Baseball could be losing its status as Japan’s most popular sport as more children turn away from the game due to tough high-school programs and changing trends in sports participation.
A survey conducted last month by the Japan High School Baseball Federation showed that 30 percent of respondents believed the popularity of baseball had already been surpassed by other sports, while almost 45 percent said it was only a matter of time before baseball was knocked off its perch.
Further research conducted by the federation in June found that the number of children belonging to school baseball clubs had this year fallen for the fourth consecutive year and by a record number — 8,389 — from last year.
The number of schools affiliated with the federation also decreased.
“I think we may need to make changes to the way we conduct ourselves,” said one high-school coach, who asked to remain anonymous. “The children now have other options, other sports and things outside sport. We need to look at ways to keep them within baseball.”
Robert Whiting, who has been writing about baseball’s role in Japanese society for decades, said the notoriously rigorous baseball programs run by many top schools could be compared to joining the US Marines.
“High-school baseball does feature a tortuous regimen. Some high-school students may not like it. Others may see it as a test of manhood, a rite of passage,” he told reporters via e-mail.
This is an experience 17-year-olds Kei Tanaka and Kosuke Saito can relate to. Both used to play baseball for their school in a Tokyo suburb.
“I ended up not wanting to go to school because of it,” Tanaka said. “Baseball used to be fun for me and then it wasn’t. The coaches expect too much.”
“We trained so much and had to combine that with homework, so we never had any time to relax,” Saito added.
Despite these concerns, data published in June by Japan’s Central Research Services showed that baseball was comfortably the most popular sport in the nation, with 48.1 percent of respondents naming it as their favorite sport.
Soccer and sumo were tied for distant second with 24.8 percent.
The data also showed that Shohei Ohtani, who is enjoying an excellent rookie season in the MLB, is the nation’s favorite sportsperson.
The National High School Baseball Tournament, or Koshien, is still the most-watched sporting event in Japan with crowds of up to 50,000 people watching in the stadium and millions more watching on TV.
“These things go up and down,” Whiting said. “There was a 5 percent drop in student participation in high-school baseball in 1982, just like this year, but then it went back up again.”
“I expect the present drop will be reversed when a baseball player dominates at Koshien and becomes a national hero,” he added.
The MLB, which has heavily invested in Japan, are not worried about the future of the sport there.
“This has been a recurring theme since 2002, when the soccer World Cup was here, but I just don’t see it. I don’t see the numbers to back it up,” MLB vice president for Asia Jim Small said by telephone.
“The bigger issue is not baseball versus soccer, because that is game over, its baseball,” he added. “I think it is more about people watching and consuming less sport across the world.”
According to research by the Sasakawa Sports Foundation, the numbers of those aged 12 to 21 playing sports five times a week has dropped by almost 4 percent in the past four years.
Fewer than half of 12-to-21-year-olds asked in the survey said they liked exercise and sport.
“I think there is a tension within amateur baseball,” Small said. “The way they have been doing it has been hard.”
“Maybe the old way isn’t the best way anymore,” he added.
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