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Reformers look to fix Japan's damaging youth baseball culture

A junior member of the Yokohama Kanazawa V. Lux youth baseball club hits a ball during the team's training on Dec. 6, 2020, in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture. (Kyodo)
Yoshitomo Tsutsugo speaks at a news conference in Tokyo on Jan. 25, 2019. (Kyodo)

YOKOHAMA (Kyodo) -- Hampered by excessive, old-fashioned training methods, a win-at-all-costs mentality and the heavy burden placed on parents, participation rates in Japanese youth baseball have been tumbling at a rapid pace.

    In an attempt to save the sport from a self-inflicted crisis, some youth clubs, sports academics and even professional players have raised their voices to push reform of the nation's notorious youth baseball culture.

    Data provided by the Nippon Junior High School Physical Culture Association showed the number of junior high school students joining school baseball teams, including girls, stood at around 167,000 in 2019, down about 46 percent from some 308,000 in 2009.

    Those school teams use soft baseballs unique to Japan and the figures do not include those who belong to clubs outside schools, which typically adopt standard hard balls.

    Despite the participation plunge, Japan may not lose its position as one of the world's baseball powers as there are and will remain those who aspire to become top players with the help of enthusiastic parents, sports experts say.

    But what is now considered the national pastime is expected to become a sport for a select few who can afford to buy expensive equipment and have the resources and drive to put in the hours of training required, they also say.

    To provide an opportunity for many children to experience the sport and replenish the playing population in the future, Junji Kako, 54, launched a new youth club in Yokohama in 2017 which prioritizes fun over winning for the kids involved.

    The eastern Japan city near Tokyo hosts the main stadium of the postponed Tokyo Olympics baseball and softball events. The same venue is home ballpark and headquarters of the DeNA BayStars professional club.

    While the long-established youth teams, often also the top performers, tend to force players to participate in long practices that start early in the morning and last until evening, the Yokohama Kanazawa V. Lux only conduct sessions in the morning or afternoon, allow team members to get involved in other sports or activities and encourage them to spend time with their family during holiday periods.

    As the V. Lux limits the number of players to seven in every grade, all players have a chance to play in an intra-team group composed of two grades, such as fifth and sixth graders, in every game, which needs at least nine participants.

    "I've learned that there are so many children who are interested in baseball, but don't belong to a club because members have many obligations, including having to participate in all club activities and having to train under strict conditions," Kako said.

    The general manager of V. Lux said there is no need for there to be "high hurdles" to joining a baseball club.

    As a result, the club now has no choice but to stop accepting new players, although many other teams in the region and elsewhere are struggling to enlist enough to stay afloat.

    Yoshitomo Tsutsugo, the DeNA BayStars captain before jumping to a career as a major leaguer with the Tampa Bay Rays from the 2020 season, has warned of the crisis in Japanese baseball.

    At a news conference in Tokyo in January 2019, the 29-year-old slugger said Japanese youth baseball prioritizes winning at the expense of education and coaches get angry and scold kids for making mistakes in practices and games, although it is natural they do.

    "Baseball needs to stop being adult-oriented and become focused on the education and future of the children," Tsutsugo said.

    V. Lux's Kako echoed Tsutsugo's view, saying, "Now many coaches emphasize victory because they are satisfied only by winning games."

    "I think it is alright as long as the children are happy, even if we lose," Kako said, as his team aims to focus on "player-centric" baseball.

    Many young baseball players have put in desperate attempts to make a reality their dream of taking part in the annual national tournaments held at Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, western Japan, for high school players in spring and summer.

    As the national tournaments, simply called Koshien in Japanese, enjoy a huge profile and place in Japanese culture as important events during school holidays, some star players have become household names and get a leg-up in their quest to play at university or in professional leagues.

    But Katsunori Matsui, an associate professor of coaching studies at the Nippon Institute of Technology in Saitama Prefecture, is scathing about the tradition of forcing players to engage in unscientific teaching methods seen in many youth clubs, including pitchers throwing too much, which often leads to serious elbow injuries.

    Many high school students are unable to play at a high level because of injuries stemming from excessive training at a time when they want to perform their best to advance to Koshien, Matsui said.

    Parents, especially mothers, also complain about an unwritten rule of having to take turns attending practices to care for children who get hurt and preparing lunches and drinks for coaches, pointing to the custom as a reason why many children are kept away from baseball.

    V. Lux, however, instead has its coaches, many of whom are players' fathers and other volunteers, play the role.

    "I wonder if such burden (on parents) is really needed and what coaches also want now that they can simply buy drinks from vending machines and elsewhere," Kako said.

    He said some other clubs in the same regional league have adopted V. Lux's simplified approach.

    In Osaka, where baseball is popular due to the Hanshin Tigers pro team who play at the nearby Koshien, a youth team managed by an 80-year-old female former softball player also has done with little help from players' parents over its nearly 50-year history.

    The Yamadanishi Little Wolf, which participated in a national meet for the first time in 2016, currently has a membership of about 140, which it believes is one of the largest nationwide, although it was more than 200 several years ago.

    "As I have told children to prepare their own tea as part of education, it is pointless if adults are given tea by the parents," said Yasuko Tanahara, who is affectionately called "obachan" (aunt) by players and coaches.

    To secure funding, Tanahara asks players to collect newspapers from households around her home to be sold at recycling companies. Their efforts are expected to raise about 500,000 yen ($4,800) this season.

    Nippon Institute of Technology's Matsui, who himself was an infielder for a club in Japan's top corporate league, said the best way to boost the baseball population is for coaches to convey the joy of the game to both children and their parents, rather than obsessing over cultural conventions.

    As baseball is no longer the major sport it used to be, many parents have not tried it like other minor sports, he said.

    "We should not push professionalism from an early age," said Matsui, because children will be able to become good players after entering junior high school as long as they develop athletic ability.

    Matsui, who manages a workshop for baseball coaches, proposed creating clubs that avoid the sport in summer and winter -- summer, when heat is too severe, and winter, generally considered off-season -- and instead encourage members to take up swimming and soccer when baseball is not being played.

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