In a land where baseball is the number 1 sport, Japan’s both men and women softball teams, have certainly made inroads, as compared to other Asian countries where women’s softball is more popular.
Today, even primary schools have their own baseball teams and competition for places in high school teams are highly competitive. Baseball has therefore become the undisputed favorite in team sports.
But the popularity of softball, despite baseball holding court, did not happen overnight and the community themselves played a key role in popularsing the game.
Japan Softball Association (JSA), president Yutaka Miyake, a vastly experienced man in softball, who has in-depth knowledge of the sport, said that the community were the ones who showed interest in softball, before JSA moved in to promote it further, until it has reached its current status.
He said that the community loved baseball, but wanted a sports they could also play in smaller areas, use minimum equipment, safe for children to play, used rubber balls and have fun.
The ever growing popularity of the newly introduced project to promote and popularise BaseBall5 by the World Baseball Softball Confederation in 2017 – a new urban version of baseball/softball in (the new five-on-five discipline — which only requires a ball to play — was based on the ‘four corners’ game that was born on the streets of Cuba) and Softball Asia (SA) promoting it aggressively too, it is probably the answer to further popularise softball.
“Thus, softball was seen as an alternative to baseball and the community played it in a small confined areas whether on hard surface or grass, similar like rounders game and set their own rules,” said Miyake, the second term president, who is 72 years old.
“It was widely played and JSA then stepped in to further popularise the game with set rules, organising tournaments and also coaching clinics.”
Miyake has been involved with Softball for 50 years as a player, coach and board member of JSA and the 22 years he was a board member, he has been the Technical Committee Chair and National Team Committee Chair.
At the Asian level, Miyake was the chair of Softball Asia Coaching Committee and now advisor to Softball Asia.
Softball Asia president Datuk Low Beng Choo, who is also the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) secretary-general, acknowledged Miyake’s contribution which has and will continue to play a vital part in the development of the game in Asia.
“The men’s softball is certainly growing in Asia and Japan being the top ranked team from Asia in the World ranking (No 3), certainly are doing their bit to promote and develop the game in the region,” said Datuk Low.
“That WBSC and SA organise tournaments for U15, 18 and U23 at Asian level which serves as qualifier for the World Cup is a pathway to the development of the game,” added Low .
“WBSC is working had to raise the standard of the game of men’s softball and women’s softball, which is as popular as want and achieve a respectable standard yet.”
“We are happy to be a strong force in both the men and women’s softball (world ranked No 2) but it no fun being a dominant force without competition,” added Miyake.
“That is why we urge other Asian countries to step up on the development of the game, especially the men’s softball. We on our impart will impart our knowledge and experience to promote the game through Softball Asia.”
Miyake also said that they work closely with the baseball fraternity where we get baseball players switching to play softball or the other way around.
“The lack of decent playing fields and facilities is also a problem. Even in Japan we only have a few softball fields. Most of the major softball games are held in baseball fields or other fields. But the difference between Japan and Southeast Asian nations is that we are supported by the national sports body.
“We cannot progress without the national body. We need to keep communicating and expressing the beauty of this sport.
“In Japan, many sports teams are supported by companies or by the prefectures or cities. This is very fortunate for athletes to continue playing even after graduating from school.
“Whether the softball industry is strong or not in Southeast Asia is a difficult question but clubs and national associations need to ask for support from companies or industries that dominate in their respective nations. If we had a professional league in Asia, we could find sponsors (easily).
“Thus, it is crucial for us to partner the right industries and have more teams. This will eventually make the industry stronger.”
Tomoaki Okamoto the Executive Director of JSA, who was born in Shimanto, prefecture of Kochi, is making an earnest effort to popularise the game here again too.
Last year he managed to see Shimanto host the inaugural U-23 Men’s Softball Asia Cup and 11th Men’s Softball Asia Cup with strong support from Kochi Govenor, Seiji Hamada, Shimanto Major, Masahiro Nakahira, President of Kochi Sports Association, Masanori Tomori and the Superintendent of Shimanto City Board of Education Yoshitaka Kubo
This time in Kochi, Okamoto managed to get strong support from Governor Seiji Hamada, Mayor Seiya Okazaki of Kochi, other agencies and supporters of the the sports.
Okamoto grew up here in Kochi and played softball here and said that the game was very popular game here.
“I am hope to bring back that spirit for the game here again and at the same time my personaly goal is to see our men’s team play in the Olympics when it is admitted,” said young and vibrant 44-year-old Okamoto.
“With our JSA president, Yutaka Miyake’s vision to continuously popularise and develop the game of softball, it is my small role to do the same in Kochi and the nation at large.”
Miyake said that the Japan Softball League which was initiated in 1968 has also played a huge role in Japan’s rise in standards.
The Men’s League is divided into West and East Japan Leagues with 9 teams in the Western League and 8 teams in The Eastern League. Teams placed 4th and above at the end of the season proceed to the knock-out stages to decide the overall champion.
In the Women’s League there are 12 teams in the First Division and 16 teams in the Second. Each team plays each other twice and again, teams paced 4th and above go on to the final stage, which is played under the Page Playoff System, to decide the overall winner. The last placed team is automatically relegated to the Second Division, and the team in 11th position faces a play-off match with the runner-up of the Second Division.
The Second Division is divided into The Advanced Section and The Hope Section and teams in both sections play each other twice. The top two teams from both sections then play each other to decide the overall rankings. This is done on a knock-out basis and the winner wins automatic promotion and the runner-up gets to play in the play-off (as mentioned above) on a best-of-three basis.
The Men’s League can boast of players from New Zealand and Australia while in the Women’s League there are among others, players from the USA, Australia, China and Brazil. The vast array of top class players that are based here in Japan can be seen as proof of the attraction of playing in the best league in the World.
“These foreign players further boost the softball with high quality games, while our local players learn from them too,” said Miyake.
JSA has a 70 year-old National Women Softball Championship, an official sport of the National Sport Festival, the biggest sporting event in Japan, resulting in a nationally recognised competitive sport,won the gold medal in the 2nd World Softball Championship held in Osaka in 1970, women’s national team became 4th place in the first participated Olympic games in Atlanta in 1996, following Sydney in 2000, the team won the silver medal. In 2000, men’s national team was also awarded the first silver medal. In Athens 2004, women’s national team become 3rd place and finally, won the gold medal in Beijing 2008 and again in Tokyo last year and silver medalist at the U23 Men’s Softball World Cup.
With such records, Japan’s softball is indeed going places and to continue to reign as others trying to catch up, might find it is tough task. Their commitment to the game is unquestionable