The good news about Japanese professional baseball last week was that the players averted a second weekend strike following a last-minute agreement with management. A week earlier, an unprecedented walkout had been staged in protest against a merger deal between the Kintetsu Baffaloes and the Orix BlueWave of the Pacific League. Now the way is open for the entry of a new team, making it likely that the league will have six teams, or the same number as the Central League.
The merger controversy concerns not only the numerical question of how many teams are necessary or desirable; it also involves fundamental questions about the nature and direction of Japanese baseball — questions that have something to do with the Japanese way of life as well. Presumably, that is why the dispute has sparked such a wide, animated debate among the Japanese public, not just baseball fans.
One key question is which side should primarily support professional sports like baseball — communities where teams are based or private companies that own them? In terms of our daily lives, the question can be paraphrased thus: Which should we emphasize more — our relations to companies or our roots in communities? The answer, more likely than not, is that we have neglected to cultivate our communal ties.
In the heyday of Japan’s economic growth, company workers were often called “corporate animals.” The implication, of course, was that they were so dedicated to their companies they showed little concern for their communities. That “company-first” tendency became a dominant feature of our society as millions of people from across the country flocked to Tokyo and other big cities in search of jobs and opportunities. In the process, the sense of community diminished markedly.
Much the same thing can be said of sports. Sports, a main subject of school education since the Meiji Era, have been emphasized as part of character formation. In the post-World War II period of rapid economic and social development, however, sports like baseball gained new value as vehicles for commercial advertising. As a result, major corporations came to own sports teams. The heavy emphasis on corporate ownership, however, hampered efforts to develop community-based sports.
This is where Japan differs from the West, particularly Europe, which has a long history of community development and self-government. Citizens value sports not only for entertainment but also as a symbol of their identities. Individuals, not nations, are the essence. At an international soccer tournament, for example, supporters are often seen cheering for their favorite players, not because of their nationality but rather because of their individual skill and personal attraction.
In some European countries such as Spain, individual supporters, often acting as shareholders, have a say in team management. This makes it difficult for corporate sponsors to behave as if they are the sole owner. Companies, too, must behave as members of the community in which they operate.
In this regard, the Japanese soccer league holds out promise. It is well known that J. League has been trying to create a community-oriented soccer culture on the model of European teams. For example, Albirex Niigata, based in a relatively small city of less than a million population, has drawn record numbers of spectators. The league’s ideal of a European-type soccer is not a pipe dream.
By the same token, the future seems to hold promise for other sports as well, given that Japan has well over 10 large cities of more than a million people each. Of course, it is up to citizens to provide the kind of support that is needed. There are already encouraging signs in baseball: Two Internet service companies, Livedoor and Rakuten, are seeking to set up a new team in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture.
It is true, though, that the road to “sports citizenship” is strewn with obstacles. “Ordinary citizens say a lot about the need to support teams, but they back off when it comes to spending time and money. So support must come from companies,” says the head of a company that sent its employee athlete to the Athens Olympics.
Gaining community-wide support of sports requires conscious efforts by citizens to develop teams as “public goods.” For baseball fans, this means changing their traditional mind-set that puts a premium on corporate interests to one that sets store by community interests. The revenue that can be gained from closer relations between fans and clubs or players will make it easier to manage teams within their means. Above all, baseball teams with more “local colors” will help promote decentralization and ease excessive concentration in Tokyo.
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