National Pastimes: US-Japan Baseball Diplomacy

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by Grace Ruch
Secretary of State Clinton sits with Baseball Hall-of-Famer Cal Ripken Jr. and Japan's Ambassador to the United States Ichiro Fujisaki, as they greet a delegation of youth baseball and softball players in the first official US-Japan international sports exchange on August 9. Photo by: US Department of State

Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Major League Hall-of-Famer Cal Ripken Jr. welcomed a group of 16 young Japanese baseball and softball players and their coaches as part of the US State Department’s first US-Japan international sports exchange. Clinton hailed the exchange as an opportunity for Americans to continue to support Japan as the country works to rebuild after the March earthquake and tsunami. Each of the teenaged student athletes were affected by the disasters.

In coordinating this three week trip, which extends through August 23, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs’ SportsUnited Office partnered with the Cal Ripken World Series, the Little League World Series and Ripken Baseball. In addition to the visit to the State Department, the Japanese youth players participated in clinics and teambuilding activities with American students, and watched a major league baseball game in Baltimore. This week the activities include a clinic lead by Carl Ripken Jr. at his Youth Baseball Academy in Maryland, and a trip to the 65th Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania where the Japanese guests will join in the Opening Day events and throw out the first pitch for Japan’s game on August 18.

In November Ripken will travel to Japan, visiting the players’ hometowns as well as the Tokyo area, leading baseball and softball clinics as a Public Diplomacy Envoy. In her remarks to the Japanese athletes, Secretary Clinton spoke of her and Ripken’s enthusiasm for the exchange stating: “we love Japan for many reasons, but one of them is because they love baseball.”

Baseball is the most popular sport in Japan and both countries consider it their “national pastime.” However, while this month’s visit is the first official sports exchange at the national level, US-Japan baseball exchanges have a long history. The first such exchange was over 100 years ago in 1905, when the Waseda University baseball team became first Japanese team to visit and play ball in the United States.  Three years later the Japanese public had their first opportunity to see American professional players when the Reach All-American baseball team stopped in Japan during their world tour. Some of these tours had a major impact on baseball in Japan. The 1934 visit of baseball greats Babe Ruth and Lou Gehric with the US Major League All-Star Team has been widely considered as the catalyst behind the establishment of Japanese pro baseball, Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB).

International exchange between the US and Japanese big leagues has continued through the post war era. Today there are 12 active Japanese players in Major League Baseball, out of a total of 43 historically. Stars such as Ichiro Suzuki for the Seattle Mariners and Boston Red Sox pitcher Daiskue Matsuzaka are famous on both sides of the Pacific. Meanwhile almost 550 American expatriate players have played in NPB, Japan’s MLB counterpart.

Young baseball players from Southern California meet new friends in Japan as part of the 2009 San Diego – Yokohama Youth Baseball Exchange. Photo by: Japan America Society of Southern CaliforniaUS-Japan baseball diplomacy has not been limited to the foreign ministries and the big leagues however. Over the years, teams and communities across the United States and Japan have come together through a mutual love of the sport. For 13 years, the sister cities of Tacoma, Washington, and Kitakyushu, Fukuoka prefecture, maintained an award-winning baseball exchange program that promoted cultural understanding through baseball tournaments and home stays for students from the cities’ high school teams.  Some of these youth exchanges are sponsored by the Major League teams themselves. The San Diego-Yokohama Youth Baseball Exchange, which for seven years until 2010 brought young Japanese and American baseball players for clinics and friendly matches in Yokohama and California alternately, was an extension of a partnership between the professional San Diego Padres and Yokohama Baystars.

While the March disasters have interrupted some of these summer sporting exchanges, some have gone on with minor changes. The Red Sox US-Japan Youth Baseball Exchange, in which boys from the sister cities of Boston and Chiba participate in various baseball and cultural activities between the two countries, was originally planned to take place in Japan this year. Instead Boston invited a group from Chiba to come back for a second consecutive summer. On the exchange, Red Sox Senior Vice President Meg Vaillancourt remarked: “We are particularly proud to host the young Japanese players here in Boston this summer. These teens can enjoy America’s favorite pastime while they make new friendships we know will last a lifetime.”