From Ichiko to Ma-Kun: The Politics of Baseball in the US-Japan Bilateral Relationship



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At first glance, baseball, current controversies in the US-Japan bilateral relationship, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s recent increase in international diplomatic visits may appear to have little connection. Despite their disparate spheres of origin, however, these seemingly unrelated phenomena have deep interconnections. Baseball has historically been known as “America’s pastime.” While it was Americans who originally popularized the game, however, the sport has since spread and gained traction across the globe. Japan represents one such example of baseball adoption: the sport has become a staple of Japanese leisure culture since its introduction in the early 1870s. With its own professional baseball organization and an immensely popular high school competition, Japan has long been a state populated by baseball fanatics. Since its inception, baseball in Japan has evolved and changed countless times. Many of the most significant changes have occurred in periods of considerable political development or transformation in the state. This project examines the links between identity, politics, and sports, drawing on theoretical concepts and historical events to explore the ways in which baseball and politics in Japan have influenced each other. The study also examines and ultimately dispels the myth of ‘samurai’ baseball, a widely disseminated interpretation of the Japanese version of the sport that perpetuates stereotypes about Japanese collectivism. Through this project, I also explore the actual differences between Japanese and American professional baseball and analyze the significance of these differences in the context of the bilateral relationship. Finally, drawing on recent trends and current events, I consider the perceived ‘crisis’ of Japanese baseball, the future of the sport in the Japanese state, and the impact a potential drop in popularity would have on the US-Japan partnership. By analyzing Japanese language newspaper articles in conjunction with changes in institutional foreign player restrictions, I demonstrate the connection between baseball and politics in Japan. Through a consideration of recent events in Japanese politics, I also come to the conclusion that though Japanese baseball has not reached crisis level, it may soon be surpassed in popularity by soccer. This change could, in turn, signify a decline in the importance of the bilateral relationship between Japan and the United States.



Baseball, Japan, US-Japan relations