Looking at the History of Japanese Baseball and Its Interactions With the MLB

red and black temple surrounded by trees photo

If you have been following the state of baseball throughout the world or watched the last summer Olympics (with those sweet bullpen carts), you will know that baseball has achieved great popularity in Japan. The Nippon Professional Baseball league has become one of the top baseball leagues in the world with some players coming to Major League Baseball in the United States and players from Major League Baseball moving to the NPB. How did baseball grow in Japan, what does the NPB currently look like, and what is the Japan’s role in international play?

Baseball Moves to Japan

The origin of modern baseball has been the cause of great debate and confusion. The myth that Abner Doubleday created the game in Cooperstown, NY was prevalent for a long time and led to the establishment of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Modern knowledge points to the New York Knickerbocker Baseball club, which started in 1845, as the likely beginning of modern baseball. New rules for the game were drawn up at the onset of the league. These rules built upon previous games resembling baseball like rounders and cricket.

Baseball moved to Japan much quicker than one might expect. By 1872, elements of baseball could be seen in Japan. The development of baseball into one of the most popular sports in the country took a little longer in Japan than it did in the United States. In 1936, as Ruth, Cobb, Wagner, Johnson, and Mathewson were elected as the first members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, Japan was founding its first professional baseball league.

The Beginnings of Baseball in Japan

The first baseball games in Japan can be attributed to American teachers/professors in Japan. Horace Wilson, a professor at Kaisei Gakko (now Tokyo University), is credited with first introducing the game. The first game was played in 1873 through the organization of Albert Bates. Five years later, the first Japanese baseball team was formed. Over the next few decades, baseball teams continued to pop up throughout the country. Shiki Masaoka, a highly regarded Japanese poet, played a pivotal role in the sport’s growth. He grew to love the game and included it in many of his poems, often creating Japanese versions of baseball terms.

The Rise of Amateur Baseball

By the beginning of the 20th century, baseball was ready to expand. The first expansion occurred with the creation of university teams. Waseda University and Keio University began what would become an annual match-up. The growth in popularity seen in amateur teams continued at the university level. By the end of the 1920s, two of the most historic college baseball leagues had been founded.

High School baseball was experiencing similar growth during this time. The National High School Baseball Championships was established in 1915. This tournament soon grew into one of the biggest sporting events in Japan.

The early 20th century also saw a lot of interaction between American and Japanese teams. Waseda University made a trip to the United States to play other collegiate teams in 1905. They ended their trip with a 7-19 record, which included games against Stanford, USC, and Washington University. Within a few years, professional teams from the US began touring Japan and playing against university teams throughout the country. These tours were not the most competitive as Japanese baseball was still quite young and had yet to form a professional league. They did, however, help to expand the presence of baseball in Japan.

Perhaps the biggest tour through Japan occurred in 1934. Babe Ruth made his first appearance in Japan along with a star-studded group that included Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Charlie Gehringer. The games were highly attended. In an attempt to match this star power, Japan organized a team of its best players. Like previous years, the US team won the series 18-0, but a 17 year-old, Eiji Sawamura, did hold the team to one run in one of the games while striking out 9. This was the high point of the series for the Japanese team. Following the series, the Japanese team was kept together to form the first professional baseball team in Japan.

Professional Baseball in Japan

The Japanese Professional Baseball League was formed in 1936. It originally included seven teams based in three different cities: Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya. The first three years in the league featured six different seasons before one season per year was decided upon. The Tokyo Kyojin (later renamed the Yomiuri Giants) dominated the early years of the JPBL.

In 1950, the league was split into the Central League and the Pacific League. The winner of each league would play against each other in the Japan Series. Under this new format, the league was renamed Nippon Professional Baseball. This league remains the professional baseball league of Japan.

With this new league in place, baseball continued to grow in popularity within Japan. At the same time, the gap between teams in the United States and teams in Japan shrank a little. Some stars began to emerge in the NPB.

Sadaharu Oh made his debut in 1959. In 94 games, with 193 at-bats, he hit only 7 home runs. Four years later (1963), he began one of the greatest streaks a hitter has ever had in any professional baseball league. He would not have a season OPS below 1 until 1979. During that span, Oh hit less that 40 home runs only three times (39 twice and 33 once). For his career, he led the league in home runs 15 times and won 9 MVPs. To this day, his record is over 200 home runs more than the next highest count.

Oh and teammate Shigeo Nagashima became stars in Japan as they led the Yomiuri Giants to 9 straight championships.

Interactions Between the MLB and the NPB

As Nippon Professional Baseball developed, its interactions with baseball outside of Japan grew as well (albeit slowly). Wally Yonamine joined the league in 1951, he was the first American to play in the NPB. This became a precedent for many future baseball players.

Masanori Murakami became the first Japanese-born player to make an MLB roster in 1964. He appeared in 54 games before contract disputes between the San Francisco Giants and Nankai Hawks sent Murakami back to Japan.

In 1971, a trade between the Pacific Coast Hawaii Islanders and the Taiyo Whales became the first trade between a Japanese team and a team from the US. These moves all helped create the transitioning between leagues that we see today.

In 1995, we had one of the first impactful signings by an MLB team with the Dodgers signing Hideo Nomo who had recently retired from the NPB to pursue playing in the MLB. Within the next decade, multiple important names are signed: Daisuke Matsuzaka, Kazuhiro Sasaki, Ichiro Suzuki, and Hideki Matsui. These players formed a strong platform for other players to sign such as Shohei Ohtani and, most recently, Seiya Suzuki.

The Posting Process

The frustration behind the disputes that sent Murakami back to Japan was still evident with new players leaving. Nippon Professional Baseball teams might sign a player just for that player to announce their retirement from the NPB (the players most commonly associated with this loophole are Hideo Nomo and Alfonso Soriano, who played 9 games in the NPB), allowing them to pursue a team in Major League Baseball. The NPB team owners feared being left empty-handed as MLB teams took their talent. The posting process was created to guarantee that these teams got compensation for their players that would leave for the MLB.

The posting process begins with the player and their team coming to an agreement to post the player. Once this is accomplished, the NPB commissioner is notified and he then notifies Major League Baseball. Originally, MLB teams bid for the right to negotiate with a player. If the highest bid was accepted by the NPB team, the MLB team that submitted that bid was given 30 days to agree on a contract with the player. In 2017, they updated the system so that all MLB teams could negotiate with the player and a percentage of the agreed upon contract would go to the NPB team. With this system in place, many players have transitioned from the NPB to the MLB in the past few years.

The MLB Japan All-Star Series

The MLB Japan All-Star Series forms an important milestone in the various tours of US teams through Japan. The first games took place in 1986. Major League Baseball assembled a team of some of its best players and the NPB did the same. This series showed how far the NPB had come from its early days. While the MLB All-Stars took 8 of the 9 series, the NPB was able to win 4 of 7 decisive games in 1990. They won at least one game in every series and over half the series were decided by less than a couple games. The last series between the MLB and NPB was played in 2004 with the Major League All-Stars winning 5 games and the NPB All-Stars winning 3. These games solidified the NPB as one of the top leagues in the world.

In 2014, the MLB Japan All-Star Series got a bit of a reboot. However, instead of playing an NPB All-Star team, the MLB All-Stars played the Japanese national team Samurai Japan. Samurai Japan was quite successful in these games. They won 3 and lost 2. In 2018, the teams played again with Samurai Japan taking 5 of the 6 games. The change in fortune can be explained by the continued growth of Japanese baseball and the lack of preparation by the MLB All-Stars. For Samurai Japan, this was an amazing opportunity to prepare for national events such as the World Baseball Classic or the Olympics. For the MLB All-Stars it was just a series of games in a different country.

Here is Ohtani dealing for Japan in the 2014 series:

Via MLB

Success in Major League Baseball

As the first MLB Japan All-Star Series was being played (1986-2004), star players in the NPB were beginning to sign with Major League Baseball teams.

Transitioning from the NPB to Major League Baseball cannot be an easy transition. You’re moving to a completely different culture with a different language and traditions. The overall competition is better. There are also expectations that you will immediately make an impact. Still, there have been some big success stories. Here are some of the most impactful players to come from the NPB:

  • Hideo Nomo: Hideo Nomo made the transition in 1995 and became the first player from the NPB to make a considerable impact on Major League Baseball. In his first MLB season at 26 years old, he was an All-Star. By the end of the season, he led the league in strikeouts, won Rookie of the Year, and placed 4th in Cy Young voting. He followed his stellar rookie season with another 4th place in the Cy Young voting in 1996. Nomo’s performance in these seasons helped the Dodgers make the postseason both years.
  • Kazuhiro Sasaki: Kazuhiro Sasaki signed with the Seattle Mariners for the 2000 season. He was 32 years old and would become the second oldest Rookie of the Year winner in Major League Baseball history. Kazuhiro pitched to a 146 ERA+ in 2000. In 2001, he made the All-Star team and captured 45 saves for the 2001 Mariners, who still hold the record for the most wins in a season. Kazuhiro had one more stellar year in 2002 and grabbed his second All-Star selection.
  • Hideki Matsui: Matsui played his first season in Major League Baseball in 2003. Like the other members of this list, Matsui’s success was immediate. He made the All-Star team in 2003 and came second in the Rookie of the Year voting. He found more success in 2004 and 2005 with another All-Star appearance and two top 25 MVP finishes. Matsui did not miss a game in these 3 years. He also managed above average OPS numbers from 2006 to 2010.
  • Shohei Ohtani: You probably know what Ohtani has been up to recently. Last year, his 4th season in the MLB, he won the MVP Award by pitching very well and nearly leading the league in home runs. His success on both sides of the ball is historic and we are lucky to watch him play. You could make the case that he has already had the second-best career of any player to transition from the NPB and he is only 27.
  • Ichiro Suzuki: Leading the pack of NPB turned MLB players is Ichiro Suzuki. Ichiro was the same age as Ohtani is now when he came to Major League Baseball. His first year, he collected a suitcase of awards that included an MVP, Rookie of the Year, Gold Glove, Silver Slugger, and an All-Star appearance. He would go on to win 10 straight Gold Gloves, make 10 straight All-Star Games, and achieve some crazy hit totals. Ichiro began playing regularly in Japan at age 20, about when big MLB prospects start their careers. Between then and the end of his MLB career, he collected over 4,300 hits (3,089 of them in the MLB). Here is a brief run through Ichiro’s career:
Best moments from the career of Ichiro Suzuki via MLB

From Major League Baseball to Japan

As players from the NPB transition to the MLB, players from the MLB sometimes head to the NPB. There is an important difference here though. Major League Baseball is able to attract stars from the NPB while players that leave Major League Baseball often go to Japan without much of a track record or with poor performances causing less playing time in the US. Some succeed in Japan and stay there for the remainder of their career. Others use their success to return to the MLB with more opportunities. Here are a few players that were able to use success in Japan as a springboard for their Major League Baseball careers:

  • Cecil Fielder: Cecil Fielder played from 1985-1988 with the Blue Jays. He showed a lot of promise but never got more than 175 at-bats in a season. Even after hitting 14 home runs in 175 at-bats in 1987 (he was on pace to hit at least 44 home runs with a full season’s worth of at-bats), he was only given 174 at-bats the following year. Instead of returning in 1989, he joined the Hanshin Tigers and hit 38 home runs with an OPS above 1.000. His success led to a contract with the Detroit Tigers and a 13-year MLB career followed. He hit 319 home runs. (Fun Fact: His son, Prince, retired from Major League Baseball in 2016 with the same amount of career home runs)

Some players moved to Japan and became stars in the process:

  • Matt Murton: Matt Murton played fairly well in his 5 years in the MLB (2005-2009). He posted a slash line of .286/.352/.436 in just under 1000 at-bats. He only got 1 full season of playing time in 2006 with the Cubs. His numbers were solid but there was nothing attention-grabbing about them. In 2009, he went to the Hanshin Tigers. One year later, he racked up 214 hits to break Ichiro’s previous NPB record of 210. He had a few more solid years before resigning with the Cubs triple-A affiliate. He was unable to make the majors again though.
  • Tuffy Rhodes: Tuffy Rhodes played parts of 6 seasons with the Astros, Cubs, and Red Sox. His offensive numbers over that time were not good. In 1996, he made the jump to the Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes. He hit 27 home runs the first year, a number in line with his best spans in the minor leagues in the US. Then, Rhodes surpassed those numbers. He would have seven 40+ home run years over the span of 13 years in Japan. His 464 home runs were a record for a foreign player in the NPB. I mentioned that Tuffy was not very good in the MLB, but he did have one game that showed the power potential that would come in Japan:
  • Alex Cabrera: Most of Alex Cabrera’s career in the US was spent in the minor leagues. He managed to crack the Arizona Diamondbacks roster for 31 games in 2000 after incredible success in AA and AAA. This includes an insane stretch in AA where he hit 35 home runs in 53 games. Following the 2000 season, he went to Japan. His power would continue to shine in Nippon Professional Baseball. His first year for the Seibu Lions he hit 49 home runs. Then, he followed it up with 55 the next season and 50 the year after. Cabrera hit 357 home runs in 12 years of Japanese professional baseball and finished with an OPS just under 1.000.
  • Wladimir Balentien: Wladimir Balentien played 170 games above the minor league level. His offensive numbers were poor. In 2011, he signed with the Yakult Swallows. Balentien hit 301 home runs in 11 seasons in the NPB including a record-setting 60 home runs in 2013.

The Results of MLB and NPB Interactions

Major League Baseball has played a critical role in the development of baseball in Japan. Without teams from the US touring Japan, baseball may not have gained the same popularity and the Japanese Professional Baseball League may not have been created. On the other hand, Nippon Professional Baseball often struggles with challenges created by Major League Baseball.

If you look at any professional baseball league (or just any professional sports league for that matter), you will find that the best players hold an important spot in that league. These players do not just make a team better on the field. They get more people to come to games and create more jersey sales for a team. Star players help teams be financially successful and aid team popularity. With some of the best Japanese baseball players leaving for Major League Baseball, there have been concerns about the NPB’s long-term popularity. Will fans continue to come to games if the best player on the team is no longer there? Or will they look elsewhere for entertainment?

It is difficult to know exactly what effect players leaving for the MLB has on NPB and its teams. If we look at Shohei Ohtani’s team, the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, we see that their average attendance was down the most of any Pacific League team between his last year in Japan and the following year.

Data: 2017 and 2018

The fears about the NPB losing fans also stem from lower attendance numbers following the first big signings. Attendance numbers steadily rose from 1950 up until the early 1990s. These numbers plateaud for about a decade. Then, following the 2004 season, there was a decline in both the Central League and the Pacific League. Luckily, the average attendance has risen over the past decade and broke the league record in 2019 (attendance was limited in 2020 and 2021).

The Future of Japanese Baseball

While there are some worries surrounding the NPB’s ability to keep star players, the status of baseball in Japan looks pretty promising.

One cause for celebration is Japan’s performances in the World Baseball Classic. The World Baseball Classic is an international competition with many of the best baseball players representing their countries. Unlike the Olympics, many MLB players compete in the World Baseball Classic. Japan is the only country that has earned a medal in all four World Baseball Classics. Japan took first place in the first two (2006, 2009). Then, won third place in the two most recent events (2013, 2017). The other countries to win medals are the United States, the Dominican Republic, South Korea, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Venezuela. Many of the best players in the world represent these countries and Japan has been very successful against this stiff competition. This is a good sign for the level of talent coming out of Japan now and in the future.


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