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Foreign fans revel in ballpark fun

by Wayne Graczyk

A beat writer for one of the Japanese papers called the other day and said, “I am seeing a lot of foreign fans at Japanese baseball games recently. What’s going on?”

What’s going on, first of all, is a general increase in tourism with more people visiting Japan from overseas, and many of them want to see baseball while in the country. According to statistics on the Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO) website, the number of foreign visitors between January and March of 2014 was up by 27.5 percent over the same period last year.

The increased value of the U.S. dollar against the Japanese yen is obviously one big reason for the pick-up in interest among Americans of going to Japan. Two and three years ago, the dollar was worth as low as about ¥80, and it was soon after the disastrous events of March 11, 2011.

This year, tourists can get about ¥100 for their dollar, and the fears of traveling to Japan because of radiation threats have subsided. So, the visitors have come back, and many want to see a Japanese baseball game or two while in cities where pro ball franchises are located.

One backpacker from Australia said, “I heard how popular baseball is in Japan, so I put it on my list of things to do and see — right up there with sumo wrestling, Kabuki, Noh, Mt. Fuji, the Imperial Palace and Peace Park in Hiroshima.”

An American from New York stated the reason he wanted to see Japanese baseball. “I was interested to know where players such as Ichiro (Suzuki), Hideki Matsui, Hiroki Kuroda, Yu Darvish, Norichika Aoki — and now Masahiro Tanaka — were coming from,” he said. “I see the high level of play in Japan and understand there is a lot of talent here.”

But, besides the baseball itself, what do the foreign fans like about being in ballparks such as Tokyo Dome, Koshien Stadium or QVC Marine Field?

“I was intrigued by the beer girls,” said the guy from New York. He was talking about the young ladies in highlight-pen colored uniforms roaming the stands with the tanks of suds on their backs, nozzles at the ready to dispense cold cups of brew and smiling and waving to potential customers.

A woman fan from Michigan was also impressed by the beer ladies and their uniforms. She attended several games in Japan one September a few years ago and, after returning home, she wrote to ask if she could buy a beer girl’s outfit — complete with the back tank — for use as a Halloween costume. Unfortunately, Tokyo Dome was unable to comply with the request.

“My favorite part of the Japanese baseball experience is the seventh-inning balloon launch,” said another female fan from California after attending a Hanshin Tigers game at Koshien. “Some Japanese fans sitting next to me gave me a balloon from the pack they had bought, so I was able to participate. What a colorful spectacle.”

A fellow from Texas said, “The Japanese cheering sections in the outfield are awesome. I saw an extra-inning game at Tokyo Dome, and they just kept playing music and chanting throughout the whole game. I wonder where they get all that energy.”

A woman visitor from New Jersey got a kick out of the team mascots. “My favorite is the Yakult Swallows bird (Tsubakuro). He is so cute and funny, and he even took part in the (post-game hero) interview. It cracked me up.”

Besides those coming on business or sight-seeing trips from other countries, foreign residents in Japan and U.S. military personnel are also being seen in larger numbers at Japanese ball games.

American sailors stationed at Yokosuka Naval Base often make the short trip to Yokohama Stadium to root for the Yokohama BayStars. Seibu Dome, home of the Lions, is about a 20-minute ride by car from Yokota Air Base, and it is convenient for those stationed at Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station in Yamaguchi Prefecture to get to Hiroshima and support the surging Carp at Mazda Zoom Zoom Stadium.

In Kyushu, people from the navy base in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, often attend SoftBank Hawks games at Fukuoka Yafuoku Dome. Even those at Misawa Air Base way up north in Aomori Prefecture have been known to take a four-hour drive on the Tohoku Expressway to Sendai to watch the Rakuten Eagles, and there is also bullet train service from nearby Hachinohe that gets them to Sendai in about 75 minutes.

GIs in Okinawa will probably be going to games this summer when the Baystars and Yomiuri Giants play at Okinawa Cellular Stadium in Naha July 8-9.

I can identify with them all, having seen my first Japanese game in 1970 at Heiwadai Stadium in Fukuoka while stationed with the U.S. Air Force at Hakata Air Station. Those were the days when a grandstand seat cost less than one dollar, too. The tickets were ¥350, and the buck was pegged at ¥360.

Today, foreign fans are also a favorite with the Japanese stadium scoreboard operators who find them in the stands and project their images on the video screen between innings. The gaikokujin spectators often oblige with a performance; dancing and forming the letters to “YMCA” or showing off the home team’s T-shirt they purchased.

There is always a good time to be had at the Japanese ball parks, and the influx of the international crowd only adds to the fun.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com