A few weeks ago I attended my first professional baseball game in Japan, and as a sports fan I can say that it MORE than lived up to the hype. I took a TON of photos and video of the game, but none of those will do it justice. If you really want to “understand” Japanese baseball, you must experience it first-hand. Even then, as an outsider you can only comprehend so much from watching the game, listening to the rhythmic chanting of the crowd, and eating food that you’re unlikely to find at even the oddest baseball game in the United States.
However, one geographic concept was on full display from virtually the start to the finish of the game. It was nearly impossible to experience the game and not come away thinking about globalization. I attended a Saitama Seibu Lions game this past weekend, and as someone commented on my Instagram post: “I appreciate the sponsorship by Met Life [sic] as a nod to globalism.”
That is definitely true, as MetLife has over 90 million customers in 60 countries, but is a U.S.-based company that sells insurance and annuities. Many people know the firm has its name on the football stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., that is home to the National Football League’s (NFL) New York Giants and Jets, so it is no stranger to sports sponsorships. However, a corporate name on a stadium is no longer a big deal in professional sports, especially in Japan where corporate names are regularly part of a baseball team’s name.
For example, I saw the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks play the Saitama Seibu Lions. Fukuoka is a city on Kyushu, which is one of the four main islands of Japan. However, SoftBank Corporation (the telecommunications subsidiary of SoftBank Group) purchased the team in 2005 from its previous corporate owner, Daiei (a Japanese supermarket chain). The team changed its names from the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks to the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks to reflect its new ownership. The Saitama Seibu Lions only took on the placename moniker “Saitama” in 2008, nearly 30 years after the team relocated to the prefecture outside of Tokyo. However, the team was called the Seibu Lions ever since Prince Hotels (a subsidiary of the Seibu Group) purchased and relocated the team to Saitama Prefecture in 1979.
So what did I experience at the game that really tuned me into the globalization of baseball in Japan? Here are a few things that I noticed that personify globalization of the sport.
Presence of Multinational Corporations
Virtually any sporting event has corporate sponsorships, so it is easy to pick up on this aspect of globalization at a baseball game in Japan. However, I saw some unexpected global corporations at the game I attended.
Outside of the stadium was a large plaza that contained a variety of food stands, but what stood out to me was the presence of KFC. At most American sporting venues, fans do not have the opportunity to buy food from major corporations outside the stadium. Usually fans have to be inside the venue to purchase these types of food items, so it was surprising to see the KFC outside the stadium.
The location of the KFC stand outside the stadium is very different from the American sporting experience, but KFC is a well-known quantity in Japan. In fact, Japan is the third largest market for KFC following China and the U.S. There are approximately 1,150 KFC stores throughout Japan, and the chain’s history in the country dates to the first store opening in 1970.
The other really interesting product on display was Blue Moon Belgian White beer, which is brewed by MillerCoors. American beers are available throughout Japan, but because of Japan’s high tax on alcohol I did not expect to find an American “craft” beer at a baseball game. However, there was a small stand just outside the stadium, but within the stadium grounds.
Diffusion of American In-Game Promotions
I expected all the pre-game and in-game announcements to made in Japanese, but was very surprised to hear part of the starting lineups announced in English. It was really surprising because there were no other announcements made during the game in English. However, in the middle of the sixth inning the team ran a promotion that instantly rang a bell. Like in many U.S. sports venues, the team flashed a “Kiss Cam” on the videoboard and zoomed around the crowd encouraging couples to kiss.
I expected there to be some influence of American marketing at a Japanese baseball game, but the majority of the time the only entertainment between innings was music blasting over the speakers and sometimes videos advertising Japanese products on the videoboard. So midway through the game I didn’t expect a very American promotion, much less the “Kiss Cam.” Japanese culture is generally very conservative, and public displays of affection are frowned up. So seeing a promotion that specifically encourage people to kiss was not something I anticipated seeing. However, the people shown on the videoboard had no problem having fun with the promotion and sharing a kiss with their significant other, which sometimes included moms kissing their kids.
Global Movement of Athletes
Foreign-born players have been part of Japanese baseball since the 1930s. However, players from other countries have occupied few spots on rosters because of restrictions that limited teams to two foreign players. Those restrictions were revised in the mid-1990s, and teams may have up-to four foreign players on their active roster at one time.
The changes has led to a recent uptick in the number of players from Latin American appearing on NPB rosters (read more here). Nonetheless I was surprised to see the hometown fans displaying Venezuelan flags and loudly cheering each time first baseman Ernesto Mejía came to the plate.
As Japanese baseball fans typically have individual chants for each player, I expected cheers for Mejía. However, I did not expect to so clearly see fans prepared to chant for a player by displaying his country’s flag. I also saw a Cuban flag displayed in the SoftBank Hawks’ fan section, so it is clear that Latin American players are having an influence on Japanese baseball.
Final Analysis of Global Connections
As I stated earlier, attending the game as a baseball fan was great, and my experience has only increased my appetite to watch more professional baseball games in Japan. It was impossible for me to watch the baseball game without analyzing the experience as more than just attending a sporting event, but I am certain that I missed other aspects of globalization and other geographic concepts during the game. Those thoughts may be discussed in a later post.