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Lessons on ballpark seating etiquette for Japanese baseball

by Wayne Graczyk

Whose side are you on? Or, rather, which side are you on?

American fan Bob Abels of Falls Church, Virginia, had no idea what was going on when a Tokyo Dome security guard told Abels to take off his shirt. Wearing the jersey of his favorite Japanese team, the Hanshin Tigers, Abels naively was headed for his assigned seat near the right-field foul pole.

“You must take off your shirt, sir,” said the guard, trying to explain Abels’ life could be at risk because he was entering the cheering section of the Tigers’ archrival and home team, the Yomiuri Giants.

So goes one of the oddities of Japanese baseball; you want to sit in the stands on the same side of the field as your team’s dugout, and you don’t want to get caught in the opposing club’s frenzy of fans.

Until 2003, the tradition was for the home team to take the first base side, and all 12 clubs followed that routine. Then, with American Trey Hillman as manager, the Nippon Ham Fighters started something new when they moved to Hokkaido in 2004. The Fighters set up their home dugout on the third base side. A year later, the expansion Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles did the same at Miyagi Stadium in Sendai.

A third Pacific League club, the Seibu Lions, renovated their Seibu Dome in 2008 with the posting money they got from the Boston Red Sox for Daisuke Matsuzaka and switched their home side from first base to third as well, and their fans had to get used to entering the ballpark from left field rather than from right.

Curiously, some teams have ticket categories such as the Hiroshima Carp’s Visitor Performance seats. A Canadian fan, Andrea Hanson of Oakville, Ontario, was told her seat would be in the Visitors Performance area at Hiroshima’s Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium. She asked, “Will I be required to perform something?”

No, but she was expected to refrain from wearing items of clothing that display the Hiroshima Carp logo, and she could not be cheering for the home team.

The Yomiuri Giants sell tickets for seats in the visitor oendan (cheering section), and they are often the last ones available after all the others have been sold out. In that case, fans are warned when buying the tickets about the potential danger of wearing Giants paraphernalia to the game.

Uninformed American fans of major or minor league baseball might argue, saying, “I paid for my ticket; I’m entitled to cheer for whichever team I prefer, regardless of where I am sitting.”

Not in Japan.

There have been stories, since the beginning of interleague play in the major leagues in 1997, of married couples going to the Subway Series games between New York City’s two teams.

One is a Mets fan, the other a Yankees rooter, and they are dressed accordingly. They sit together and cheer for their respective club with no problem. Not in Japan.

Die-hard Hanshin rooter Junji Onodera, a university student from Amagasaki, Hyogo Prefecture, was asked, “If all the tickets to a Giants-Tigers game were sold out except one, and that one seat was in the Giants cheering section, what would you do?”

Onodera replied, “I would rather stay home and watch the game on TV than have to sit quietly and not be able to wear my Tigers cap and jersey.”

Yoko Hayashi, a resident of Mitaka in western Tokyo, agrees. She regularly rides the JR Sobu Line to attend games at Tokyo Dome whenever the Tigers visit the Giants or Jingu Stadium when Hanshin comes to play the Yakult Swallows.

Wearing a Hanshin cap, Tigers logo earrings, a pink jersey with the team name across the front and open-toed shoes revealing yellow toe-nail polish, she reads the Tigers-affiliated Daily Sports newspaper, pulled from her Hanshin logo handbag.

“Of course I’ll be sitting on the third-base (visitors) side again tonight. I always do. I could never sit in the sections with the Kyojin fans,” she said while on the train to Suidobashi late last month.

At most of the Japanese stadiums now, you can tell where a team’s cheering section begins and ends, just by the colors. At Tokyo Dome, all the Giants fans wear orange and wave orange hand towels when the team scores. For all games except those against the Tigers, there are only four sections set aside for the visiting team’s backers; one in foul territory and three in the bleachers inside the foul pole on the left-field side.

When Onodera, Hayashi and their friends are there, the Hanshin rooters section extends all the way to the scoreboard in center field. Whoever is playing, both sides cheer wildly while their team is at bat and politely and respectfully keep silent when the opposing team is on offense.

The winning team’s oendan members are always the last to leave the ballpark after the game is over, the hero interview is concluded and the stars of the game run out to the outfield to thank the fans for their support and throw a few souvenir baseballs into the stands.

Then the bleacher band strikes up for a few more choruses of the team’s fight song before finally departing for a celebration in a nearby yakitori or yakiniku place for a bite to eat and few drinks.

So, when you buy your tickets to a game, and you care which team wins, make sure you get seats on the correct side of the stadium and never sit in the section set aside for the visiting team’s fans if you want to root, root, root for the home team.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com