I am not a big fan of baseball, and I didn’t enjoy my high school days overmuch. Combining these two seems like a recipe for a bullying and unpleasant experience, and definitely not something I would have any interest in.
The Koshien, however, changed my mind about high school baseball. The Koshien (甲子園) is an annual high school baseball contest that takes place across all of Japan, and comes to its glorious, bittersweet climax during the hottest months of the year – this week, in fact, in mid-August. High school baseball teams compete to become prefectural champions, and champions from each prefecture – two from Tokyo – then converge on Kobe in August for the finals. The finals are a knockout, with four matches played every day to whittle the teams down from 48 to 32, then through knockout rounds to the final, which happens to be tomorrow. Each match is 1.5 to 2 hours long and is played under the punishing August sun, in extremely harsh conditions: temperatures above 32C (often over 35 this year!) and very high humidity. Today, for example, was 32C with 82% humidity and much, much more pleasant than last week when the quarter finals were being decided. The teams have to play continuously too: the semi final was today and the final is tomorrow, which means that the pitchers in the final will have been playing every second day now for a week or more in this heat.
When I first saw the Koshien a few years ago I dismissed it without watching it. Baseball in Japan is renowned for its bullying atmosphere, which verges on militaristic at times, and the idea of making schoolboys of 16-18 years of age play a contest in the middle of the day in this heat is a classic representation of just how callous and brutal its culture is. But this year one of my students revealed to me her passion for it, showed me the website and sang the praises of its passion and energy. Since I had a week off for the summer break I thought I’d check it out – and I was hooked immediately. It’s amazing.
It isn’t just the contest itself that is great – in fact that’s barely part of it at all. Rather, the culture and the style and excitement of the entire series gives it a feeling that ordinary baseball just can’t get. Similar to cricket at its best, it has its own sound and pace, and the crowd are as much a part of the event as the teams. Every team brings a huge contingent of supporters, wearing school colours and usually including a school band and cheerleaders, who make a constant racket throughout the game. This highlight reel is a good a example of the sound of the game – the school song (or a supporter’s chant) playing in the background, drums, pipes, cheering, and the flash of pom-poms as the cheerleaders go wild on a home run. At the end of the reel you can just hear the announcer in a classic, high-pitched voice introducing the next batter, with the honorific “kun” at the end to remind everyone that these heroes of ours are actually just high school kids. During the match the commentators prowl the stands interviewing fans, and showing the world what ingenious support methods the schools have thought up; they read support messages from school children and adults around the country, and every day they have a different pro-baseballer on to help with the commentating. This year the commentators have identified a man they call “Rugger san” (Mr. Rugger) who sits in the same place directly behind the batter in the front row, and is so named because he wears a rugby shirt every day – he has been there the entire two week period. It’s a serious, extravagant two week festival of sport, very similar to the Ashes or Sumo in the strength of its associated support culture, its deep connection with a season, and its importance to ordinary sports fans. But in this case it has its own bittersweet feel, because these are boys near the end of high school, who are going to get one – maybe two, for the younger ones – shots at glory, then graduate and move on with their lives and leave this fleeting moment of fame and joy behind them forever.
And this is where the Koshien really makes its mark, because it captures something about the strange and furious passion with which Japanese people look back on their high school days. From the west looking in we are often led to believe that Japanese high school is a terrible place, strictly regimented, heirarchical, full of bullying, where the creativity is drained out of little humans ready to turn them into drones for Japan’s massive corporate machine. But Japanese people see it very differently – to them High School is a period of freedom, openness, and passion, this sunny couple of years of freedom before they hit the regimentation of the outer world. High School is where a lot of Japanese people experience first love, and it is also the time when they form deep bonds of friendship that will last them through many years, even though they will likely move away from home for university and work, and only see those old high school friends once a year. This disparity between the western view of Japanese school and the local view is really striking – Japanese people I speak to are very often deeply nostalgic for their high school days, which they describe to me as a time of freedom and happiness. This is especially noticeable when you mention the Koshien to anyone who is old enough to have begun forgetting their high school days: they will become instantly, powerfully nostalgic, and it’s clear that the word conjures up sounds and scenes that remind them instantly of everything they left behind when they left school. On the weekend I mentioned that I had watched the Koshien to my hairdresser, and even though he was a rugby player at school, not a baseball player, he immediately became misty-eyed, singing the praises of the event and its special meaning in the same way as my student.
This passion I think also explains the special role of high school in anime. From the outside looking there appears to be a strong strain of schoolgirl fetishism, but there’s much more to it than that – anime and manga is also packed with stories about male high school sports clubs, which to me seem like they must be singularly boring tales, and also love stories about high school students. TV shows and manga that feature these high school groups and love affairs and dramas are actually appealing not to some weird fetish for children, but to a strong, nostalgic streak in adults. High school is also the setting in which first love occurs in Japan, and at least historically may have been the only time when Japanese people were truly free to form partnerships out of love rather than convenience and good sense. This is why so much of anime and manga incorporates this setting, and this is why the schoolgirl’s uniform and the schoolboy’s baseball kit are so powerfully evocative in this medium. Watching the Koshien helps to make sense of the power of high school in Japanese popular culture. The Koshien packs all those years of yearning for the change to come, of waiting for something to happen, that sense that you are someone special who is ready to bud and explode into the world, into two weeks of intense emotion and self expression, all while sharing that deep bond with your peers that only late adolescents can genuinely and uncynically revel in.
And so, it can even make baseball interesting. Truly, Japanese high school students have magical powers! The final is tomorrow at 1pm Japan time, and I think it can be viewed live on the Asahi TV website. It’s the 100th anniversary of the Koshien, the final contest is between Kanagawa and Miyagi prefectures. Tune in, and enjoy the unrestrained passions of high school once more!
fn1: People who haven’t spent time in Japan in August tend to poo-poo reports of just how oppressive the heat is, but once one has spent a day here in that season, and wilted under the intensity of the heat, one readily adapts one’s view. Australians really aren’t used to the humidity, so for example although I grew up in a town where daytime temperatures are routinely 8C hotter than Japan in summer, without airconditioning, I find Tokyo in summer far worse. It’s not just the urban heat island effect, which in Tokyo is extreme: basically it’s as if a huge mass of hot air rolled in off the ocean at the end of July, squatted down and decided to stay. There is very little wind, night time temperatures do not drop below 25 or 26 C, and usually there are very few clouds, but it is still so hot that everyone sweats just sitting still. It’s exhausting at 32C, but when it hits 35C it’s potentially dangerous …
fn2: In Japan hairdressing is a macho job and male hairdressers are rough, macho figures, so this makes perfect sense.