Tears and team spirit
High-school baseball grips Japan at Koshien Stadium
Published: Aug 25, 2022 07:50 PM
Members of Sendai Ikuei, a school in Miyagi Prefecture, celebrate their victory at Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya, Japan on August 22, 2022. Photo: AFP

Members of Sendai Ikuei, a school in Miyagi Prefecture, celebrate their victory at Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya, Japan on August 22, 2022. Photo: AFP

Japanese baseball star Shohei Ohtani matched a Babe Ruth record in 2022's summer in the US and scooped an award for a top male athlete, but back home, everyone has been glued to the high-school tournament where he started out.

August in Japan means blazing heat, syrupy shaved ice and one thing on TV: Koshien, the contest that launched the career of greats like Ohtani, the 2021 American League's Most Valuable Player.

The annual two-week tournament, which held its championship game Monday in which Sendai Ikuei triumphed 8-1 over Shimonoseki Kokusai, was canceled in 2020 and took place with nearly empty stands in 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But now that the spectators are back, a festive atmosphere has filled the revered Koshien Stadium in western Japan that gives the teenage showdown its name.

"You can't avoid it in the summer," said Ema Ryan Yamazaki, a filmmaker who directed the 2019 documentary Koshien: Japan's Field of Dreams.

"It's very dramatic, because every game is a knockout," she told AFP. 

"You only have one try, so unexpected things can happen. There are no guarantees." 

While in Western countries "people love the winners," at Koshien, "it's almost like the cameras prefer the losing team," as they zoom in to broadcast the tears and heartbreak, Yamazaki said in a statement.

From cheerleaders and school bands to team jerseys in classic preppy styles, Koshien reflects baseball's American origins.

But there is much that makes the tournament unique, from its timing in mid-August, when many people visit their hometowns to pay respects to their ancestors, to the tradition of losers scraping up dirt from the ground - not allowed in 2022 because of COVID-19 infection fears.

'Extreme discipline'

Koshien, officially called the All-Japan High School Baseball Championship Tournament, was first held in 1915. A similar contest takes place each spring at the stadium.

Thousands of teams compete in the qualifying rounds, but only 49 make it to the summer tournament - one from each of Japan's 47 regions, except Tokyo and Hokkaido, which both send two teams.

Koshien is the birthplace of Major League Baseball stars including Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and the 28-year-old Ohtani, and it rivals professional baseball for popularity.

Ohtani, the two-way Los Angeles Angels star, matched Ruth's record, set more than 100 years ago, of 10 home runs and 10 pitching wins in the same season in 2022.

And Ohtani was in July named best male athlete at the made-for-television ESPY Awards for top sports performers, beating out luminaries such as NBA championship winner Stephen Curry for the accolade.

Young Koshien players hoping to emulate Ohtani face traditions such as marathon practice sessions and games played in punishing temperatures.

But some old ways are changing, said Yamazaki, with more schools abandoning shaving players' heads - once a symbol of the "extreme discipline" and sacrifice required.

Koshien also offers a chance for people to show support for students from their region, even if they can't return home that year, according to Yamazaki.

"Adults also look and appreciate the purer versions of themselves - the youth giving it their all, for one short summer," she said.