Earthquake, tsunami, radiation threat; despite it all, five dedicated fans from overseas followed through on a planned trip to Japan to watch Japanese professional baseball games in mid-April, just a few weeks after the devastating events that occurred in the Tohoku region of the country beginning on March 11.
Bob Bavasi of JapanBall.com has been running an annual baseball fans tour to Japan each September and this year decided to add a spring tour to take advantage of the usually fine April weather. Nearly 20 people had signed up for the Japan travel, and all was proceeding smoothly until a massive 9.0 quake struck northeastern Japan on that second Friday of March.
A killer tsunami followed, and then serious problems at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant that threatened parts of the country with radiation problems. As the news of the crises spread, JapanBall clients began canceling their trips, and Bavasi had to decide whether to axe the baseball tour. However, when four dedicated fans insisted they still wanted to go, he revised the schedule of games and went ahead with the trip. He is glad he did.
The four from the U.S. took in games at Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium, Nagoya Dome, Koshien Stadium in Kansai, QVC Marine Field in Chiba and Yokohama Stadium between April 15 and 20. An adventurous fan from Australia joined the final game, and all expressed their resolve in going through with plans to visit Japan, their love of the game of baseball and admiration for the Japanese people in coping with the recent series of unfortunate events.
Ed Peterman, 58, an accountant from San Diego, was making his second baseball tour in Japan in seven months and said he had no reservations about coming back to Japan despite the earthquake, tsunami and radiation threat. He booked this trip in January and was disappointed when he heard the news about the earthquake and subsequent events.
“My friends kept asking me if I was still going to go to Japan, and I kept telling them yes, I am. I am not worried about the earthquakes because we have them in California. I’m not worried about tsunamis because we would be far enough inland and, as far as the radiation is concerned, when I go back to California, if I glow in the dark, I won’t need a flashlight,” Peterman said.
“I was shocked when I saw the pictures (of the destruction caused by the tsunami) on TV and thought the trip might be canceled,” he said. He’s seen games at eight Japanese ballparks during his two tours in Japan and is looking forward to seeing more and doing a lot more sightseeing on a third trip.
Leon DeHaven is 65, retired from the U.S. military and living in Tempe, Ariz., and he was on his sixth JapanBall tour, having seen all 12 Japanese pro teams play at home at least once. Reacting to the earthquake and tsunami, DeHaven said, “I wanted to cry for the people in Sendai because I have been to Sendai five times and found the people there very gracious and open and accepting of foreigners, and it is such a shame this had to happen anywhere, but especially in a place like Sendai.”
DeHaven insists he had no problems making the decision to return this time, saying, “I lived in California for 20 years and have been though hundreds of earthquakes. When I was younger, I lived in Hawaii and went through a tsunami in Hilo. As for the radiation, I know it’s a problem, but it seems to be very local (in the Fukushima area), so I had no doubts at all about coming.”
He has read Robert Whiting’s books on Japanese baseball, including “You Gotta Have Wa,” and tells the Japanese people, “This is another time for wa (harmony or unity). If anyone can overcome this, it is the Japanese people, because the spirit of wa is so ingrained in the society and with the people.”
Asked if he plans to return to Japan for a seventh baseball tour, DeHaven answered, “Absolutely.”
Nicky Oliver, 24 and from Sydney, works for a marketing firm and was on her first trip to Japan. She said she came although her family, boyfriend and other friends told her she was “crazy to go ahead” with her plans, but she told them, “I did not want to cancel. I felt it would be safe and I would be fine in Tokyo. I had heard a lot of people were canceling trips to Japan, and I know Japan relies a lot on tourism, so…”
Oliver said, while seeing TV images of the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, “I did not even think of my holiday. I just thought what a horrible, tragic disaster it is.”
She joined the JapanBall group for their final stop at Yokohama Stadium and said she decided to include a baseball game among her sightseeing activities because, “I thought it would be a really great Japanese experience. The national sport of Japan is baseball, and the people are hardcore fans. It is a fun atmosphere.”
Mike Colegate is 46 and from Sunnyvale, Calif., between San Francisco and San Jose. He works for a software firm in the Silicon Valley and was on his first trip to Japan. He said, “Earthquakes happen all the time in the Bay Area and, as for the radiation, I had some concerns but, after a while, it was apparent it was north of where we would be going, so I was confident it was not going to be an issue.”
Colegate said he had been looking forward to the trip for a long time, and it turned out to be every bit as good as he had expected. He enjoyed seeing the five ballparks but thought Koshien was the most impressive. “It reminded me a lot of the Polo Grounds,” he said, after seeing the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles and Orix Buffaloes play there.
“It had a lot of history, and the only drawback is that it was not a Tigers home game. I’d like to go back there when Hanshin is playing. I am thinking of coming back on the fall tour.”
Rakuten used Koshien for a series of home games because its own Kleenex Stadium in Sendai was undergoing repair for earthquake-caused damage.
Todd Makoto Akiyama is a 36-year-old Ichiro look-alike financial planner from Seattle, a Safeco Field regular who wore his Mariners jersey to every game and was most impressed with the beer girls serving brewskies from backpack tanks in the stands at each Japanese stadium. He obviously has Japanese roots but has traveled in many countries throughout the world and says, despite what has happened, “Japan is far safer than many places where I have been.”
About Japanese baseball, Akiyama says, “It’s a nice experience to get away from my home ballpark and see something different. It is a different twist on baseball, and I am looking forward to coming back in the fall.”
He agreed with Colegate that Koshien was the most impressive of the five stadiums on the tour and especially enjoyed the ambience and the seventh-inning jet-balloon launch from the stands.
Tour organizer Bavasi said, “We had a small but potent group, and they understood the geography of Japan, so they knew something that affected one part of the country did not necessarily affect the entire nation.”
He acknowledged several fans who had originally signed up for the tour canceled after March 11, and he wishes they had waited before backing out. He wrote to each person who had signed up and said, “Where we are going has not been affected. So just wait and see how it turns out.”
Bavasi added that, had they waited, they probably would have gone to Japan, but many “freaked out early” and bailed out right away, missing a fun time watching Japanese baseball. He said about 12 people pulled out of the trip, but he thinks some may reconsider and sign up for another tour later this season.
He concluded by saying, “I think it will take a while for Japan to get back to the level of tourism it had. The country has worked hard to build it up. For example, most train stations have signs and announcements on the trains in English. They have good logos and it is all very helpful.”
Bavasi is looking forward to the fall tour which he is considering moving from its usual September time slot to the following month because games canceled in March and early April have been rescheduled for October.
In the meantime, a handful of gutsy foreigners were able to enjoy their favorite sport and bond with Japanese fans in the “Gambaro Nippon” spirit at the ballpark.
Contact Wayne at Wayne@JapanBall.com