Japanese Baseball and the Aftermath of the Kobe Earthquake in 1995

After the Kobe quake, Japan went on with its plans to hold the spring high school baseball tournament at Koshien stadium near the city. Here’s an Associated Press report from early March, 1995 that looked forward to the tourney and its importance in the wake of the thousands of deaths in Kobe a few weeks earlier:

Last month’s earthquake demolished buildings and shattered lives in Kobe. It didn’t, however, destroy a dream.

The annual spring invitational baseball tournament will be held, as usual, at nearby Koshien stadium. And the Hotoku Gakuen High School team has been invited to play.

The high school – located in an area that was among the hardest hit in the earthquake – was the last of 32 teams chosen for the tournament.

To an outsider, that might not sound like such a big deal. But Koshien is much, much more than just a high school sporting event. In Japan, it amounts to almost a sacred ritual that the whole country shares in.

During the annual tournament in March and August, millions of viewers immerse themselves in the series. Televisions are wheeled into offices, company cafeterias and even some train stations. Strangers on trains exchange the latest scores.

For the young players, the Koshien ballpark is their dream, like Yankee Stadium and Carnegie Hall rolled into one. Aspiring players practice seven days a week, often starting before dawn or late into the night, from elementary school on.

At the tournament, players often weep with emotion and scoop a handful of dirt from the playing field to treasure forever as a memento. Many look back on playing Koshien as a high point of their lives. Even among those who go on to a professional ball career, Koshien alumni are a kind of exclusive priesthood.

At first, it wasn’t certain the tournament could be held at all this spring. In the wake of the Jan. 17 quake, the 71-year-old, 55,000-seat concrete structure was riddled with cracks, including a 4-inch-wide rift running through the concrete bleachers. An even wider fissure ran the length of the corridor behind home plate.

Despite the damage, the Japan High School Baseball Federation announced last week that the 10-day national tournament would start as scheduled March 25 – “as a sign of hope.” Workers at the ivy-shrouded ballpark were pouring and smoothing cement Tuesday, rushing to get ready.

For many living in and around the ravaged city of Kobe, news that the tournament was on was some of the best news since the devastating quake hit.

“Without Koshien, it would feel so empty. I wouldn’t feel like spring had come,” said Amini Nagamitsu, a 17-year-old high school junior.

At Hotoku Gakuen high school, the players spent the hours before the announcement of team selection practicing as best they could. The players, most of them 16 or 17 years old, have had much to cope with since the quake, in which more than 5,400 people died and tens of thousands of homes were leveled.

Five of the team’s 51 players weren’t at practice because they had to help rebuild their homes or aid quake-stricken relatives. Another has been living in a shelter since his home was ravaged and hasn’t been able to return to the team.

Five others have been living in a school dormitory after their residential hotel – where they had been living so they could play on the team at the school, which is far from their homes – collapsed on top of them.

As they waited to see if they would be picked for the tournament, the players practiced, diving for ground balls in their white uniforms, shouting encouragement to one another. In time-honored Japanese baseball tradition, they bowed to home plate after sliding in head first.

When the announcement finally came – that they had been selected – they wept together.

“Koshien is the dream for every high school student,” said coach Yugi Nagata, who played outfield on the Hotoku team that won the summer tournament at Koshien in 1981.

But Nagata told his players to temper their joy in consideration of their neighbors who are still suffering. His players didn’t need to any coaching on that.

“I want to play so I can boost the spirits of all the victims around here,” vice-captain Harumichi Mabachi, 17, said softly. Struggling to express himself, he scuffed the ground with his cleats.

“I feel like I want to cry,” he said.

Tears already were welling in his eyes.

In April 1995, the Washington Post noted that the tournament had gone ahead as scheduled: “The famous ivy-covered Koshien baseball stadium — Japan’s equivalent of Fenway Park — was repaired in time to host last month’s national high-school baseball tournament.”

Published in: on March 17, 2011 at 7:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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