The KOSHIEN: The national high school baseball tournament

Japan Times and Yomiuri Shimbun (Japan News) both have two features on the High School institution (at least for boys’ and mixed schools) – the Koshien: The national high school baseball tournament at Koshien Stadiium, read on below:


Guts, glory and shaved ice: Koshien baseball


Summer is not summer in Japan without two things: 1. Heat (OK, so maybe it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity); and 2 . . .

High school baseball.

Which means the national high school baseball tournament at Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture — due to start next week — with every single game broadcast nationally, courtesy of NHK.

Koshien is an event that is so established and so iconic that it is difficult to even imagine that Japan had summer prior to Meiji days and the introduction of baseball.

For what did people do back then? Just sweat and swat mosquitoes? No, old Japan must have skipped summer altogether and jumped straight from spring flowers to autumn leaves. But then baseball arrived to fill the gap, with the national tournament beginning in 1915. And thus Japanese summer was launched.

Sure, there is a spring high school baseball tournament as well, also held at Koshien. Yet, this spring fling is a weak sister when compared with the summer version.

For one thing, it’s an invitational. Teams do not battle their way up, win by win, in prefectural competitions as they do in the summer. For another, it lacks the seasonal impact. In the spring, Japanese focus on cherry blossoms, not baseball. Baseball and summer are like bacon and eggs, a natural fit. While baseball and spring are more like bacon and sherbet.

Spring and summer Koshien do share some traditions, but it’s in the summer that those traditions shine brightest, aided perhaps by a coat of perspiration. Leaving lasting images such as . . .

The frenetic, non-stop cheering of student bodies: Such groups are seated in what is known as the “Alps” section of the stadium. More than height, the reference is to distance. For to get from the student section to the playing field is like crossing the Alps. Suffice to say, the best seats they are not.

The singing of the school song by the victorious nine: This honor follows every game. And you would swear each song is the same. Lyrics of youth, guts and glory, all set to John Philip Sousa.

The gathering of dirt: Losing teams typically scoop infield soil into their bags as a memento of having played on Japan’s most hallowed field. For graduating players, to lose means their high school careers are over. Finished. Done. Caput. A career symbolized forever by that last handful of dirt.

Weeping: Is there any nation on earth that enjoys a good cry as much as Japan? Koshien, with its single-elimination dramatics, offers the perfect opportunity.

Student sections begin wailing with their final desperate out. Losing players sob as they collect their precious dirt. And television viewers across the land bite back tears in shared sympathy, an entire nation united as one in sniffles.

Summer swelter: Nothing says summer more than an NHK shot of a sun-broiled spectator fanning himself silly with a handheld fan, while trying to cool down with a cup of shaved ice.

My wife has about as much interest in baseball as she has in mud. Yet, she went to college in Nishinomiya and back then felt compelled to attend the games just for the sweaty romance of eating shaved ice at Koshien.

Youth itself: The do-or-die energy of the tournament enhances the fleeting nature of youth, which in all of us burns out in a roman candle of beauty, never to be recaptured. At Koshien, however, that beauty is yet remembered, as each tournament — or even each game — fires up anew the passion and hopes of younger days.

And the glory is as genuine as any glory anywhere. One day some young ballplayer from Countryville is a nobody and the next day he is a national hero. Television pumps his face into every home in the land. High school girls whom he will never ever meet swoon at his image.

And if the image is handsome and he can repeat his heroics in other games as well, he may lodge in Koshien history and remain forever young in the collective memory of the nation. Glorious? You bet.

So . . .

Who cares that endless sacrifice bunts, pick-off plays and other small-ball tactics rule high school baseball, making it as predictable as the turn of the seasons themselves. Even the primal screams of each new batter sound the same. Uniforms look alike as well. At Koshien, any team could be every team and no matter who wins, originality always loses.

And who cares that Koshien pitchers might hurl 150 pitches a game and then come back with little or no rest and do it all again in the next game. This from high school lads, when the World Baseball Classic limits its pitch count to “protect” the health of professionals. If you want a real reason to cry, here’s a good one.


But . . . it’s Koshien!



The 1990s and Koshien:
How Has High School Baseball Changed in Connection with Changes in Society?  Yomiuri Shimbun July 3, 2013

Yasuhiro Monden
Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, Waseda University

Increases and Decreases in Players and Retention Rate

“Document 1” is a table based on surveys independently conducted by the Japan High School Baseball Federation from 1982 onward and made publically available as “Statistics on Number of Players (Hardball)” [“Buinsū Tōkei (Kōshiki)”]. In this table, I transcribed the changes in the number of players in three-year intervals. The shift in the number of registered players over the past 30 years reveals a rise and fall, with the second baby boom marking the turning point.

In 1991 when the number of registered players was highest, children born during the peak of the baby boom in 1973 were third year students in high school. After that, the number of players falls with the decrease in the number of live births, but the slope is unexpectedly gradual, maintaining a slight decrease. In fact, from 2003 onward the number of players continues to exceed the previous record high. Moreover, what is most striking about this chart is the continual rise in the “retention rate” from 1985 onward.

After the J. League was founded in 1993, there was an explosion in the popularity of soccer and a concern about the outflow of students participating in boys’ baseball for a time. The number of basketball athletes must have increased as well due to the influence of NBA broadcasts and popular comic books. Meanwhile, it was thought that a decline in viewership would lead to a reduction in land-based pro baseball broadcasts, casting a shadow on the popularity of baseball. But while participating schools certainly decreased, the number of high school baseball players actually started to increase.

We can point to the success of Japanese athletes like Hideo Nomo in the major leagues as one contributing factor. There must have been many viewers who felt thrilled to be Japanese when they saw the brave figures of these athletes on late-night or early morning satellite broadcasts. We must also not forget the impressive efforts of the Japanese team at the Olympics. This tied in well with the internationalization and informatization of society, launching the dreams of young baseball players out into the world.

As the popularity of baseball continued thanks to its internationalization, the number of students leaving baseball teams decreased, which appears to have been an important factor in the increase of the “retention rate.” Sports coaches may sometimes need to be strict, but one can easily imagine how misguided (and harsh) practice schedules drawn up by lazy coaches or excessive bullying from older players would have driven players to quit. It will still take some time, it seems, before bullying is eradicated, but effective training is, in fact, gradually taking root under the appropriate supervision of coaches.

Physical care for athletes like rehydration during training and icing pitchers after pitching, which was neglected until the 1980s, is now standard procedure. Correct health management methods recommended by medical specialists can be easily accessed via the internet and other means, and coaches have started to use the spread of networks to exchange information and hold workshops. It is exciting to see that the informatization of society is being effectively utilized in this way.


The “Sogo-ization” of Public High Schools

Another factor that influenced high school baseball in the 1990s was the transformation of schools themselves. As the birth rate declined, private schools struggled to acquire new students and survive, launching various school-wide initiatives. They transitioned to coeducation, became college-prep schools, enhanced their sports clubs, and so on. At any rate, it was a period of low birth rates. When parents have fewer children, they can spend more money on education. It makes sense that parents would want to send their children to private schools despite the high tuition, as long as the education the child was receiving matched the price.

One of the educational reforms systematically introduced in public schools in 1994 amid these trends was “sogo-ization” (the introduction of integrated courses). It originated in a proposal for the establishment of “new courses integrating general courses and vocational courses” made in the Report of the 14th Central Education Council in 1991, when members of the second baby boom generation were high school students and there was an urgent need to address the declining birthrate problem. It is common knowledge that, starting in the mid-1990s, high schools specializing in commercial, industrial, agricultural and other kinds of vocational training were consolidated and new “XX Sogo High Schools” were established in every prefecture of Japan. (Document 2)

Despite sharing the same name, however, sogo (integrated/comprehensive) high schools are not uniform. The general course integrated elective system is a system in which students acquire basic academic skills, primarily through the general education curriculum, and study elective subjects suited to their individual interests and career goals. There is also an integrated elective system, a type of system found in high schools that offer multiple specialized courses, in which students can select and study subjects in other courses. Reforms in vocational high schools have emphasized the latter system.

“Sogo-ization” was devised to make a diversity of career paths possible after graduation. We have already entered an era of declining university enrollment. This means that statistically, in terms of admission capacity, anyone can get into university as long as they’re not particular about the university they want to get into. It is understandable how this system, in which high school students study the subjects they need to get into college while being enrolled in a vocational course, would seem attractive at first glance to both students and parents. But are not integrated courses, which were supposedly created to advocate diversification, becoming breeding grounds for an attitude of “I guess I’ll just go to university,” orienting students toward a single course? In addition, students who want to start work right after graduation are going out into society without having developed advanced specialized skills in vocational subjects, meaning that graduates may not be able to adequately contribute in the workplace.

In any case, it is very unfortunate that vocational high schools have closed and disappeared via consolidation in exchange for the introduction of integrated courses. In the past, graduates who had acquired specialized skills at these schools consistently bolstered local industries and protected distribution markets. Though it may be an overstatement, I would say it has been the high-precision parts manufactured in small factories, superb agricultural produce cultivated with continual improvements, and sophisticated skills like business management, data processing and accounting that allow these products to be distributed which have formed the backbone of the technological, agricultural and economic superpower that is Japan. It seems that our resource-poor country must use ingenuity, ideas and technological strength to compete globally. If we fail to recognize this, the future of Japan is in danger.

Hopes for the Rise of Public Vocational High Schools

Matsuyama Commercial High School and Takamatsu Commercial High School, which have not gotten close to Koshien Stadium for a while, are rival schools that form part of “Shikoku’s Commercial Four.” Celebrated as the “Waseda-Keio Battle of Shikoku,” their matches have gained popularity at local tournaments. Hiroshima Commercial High School, which prides itself on having won seven national championships in the spring or summer, rivaling Matsuyama Commercial’s record, has apparently been struggling at the Hiroshima Tournament since the 2000s. Fans throughout Japan are waiting for veteran teams to compete at Koshien Stadium. This may sound strange, but I think that the stagnation of public vocational high schools involves problems that go far beyond the nostalgia of high school baseball fans. It is my private opinion that the future of Japan is at stake.

Document 1

Number of Participating Schools Number of Registered Players Average Number of Players Retention Rate
(Showa 57)
3,488 117,246 33.6 ――
(Showa 60)
3,819 130,577 34.2 72.9
(Showa 63)
3,989 136,733 34.3 73.9
(Heisei 3)
4,057 150,328 37.1 76.5
(Heisei 6)
4,104 142,481 34.7 76.9
(Heisei 9)
4,147 140,201 33.8 78.1
(Heisei 12)
4,183 148,415 35.5 79.3
(Heisei 15)
4,223 154,175 36.5 78.8
(Heisei 18)
4,242 166,314 39.2 81.3
(Heisei 21)
4,132 169,449 41.0 83.1
(Heisei 24)
4,071 168,144 41.3 85.8

*Retention rate: The proportion of first-year students who advanced and remained on the team when they were third year students.

[Document 2]
“Integrated Courses” [“Sogo Gakka ni tsuite”], Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Document (Bun-Sho-Shoku No. 203), March 22, 1993:
“Integrated courses are courses that offer general education and specialized education in an integrated manner with the aim of allowing students to choose the classes they take. They have been established as new courses on par with general courses and specialized courses, in order to promote the further individualization and diversification of high school education.” (From the Preface)

Yasuhiro Monden
Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, Waseda University

Professor Monden completed the doctoral program at the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University. He assumed his current position after working as an assistant to the Chinese Literature Course, Faculty of Letters I and a full-time instructor on the Faculty of Law at Waseda University. His areas of specialization are modern Chinese literature and stylistics.




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