the stands. And during Japanese summer there are few hotter places to be than in the outfield stands at a ballgame. If you've ever been to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium (the "Launching Pad") in August, or Turner Field (the "Boredom Zone")... then you know what I'm talking about.
No shade, little breeze, humidity over 90%, and nothing around you but steaming baseball fans and baking concrete and steel.
The fans had towels around their necks, or else popped umbrellas and parasols. Two girls were wearing broad-brimmed straw hats with floral hatbands like little old ladies at a garden club party.
Down the baseline seats, the hardcore supporters of each team kept up the noise. Japanese baseball fans aren't like American fans, sitting quietly unless someone actually makes contact with the ball or there's a close play at home, except for one or two middle aged fat-asses verbally abusing the umpire with witless obscenity-laced tirades and ruining the game for everyone within earshot.
Japanese fans carry little plastic megaphones which they beat against their open palms in rhythm, or shout slogans and chant through. The schools' bands play heroic brass instrument-based tunes nonstop. It's more thrilling than the game at times, a frenzy akin to the atmosphere at an SEC football game, minus the undercurrent of hysteria and hate, ignorance and anger. It's the sheer joy of youthful competition coming through...
Actually, it's probably scary to someone unfamiliar with SEC football. But as a baseball fan who's weathered so many Braves games surrounded by passionless yuppies chatting about work or else talking on their cellphones (about work), or University of Georgia football games with thousands of vicious, violent drunks, this is to me what sports is really all about. Not money or steroids or hip flasks (although there was a perks-for-play scandal that recently rocked the high school baseball world), just baseball.
PS- There's a good chance that it was Higashi that was actually beating Imabari and that Imabari is actually Inabari.