Guardian on Koshien

Justin McCurry “Japan's field of dreams: school baseball teams vie for Koshien glory”


On Wednesday afternoon, millions of Japanese people will stop what they are doing and turn their attention to the nearest TV screen to follow the fortunes of 18 student athletes.

The occasion is the final, decisive game in the national high school baseball championships. The national broadcaster NHK will screen every inning live, the victors are assured of front-page coverage in the following day’s newspapers and, for a couple of hours at least, Japan will come together in the name of amateur sport.


Located in an unfashionable neighbourhood between the industrial city of Osaka and the historical port of Kobe, Koshien stadium is the undisputed spiritual home of Japanese baseball. The summer high school competitions, plus an invitational version in the spring, even take precedence over Koshien’s regular occupants, the Hanshin Tigers professional baseball team, who are banished from their home for the duration of the tournaments.

Experts attribute Koshien’s enduring popularity to a combination of tradition and a deep sense of regional pride, both among the players and spectators, many of whom travel huge distances to watch their local team.

But most of all, the players – from their closely cropped hair to their predominantly white uniforms – hark back to an age when teams were seen as the embodiment of the traditional values of sacrifice, diligence and teamwork.

“There is also something very Japanese about kids playing baseball at this level for such a short time, since they are only at high school for three years,” said Jim Allen*1, a veteran sports writer for the Kyodo news agency.

“The whole aesthetic of Koshien is very powerful. Like the cherry blossoms in spring, the players are the centre of attention for a very short time, and then they’re gone for good. The hope and passion they display over two weeks in summer really resonates with people.”


The tournament is also a reminder of high school baseball’s less wholesome side. Stories of coaches and senior players bullying and abusing younger teammates are not uncommon*2. There is criticism, too, that the demands of training in preparation for the long qualifying road to Koshien exact an unacceptably high physical and mental toll on players who are still in their teens.

“There is a dark side – a mean, sadistic side – but that has been part of all sports in Japan since late 19th century and before,” said Robert Whiting, the author of two critically acclaimed books about Japanese baseball, You Gotta Have Wa and The Meaning of Ichiro.

“Ace pitchers will pitch several days in a row and risk permanently damaging their arms and losing a lucrative pro contract worth millions. Performing and winning at Koshien is more important than being rich. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thrill and an honour that can’t be duplicated.

“It is the influence of the martial arts system. The philosophy is that one has to suffer to be good. The more young players suffer, the better it is for their ‘education’. Koshien is so important that pitchers will sacrifice a pro career for a chance at a title.”