The intai jiai (retirement game) is a significant event in Japanese pro baseball for long-time star players about to hang up their spikes and call it a career. It usually occurs at the end of a season after it has been announced the player is leaving the game and after league standings have been decided.
His home team crowd turns out to honor him and watch him make that final plate appearance or toss that last pitch and, where possible, the opposing team will bring in a veteran pitcher to face a retiring hitter or send up a batter who has faced an outgoing pitcher on numerous occasions. It is always an emotional happening for the player and the fans.
While there will not be such fanfare, another uniformed ballpark worker will be leaving the scene after a four-year career at Lions games at Seibu Prince Dome. Beer girl Misato Orikasa, 22, will be serving up her last cups of suds this week as the Lions play their final games of the 2016 season.
The beer girls are a big hit at Japanese pro baseball games, especially with foreign fans. They patrol the stands at all the regular stadiums and even some of the better countryside ballparks, wearing easy-to-see highlight-pen colored outfits of green, orange, pink or yellow. They can be seen everywhere among the spectators, coming around often and yelling, “Tsumetai biru wa ikaga desu ka?” or “How about a cold beer?”
On their backs are tanks full of chilled beer, and all four major Japanese breweries are represented with their signature brands. Misato sells Asahi Super Dry, but beer girls also dispense Kirin Ichi-ban Shibori, Suntory Malts and Sapporo Black Star and Yebisu. The American favorite Budweiser is also available from vendors at Seibu Dome.
Like Misato, many of the beer girls are university students earning some extra yen at the ballpark. They are significantly different from the beer sellers I recall seeing at my first Japanese game at Heiwadai Stadium in Fukuoka in 1970. Back then, the beers were sold in the stands by 75-year-old “mama-sans” who carried the drinks to the fans in trays strapped around their shoulders.
Their bodies were bent from the weight of the trays which contained the old-style amber bottles, and the women had to use bottle openers to pop the caps and pour the beer into paper cups. Often, especially on hot summer nights, the beers were no longer cold if sellers were out in the stands too long after replenishing their supply.
Now — 46 years later — technology and the insulated tanks keeps the beer at just the right temperature, so a beer girl can draw a fresh, plastic or paper cupful of a cold brew at any time through the tube and nozzle attached to the 13-kg. tank. Each tank carries a capacity for about 22 cups (500-ml.) of beer.
Beer girls such as Misato are almost always smiling and friendly, enjoy practicing English with foreign customers and usually oblige when a fan requests a photo after purchasing a beer. Sometimes, when a tank becomes empty in the middle of a pour, the vendor will run off for a re-supply and, not wanting to lose the sale, will leave her cap or even her badge with the beer buyer, saying, “I’ll be right back,” and the thirsty fan feels obligated to wait and not buy from another beer girl.
Several years ago, an American woman came to Japan on a September baseball tour and was impressed by the way beers are sold at Japanese ballparks. After returning home, she sent an email request, wanting to buy a beer girl uniform to use as a Halloween costume. She wanted the entire get-up — the cap, shirt with brewer logo, shorts, knee socks, badge and, of course, the tank.
We asked Tokyo Dome if it was possible to purchase the items but, unfortunately, though the concessions people were amused, the answer was no.
Baseball-loving U.S. Ambassador to Japan (2005-09) Thomas Schieffer, former team president of the Texas Rangers, attended several games at various stadiums in Japan during his posting and was also impressed by the beer girls. When there was a reception at the Tokyo Embassy such as a 4th of July celebration or a welcome party for major leaguers coming to Japan, the ambassador hired beer girls from Jingu Stadium to serve the guests.
Misato, whose hometown is Hakodate, Hokkaido, said, “I am sad to retire as a beer girl,” but life must go on. She will be graduating from college in March and begin working a full-time job. A baseball fan herself, she enjoyed the atmosphere at the stadium and interacting with the crowd.
The beer girls are paid on commission and, on a good night with the stands filled to near capacity this month, she sold 177 cups of brewskis and said, “My best score during the four years is 249.”
There will not be any special ceremony, but Misato will most likely get emotional when she draws those last few beers and removes the tank from her back for the last time after the Lions’ final home game this season on Sept. 28 vs. the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters.
She said, “Working in a baseball stadium was a very valuable experience for me because I love baseball. Over four seasons, I could enjoy talking with so many fans including foreign visitors, and it was a good opportunity for me to speak a foreign language, and that kept me motivated, because I want to work in a foreign country in the future.”
Misato’s days of running up and down the steps and between the aisles may be coming to an end, but the beer girl parade will continue as one of the more colorful attractions at pro ball games in Japan.
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com