A History of Baseball in Japan

American school teacher Horace Wilson first introduced baseball in Japan while working there in 1872. By the end of the 19th century, it had become one of Japan’s most popular sports.

Some believe school teacher Leroy Lansing Janes – who also came to Japan as a teacher from the United States – introduced the game to the country a year earlier, according to author Bill Staples. Whatever the case, baseball quickly became enormously popular among the Japanese.

Baseball In Japan

Japanese athletes played the game at colleges and the amateur level. In the early 1900s, two colleges had a fierce rivalry – Keio and Waseda. That rivalry became the foundation for creation of the Tokyo Big Six University League. High schools also played in a championship format every spring at Koshien Stadium in Osaka, creating a nationwide frenzy.

Both the college and high school tournaments continue to this day and play a big part in the cultural appreciation for baseball in Japan.

The Babe Ruth All-Stars

As professional baseball teams from the United States began touring Japan, the Japanese learned that to compete on the professional level their skills had to improve. Many teams were formed from the amateur to semi-pro level.  Since there was no league, they played visiting foreign teams to showcase their ability.

It wasn’t until the 1930s, after Babe Ruth and other Major League Baseball All-Stars toured Japan, that a professional level team was formed to compete and tour with other professional teams. This “Dai Nippon Tokyo Yakyu Karuba” (Greater Japan Tokyo Baseball Club) which played the Ruth All-Stars in 1934, toured the U.S. in 1935 and became the Tokyo Giants in 1936.

The Giants joined seven other teams in “The Japanese Baseball League” (JBL), which operated until 1949 (except for 1945 during World War II). Dominant pitching was a hallmark of the league.

Nippon Professional Baseball

In 1950, the league (now NPB, Nippon Professional Baseball) split into the Central League and the Pacific League, with six teams in each.

Each team played games only within its own league except for the Japan Series and the All-Star games. In 1975, the Pacific League adopted the designated hitter rule, while the Central League still maintained the traditional style of play with pitchers having to bat.

The Central has been the more popular league, since it has the nation’s top two teams, the Yomiuri Giants of Tokyo and the Hanshin Tigers of Osaka.  Tokyo and Osaka are the two largest cities in Japan and very competitive with each other.

However, competitive balance in the Central League was quite weak, with the Giants dominating the leader standings for many years. The Pacific League was more competitive, with every team sharing in the leader standings through the years. The initiation of an amateur draft in 1965 provided for more even distribution of playing talent, although the Giants remain the most beloved and sought-after team.

The domination of the Giants is reflected in nationwide radio, TV monopoly coverage of their games and financial supremacy in salaries and the free agent market.

Differences From MLB

A distinct feature of baseball in Japan is that, rather than identifying the city in which they play, NPB team names promote the company that owns them. For example, the Yomiuri Giants play in Tokyo, but are owned by the largest newspaper company in the world, Yomiuri.

The Hanshin Tigers play in Osaka, but are owned by the railroad company, Hanshin Railways.

Another difference is that bunting is an integral part of Japanese baseball strategy, especially in the early innings. There’s a belief that the first team to score will win. With few exceptions, even sluggers are expected to bunt.

Infield defense tends to be good, due to the excessive bunting, non-grass dirt infields, and boot camp-style, year-round training. Outfielders tend to have good range, but rarely attempt difficult catches, and throwing arms are typically average to weak.

Catchers excel at preventing wild pitches and basic defensive duties, but they rarely block the plate against runners. Many have weak arms and typically take orders from the bench on most pitch calls.

Smaller Ball Parks

Japanese ballparks generally are smaller than their MLB counterparts, so home runs are hit with greater frequency. Pitching velocities also are generally  slower than MLB. Pitchers instead work with a wide array of off-speed pitches, tending to nip the corners of the strike zone. They rarely throw inside.

Due to the extensive daily training, many players tire during games and more players tire near the end of the season. Some ace pitchers throw almost every game during the last week of the season, if their team is in contention and in the playoffs.

Masanori Murakami

Just one Japanese played in the major leagues during the first 60 years of the JBL/NPB.

That was Masanori Murakami, who debuted with the San Francisco Giants in 1964 at age 20. Murakami was a baseball “exchange student” with the Class A Fresno team when he was promoted to the majors.

His Japanese team, the Nankai Hawks, demanded his return, but the Giants refused.  The commissioner of baseball was called upon to settle the dispute. He determined that Murakami could pitch one more season in the major leagues, but then the Giants would have to return him to the Hawks. They did, and he went on to pitch successfully in Japan for 17 more years.

Several factors contributed to the absence of Japanese players from the MLB.  The first 10-plus years were the pre-war and wars years. After WWII,  both sides felt wary of the other for years.

In the 1950s, several players were sought after by MLB, but the loyalty to one’s team equated to loyalty to one’s country in the Japanese mindset. To leave would mean a great loss of face, reflecting not only on the player’s character, but that of his family, friends and community.

The other major factor that prevented Japanese players coming to the U.S. were their NPB contracts.  Players were the property of their clubs for 10 years, much like the old pre-free agency MLB contract, but even then, a player leaving his team and country would have been considered disloyal and unpatriotic.

Hideo Nomo “Retires”

This loyalty lessened over the years, creating a pool of players who want to play in the MLB and didn’t feel any loss of face in doing so. The pathbreaker was pitcher Hideo Nomo, who exploited a loophole in the agreement between the NPB and MLB by “retiring” at the age of 26, which left him free to sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995.

In 1998, MLB and NPB negotiated the “posting system” to address contractual issues raised by the Nomo, Hideki Irabu and Alfonso Soriano cases (Soriano began his professional career with the Toyo Carp).  Excluded from the system are players with nine or more years of NPB service, free agents, and amateur players who have never played in NPB.

A player under contract to an NPB team may request that his team “post” him.  The team may refuse, but if it agrees, the player is offered to all MLB teams in a “silent auction” for negotiating rights to the player.

The player’s NPB team may reject the highest bid, but if it accepts, the MLB team has 30 days to negotiate with the player.  If agreement is reached, the “posting fee” is paid to the player’s NPB team. If an agreement is not reached, the fee is returned to the MLB bidder. Of the 42 Japanese players who had played in MLB through the 2010 season, seven entered MLB through the posting system.

MLB Players in Japan

Many MLB players have played in the NPB.  Relatively few have performed well, although most were either fringe major leaguers or players in the latter stages of their careers.

Part of the reason is the combination of smaller parks, more off-speed pitching, great defense, lack of aggressive play, high frequency bunting, dirt infields, and boot camp training. Those issues, together with cultural differences in language, food, travel, living conditions, manners, religion, family, schools and landscape, all posed difficulties for “gaijin” playing baseball in Japan.

On the other hand, Murakami performed well for the Giants, despite his very young age and the considerable cultural differences he faced.  For years, baseball experts compared NPB to AAA level in the U.S., but the performance of NPB players in the U.S. has suggested otherwise.

Ichiro and Matsui have performed in MLB at levels consistent with their NPB performance; Tomo Ohka and Hideki Okajima may have pitched better in the U.S. than they did in Japan.  With cultural and contractual barriers eroding, many Japanese players are eager to test their skills in MLB. And with MLB teams always on the lookout for talent, it is likely that the influx of players from NPB will continue apace.

Our NPB Players

 Sadaharu Ou – 1B L/L 5’10” 174 (1959-80)

He is the most famous Japanese baseball player in the world, known for his career record 868 HR. He was a very patient hitter with a keen eye, strong wrists and a unique flamingo batting stance. With nine MVP awards, a Gold Glove, two triple crowns and 11 Japan series championships, Ou is the all-time greatest hitter in Japan baseball history.




Shigeo Nagashima – 3B R/R 5’10” 168 (1958-74)

The most popular Japanese baseball player in Japan, nicknamed “Mr. Giants”. A great defensive third baseman with a potent bat, he teamed with Oh as the “O-N cannon” in the heart of the Giants batting order.





Hiromitsu Ochiai – 1B/3B/2B R/R 5’10” 181 (1979-98)

He was known as the American boy in a Japanese body, because he rarely followed the traditional training and coaching and bragged about his ability, but still played until he was 45. He didn’t become a regular until he was 27 years old and predicted his triple crowns twice.





Isao Harimoto – LF L/L 5’11” 187 (1959-81)

Harimoto was a survivor of the Hiroshima atomic bomb, with severely burnt fingers that made him unable to hold a bat. He also was of Korean descent in a country wary of foreigners. But he  overcame it all to become the all-time hits leader in Japanese professional baseball. He is known as the “Hit Machine”.





Kouji Yamamoto – CF R/R 6’0″ 191 (1969-86)

Kouji is the all-time greatest Hiroshima Toyo Carp player, known as “Mr. Red Helmet”. He was an excellent fielder with a strong arm and had a streak of 302 chances without an error. Holds the record with 14 HRs in All-Star games.





Masayuki Kakefu – 3B L/B 5’9″ 170 (1974-88)

He was known as “Mr. Tigers” for his leadership, power hitting and great fielding. Together with Randy Bass, they led the Tigers to their first and only championship in 1985. His career was cut short by multiple injuries at age 33.





Hiromitsu Kadota – LF L/L 5’7″ 178 (1970-92)

A good outfielder and hitter until he ruptured his Achilles tendon, he then switched to DH and became a great power hitter. He was one of the best sluggers in NPB history even though he suffered from diabetes.





Kazuhiro Yamauchi – RF R/R 5’9″ 170 (1952-70)

He was a top-notch outfielder with a strong arm and led the league in many offensive categories, including extra base hits and on base percentage. He was traded to the Tigers in 1964 for another superstar, pitcher Masaaki Koyama.





Kouichi Tabuchi – C/1B R/R 6’2″ 202 (1969-84)

He was a monster of a man in size by Japanese standards and a great defensive catcher who hit towering home runs. He has the second highest home run to plate appearance ratio in NPB history behind Ou. He usually pinch hit or played first base on his catching rest days.





Katsuya Nomura – C R/R 5’9″ 187 (1954-80)

He was the prototype catcher in Japan that hit for power, was great defensively, and caught every game of the season (six years, every game; eight other years, all but 1 to 5 games). He caught 2,931 games over his 26 season career and he was a manager for 27 years, including eight years as the player-manager for the Hawks.





Hideji Katou – 1B/LF L/L 5’9″ 165 (1969-87)

He was a key player on the 1970’s Braves champion team as their cleanup hitter and a solid defender.





Tsutomu Wakamatsu – LF/CF L/L 5’6″ 165 (1971-89)

He was the prototype hitter who could hit to all fields and was tough to strikeout. He was nicknamed “The Little Big Hitter” due to his small size but great contact hitting.





Yutaka Fukumoto – CF L/L 5’6″ 150 (1969-88)

He was the greatest defensive center fielder in NPB history and by far the best base stealer. His legs were insured by his team during his prime at $500,000.





Taira Fujita – SS/1B/3B L/R 5’9″ 179 (1966-84)

He was a great contact hitter who could hit to all fields and had some pop in his bat. He played his entire career for the Hanshin Tigers. He had a streak of 208 plate appearances without a strikeout.





Hiroyuki Yamazaki – 2B/SS R/R 5’9″ 167 (1965-84)

He was a slick fielding second baseman who had great contact power. His career was very steady and he remained a reliable player throughout.





Masaichi Kaneda – P L/L 6’0″ 160 (1950-69)

He was known as “The Emperor” due to his pitching dominance and longevity. He won 400 games despite pitching for the lowly Swallows for 15 years. Being of Korean descent, he achievements were not recognized early in his career, but his power pitching style overcame that. He relieved often between starts during the season and always at the end of the season and during the playoffs as was common for all teams in the 1950’s. As a batter, he smacked 38 HR in his career. With an overpowering fastball and a snapping curve, he is considered to be the greatest pitcher in NPB history.





Kazuhisa Inao – P R/R 5’11” 176 (1956-69)

A workhorse of a pitcher known as “Ironman”, he holds the single season mark for wins at 42. During the 1958 Japan Series, he pitched six of the seven games and 47 innings, winning the series and MVP honors. It also earned him the nickname “God, Buddha”. His pitches included a fastball, change, slider, curve and shuuto.





Yutaka Enatsu – P L/L 5’10” 198 (1967-84)

He was the Japanese strikeout king who holds the record of 401 Ks in a season. As a starter he was quite dominant, but halfway through his career he switched to the closer role and became Japan’s first true closer. In 2000, he was voted by fans as the greatest Japanese pitcher.





Masaaki Koyama – P R/R 6’0″ 160 (1953-73)

A dominant pitcher who had pinpoint control and rarely walked batters, Masaaki was the workhorse for his teams. He was involved in a major trade for power outfielder, Kazuhiro Yamauchi.





Tetsuya Yoneda – P R/R 5’11” 191 (1956-77)

He earned the nicknames “toughman” and “gas tank”. This pitcher was an iron man, pitching over 200 innings for 17 straight years. As a hitter, he slugged 33 HR for his career.





Minoru Murayama – P R/R 5’19” 182 (1959-72)

A hard thrower with surprisingly good control, the “Man of Flames,” as he was known, was the star pitcher for the Tigers during his career. His father was a diehard Tigers fan and his last request before he died was that his son choose the Tigers as his team. He had a rivalry with Nagashima throughout his career.





2018-08-20T08:21:30+00:00By |1 Comment

One Comment

  1. Player SX August 29, 2018 at 12:24 am - Reply

    Japan is also well-known for its amazing baseball teams. The teams from their country have given such honor to their country for their tremendous performance during their competitions.

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