A lady’s lot at Little League in Japan: lunches, liquids and lavatories

Parents’ gender roles are strictly prescribed at top program where moms exist to serve


I have never been to Koshien, but its legends have had a prominent place in my life. In the ’90s, my favorite way to experience the high school baseball tournament, held each year at the Hanshin Koshien Stadium, was watching with my husband at a ramen shop in the August heat. Half the pleasure was observing other fans glued to the little TV set hanging in the corner.

But now, 25 years later, I watch through the lens of my 12 years with Musashi Fuchu Little League in west Tokyo. First my daughter and then my son played for this legendary program that has produced two Little League World Series champion teams.

In 2014, Musashi Fuchu Little League celebrated its 45th year. On the morning after a very grand celebration to mark the achievement, I heard a news story about Somayya Jabarti. The news made me smile. Not a sneering smile, but certainly more sneering than elated.

Ms. Jabarti had just been appointed the first female editor-in-chief of a major Saudi Arabian newspaper, the Saudi Gazette. Amazing really: In Saudi Arabia women are not allowed to drive; they often occupy spaces that are literally segregated from men — physically removed from the scent of influence or power. In light of Saudi gender segregation, Jabarti’s appointment was remarkable.

My smile should have been pure joy. But the sneer in my smile was not for Saudi Arabia; it was for Japan. I was comparing my previous evening’s experience at the Little League grand celebration to Jabarti’s accomplishments in Saudi Arabia.

Over 500 people attended the 45th anniversary event. It lasted nearly six hours, with an emcee, stage, spotlights, speeches and film footage from the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Guests included weighty figureheads — coaches from the best high school baseball teams in Tokyo, local politicians and Shinto priests. The VIP seating accommodated around 100, all men. The microphone delivered wisdom from more than 20 voices, all men. The stage hosted about 200 shoes over the course of the evening, all men’s — thus physically removing women from the scent of influence or power.

Seeing a flock of Saudi women, huddled together and drinking thick coffee in their segregated spaces, might give Western gender-sensitive hearts a fright. Yet seeing a flock of Japanese women on a baseball diamond huddled in the service of Japanese men watching their sons play baseball would only give Western minds pause, not fright. It’s Japan, after all, we might think. Yes, they remove their shoes at the door as well — tradition, culture.

I am amazed at how entrenched gender roles have been in my 11 years with this baseball community. Twelve years ago, women did not walk on the baseball field unless serving tea. And now, in 2015, we still do not walk on the field unless serving tea. No one seems to want to see change in gender roles here. And few even want to talk about it.

Baseball moms do tōban once a month. Even though the word is grammatically a noun, it always translates into a verb: being on duty. It is an all-day duty. Tōban moms have to arrive before the official shūgō (meet) begins. And tōban moms cannot leave until after practice has been declared finished.

Yet there are not really enough tasks to fill a whole day, so the hours become a verb. And the verb is “being.” No one questions the efficacy of tōban. One just is. Is there. Being. Zen. Zen-ing. Occasionally doing.

My first time, I failed at pure tōban, pure being. I was a prisoner of the more menial verb “doing.” I was a full-time international school teacher with three kids and plenty of doing on hold at home. I was an unenlightened doer strapped shamelessly to the lowly associations of a doer’s frame of mind — associations such as “individual,” “self-interested,” “self-seeking,” “inconsiderate,” “miserly.” Yet every month I found myself being at the field.

The concrete function of tōban is serving. We manage hydration via beverages for coaches and players — in case they cannot manage it themselves, I guess. And we make killer lunches. As keepers of the ice, we help with first aid. Garbage is also a specialty. And the governance of ashtrays, which includes using bare hands to wrestle with feisty cigarette butts. Finally, at the end of the day, we clean the portable toilets.

When it’s time to go home, we bow to each other, saying my favorite words of the day, o-tsukaresama desu, which means “We recognize and appreciate together the honorable exhaustion of the day.” Indeed. Then we walk to our cars, leaving behind us the little house in which we toiled together, the house with the Musashi Fuchu slogan attached to the outer wall for all to see: Ningensei to manabu-shisei. According to a more expansive explanation of the credo, this means “developing habits to work with people and growing your attitude toward improvement.”

During one of my first tōban days, I encountered something troubling. We had spent the morning making lunch. People ate. Dirty dishes were produced. I thought I would get a jump on the cleanup, so I hopped into the little house to start the washing-up at the sink, next to the men who sat cross-legged, bellies full, some enjoying cigarettes.

Mid-scrub, I feel a tug on my pants. I turn to find a fellow tōban mom sitting demurely on her heels, looking at me with a grimace. She is sitting seiza, kneeling with the tops of her feet flat on the tatami. Very formal. For me, a little scary.

She whispers that I should not wash dishes while the men are still in the little house. Apparently we are not speaking with actual voices in front of the men. Not even our indoor voices.

I give her my puzzled face. She glares demurely up at me, if there is such a glare. Clearly I am to stop washing dishes. So I stop. She motions for me to lean in. I lean in. She whispers that I should sit next to her seiza-style and wait to see whether the men need anything. I give her my horrified face. She fails to read it.

My heart begins to race. I cannot imagine myself meeting her request. I am still giving her my horrified face. She is still failing to read it. She gives me her demure glare. My heart races faster and I decide to depart the little house, nearly tripping on the pile of men’s shoes I have to sort through to find my own.

I walk toward an open space. I find the center field fence. My breathing is labored. I find my daughter. It is the after-lunch time, unstructured and unsupervised, and there is laughter.

I consider going AWOL. But there is laughter, and I know I am here because my daughter wants to be here. So I talk myself into thinking that her presence in this male space might wedge a crack in the Japanese gender granite. And I talk myself into thinking that I can hang with the flock, and tōban with the flock, and try being with the flock. I will “develop habits to work with people, growing my attitude toward improvement.”

But I will not seiza. And I will not whisper around men.

Foreign Agenda offers a forum for opinion about issues related to life in Japan. Your comments: community@japantimes.co.jp

  • Scott Durand

    Well Done!!! Must have been very difficult for the author to manage those interactions. but she survived, and the children had the opportunity to participate in the baseball. I wonder if Japan will ever change in this approach to gender equality?

  • Firas Kraïem

    One of the main themes of the French parenting frenzy which inundated the media some time ago was that French parents don’t have the kind of devotion to their children that Anglo-saxon parents have and this author demonstrates. I think she would do well to borrow that page from our playbook. Just leave, and if your daughter has to leave as well, so be it. C’est la vie.

  • Brian Southwick

    Your experience as a monthly “tobanner” is hardly comparable to that of women in Saudi Arabia, for whom gender discrimination is systemic. And “tobanning” varies widely by school and program and is often far less onerous than you suggest.

    • Resa Bennett

      Your argument that gender discrimination is not systemic in Japan (and other countries by implication) is not borne out by statistics, and nowhere does the author claim that her experience is the same as all baseball moms.

      • Brian Southwick

        Not an argument but an observation based on decades of experience in Japan and of its youth baseball culture. And yes, gender discrimination in Japan is different in kind and in degree from that in Saudi Arabia.

    • Steve Jackman

      Gender discrimination is very much systemic in Japan. Have you ever worked at a Japanese company? I have and gender and racial discrimination against non-Japanese staff could not be any more systemic than it is in Japan.

      Besides, I think the writer is not justifying gender roles in Saudi Arabia. She is just saying that Japan often gets treated with kid-gloves and gets a free pass from the rest of the world for the same things which would be loudly condemned were they happening in another country. In this, the writer is absolutely correct.

  • Foreigner Friendly

    The fact that it’s all women serving all men and doing so in silence when in their presence shows how far Japan hasn’t come.

    An alternative wouldn’t even require the men to pour their own drinks, clean their own ashtrays or make their lunches. One could even exploit the kohai/sempai relationship here by getting the junior players in the team to do it. Or the men could grow up and take care of themselves.

  • blondein_tokyo

    “developing habits to work with people and growing your attitude toward improvement.” – Apparently this only applies to the women.

    Personally? After 23 years in Japan, I don’t put up with this kind of thing anymore. I don’t care if it rocks the boat or makes me look as though I’m not being co-operative. As far as I’m concerned, anyone challenging my role in life can take a long walk off a short pier.

  • Brian Southwick

    The Saudi Gazette may enjoy influence disproportionate to its circulation and therefore merit the author’s term, “major”, but the numbers are not particularly impressive: with a circulation of just 50,000, the paper is smaller than all but one of the country’s 12 Arab language dailies, and it is smaller than the only other English-language paper. Hardly major, but nevermind, the appointment of Ms Jabarti as editor-in-chief is a milestone, no sneering. Seriously, though, washing dishes at a celebration for little leaguers and their families prompts comparisons with the plight of women in Saudia Arabia? I would suggest that trivializes the issue. Here, in the words of CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin, is what it’s like to be a woman there:

    Saudi women aren’t permitted to appear in public without adhering to a strict dress code. They need the approval of a male guardian to marry, travel, enroll in a university, or obtain a passport, and they’re prohibited from driving.

    Is seiza really that bad?

    • Steve Jackman

      If you want to compare gender roles between Japan and Saudi Arabia, I don’t think young women In Saudia Arabia are accosted by pimps in clear sight offering them jobs in the sex industry, as routinely happens everyday in Japan outside train stations.

      I very much doubt that Saudi Arabia has a huge sex industry like Japan, where thousands of young Japanese women (many of them underage) are sexually exploited. I don’t think Japan is much ahead of a country like Saudi Arabia when it comes to the plight of women.

  • jcbinok

    God for you. I wouldn’t seiza and wait for the men to smoke their cigs either. As a foreigner in Japan, there are many times when I find myself in situations that just seem wrong, but rather than make an international scene, I usually excuse myself and let my absence speak for itself.

    By the way, I loved your description of using your “horrified face” and the Japanese woman not reading it for what it was. I have heard that the Japanese are masters of subtlety; that mastery seems to be exclusive only to other Japanese people, however.

    • Steve Jackman

      “I have heard that the Japanese are masters of subtlety; that mastery seems to be exclusive only to other Japanese people, however.”

      This is an excellent observation and something I too have repeatedly noticed over my ten-plus years living in Japan. The Japanese are taught to recognize subtelty only among themselves and are often absolutely clueless when non-Japanese try to use subtelty with them. Non-Japanese are well advised to not be overly polite or subtle when interacting with most Japanese, since these don’t seem to be appreciated by the Japanese when coming from foreigners.