By RYOKO NAKAMURA
Rafu Japanese Staff Writer
“Everything is so big, from buildings, to food portions, to American people’s hearts.”
“It’s four o’clock in the evening here, but eight in the morning next day in Japan. I’m fascinated by the size of the world.”
“American baseball players reminded me how to enjoy playing baseball.”
These are just a few of the sentiments expressed by student athletes on the Rissho University baseball team when they visited the U.S. for the first time, earlier this month. For many, it was the first time in a long time that they had even been outside the world of Japanese baseball.
To help celebrate the 140th anniversary of Rissho University, which has campuses in Tokyo and Saitama, the school had sent its baseball team to Los Angeles to play exhibition games and expose its athletes to cultural and educational exchange.
The baseball team is considered one of the top teams in Japan. Historically, many of their players have gone on to successful careers in the Nippon Professional Baseball League.
Besides the exhibition games, 42 players had an opportunity to visit the Japanese American National Museum, take a behind-the-scenes tour of Dodger Stadium, listen to a speech by Dodgers bench coach Trey Hillman, and go sightseeing in greater Los Angeles.
After the tour at JANM, infielder Tatsuya Yoneda was impressed by the history, which he said he didn’t learn in Japan.
“I never knew that Japanese Americans were kept in isolation from the rest of the society. The next generation should be aware of this important piece of history,” he said.
Infielder Keisuke Kinjyo, from Kadena, Okinawa, said, “I always wondered what it would’ve had been like being a Japanese American during wartime.” After learning of the hardships that Japanese Americans had to endure, he said, “We can’t change what happened, but we can make a difference in our future together by communicating with each other.”
At Dodger Stadium, the students excitedly absorbed knowledge about the team’s history, and were thrilled to be on the same field as Major League players.
“I feel like I’m dreaming,” said traveling manager Kosuke Aramaki. He explained that the level of excitement was much greater than his first visit to a Japanese professional baseball stadium. “Everything is large-scale here,” he said as he widened his eyes.
Hillman, who was the manager of the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan’s Pacific League from 2003 to 2007, spoke to these future leaders about the differences between American and Japanese baseball.
“I don’t think I’m better than anybody,” he said, looking at each one of the students. “A lot of Japanese players and even trainers think that you can’t gain as much strength because the Asian body is so much smaller than Western body,” but he disagreed. “Get strong as much as you can while maintaining your flexibility.” He said anything is possible with hard work.
As the Fighters’ manager, Hillman successfully led the team to the Pacific League championship twice. In 2006, the team won the Japan Series for the first time in 44 years.
In his speech, Hillman said that he was impressed by the Japanese players’ self-discipline and respect for each other. He also remarked that one of the key factors to being a good team is to think of your team as a family. “Talk with each other not only during the game, but also away from the field, and understand one another,” he said.
“This is my 29th year in professional baseball, but I still learn something every single day,” he advised, encouraging the students to aspire to never stop learning.
Outfielder Yuki Hata said that Hillman’s speech inspired him to work even harder.
“It was reassuring to hear that everything was up to me. I’d like to keep playing as long as I can, either as a professional or an amateur.” He feels determined to become a better player and to treat his teammates like family.
The students enjoyed watching the game that night against Colorado Rockies, where the Rissho students were welcomed with a message, “Rissho University/ 140th Anniversary,” on the stadium’s scoreboard.
Although the Dodgers lost to the Rockies, “I felt enthusiasm from the entire stadium. The crowd genuinely enjoyed the game,” said outfielder Kan Amano, pointing out the difference from games in Japan. “Most Japanese fans cheer for players instead of enjoying the game itself. I think American fans are more knowledgeable about games,” he said.
A Comparison of Styles
The Rissho baseball team played against the Victory Scout Team of the Central Coast League at Dedeaux Field at the University of Southern California on Aug. 7. Rissho won that game, 19-5.
Catcher Yuta Yoshida, who played in the 2011 Japan-U.S. University baseball championship series for Japan’s national team, said, “As Rissho, we did well today.” He reconfirmed that Japanese baseball is as good as the American version.
Yoshida added that seeing American players bunt was a new discovery, even though a similar tactic is popular in Japan.
Catcher Shohei Aoki, a co-captain of the team, was impressed by the American team’s communication skills.
“Japanese players usually don’t say what they think, but American players were communicating even during the game. That’s something we need to learn,” he said.
By playing with American teams, Aoki realized how much he enjoyed playing baseball.
“We all started playing baseball for the love of the game. But as we get older, it becomes very competitive, and we gradually forget about the fun part. I thought American players still had that feeling and truly enjoyed the game. They reminded me to have fun and play well at the same time,” he said.
Looking back on the one-week-program, infielder and team captain Hideki Hasegawa said that coming to Los Angeles right before the Tohto fall league — one of the most prestigious college baseball leagues — was a major concern for most of the teammates. However, “It was a fulfilling experience. I learned a lot, and I’m sure that my teammates did, too. It was the right decision for us to come,” he said.
Living Outside of Baseball
The circumstances surrounding college baseball in Japan are a little different from the American system. To be the best, practice is a priority for the athletes, even at the expense of missing classes. They do not study, and are often segregated from the rest of the students.
However, only a few can pursue careers as professional or amateur baseball players. The others tend to have a hard time adjusting to society outside of baseball after graduating from college.
Rissho University noticed this issue and is striving to make necessary reforms to educate athletes not only in athletics, but also in academics. This Los Angeles educational visit was an integral part of the school’s reform.
Hasegawa, the team’s captain, wants his teammates to understand the real meaning of this visit.
“This program was made possible by a lot of teachers and volunteers who care about our future, not only as baseball players, but also as college students,” he explained. “We’d like to show our gratitude by doing well in the Tohto league that starts next month.”
Keita Koyama, a coach for Rissho, worked with the Atlanta Braves and the Kansas City Royals as a certified athletic trainer with the National Athletic Trainers’ Association. From his own experience, he knows the importance of seeing the world outside of Japanese baseball.
He was confident that the program made a big impression on the students. “As a former Rissho baseball player myself, I’d like them to spread their wings around the world,” he said.
The Asian Adult Amateur Baseball Classic, a group that connects Asians of different ethnicities through the great American Pastime of Baseball, coordinated the program.
Josh Morey, a board member of AAABC, said, “Baseball is an international sport, and a bridge between cultures. Those Japanese players never would have come to America if it wasn’t for baseball. I know the American team learned a lot from the Japanese team.”
Morey also remarked on the importance of the educational experience for the players. “Many of them had never heard about internment camps, but they learned the history. That moved me to share with them what Japanese Americans went through. I hope they take that back to Japan and share it with their friends and the university community.”
Through the success of Rissho University’s visit to Los Angeles, AAABC has been approached by representatives of Major League Baseball to explore the possibility of arranging for an American elite scout college team to visit and play Rissho next summer.
“MLB was very impressed with the talent and style of play that they saw with Rissho,” said AAABC founding member Mike Gin.
AAABC is planning to coordinate a program that would facilitate a meaningful cultural exchange between the Japanese and American student athletes through baseball.
“Both Rissho and MLB are excited about the prospects of making this an annual exchange program,” said Gin.