The Shin Asahi baseball team is Nikkei Place Foundation’s third-ever Nikkei Youth Athletics Bursary recipient. They spent two weeks in March on their Japan Tour, fostering meaningful relations through their love of baseball and their philosophy of fairplay and respect. Here’s how it went!
The following article was written by the Asahi Baseball Association
In November of 2017, the process to select the 15 player roster for the 2019 Japan Tour Team began.
During three tryout sessions, the coaching staff evaluated and selected players who demonstrated refined baseball skills, speed, arm strength, hitting and most importantly, those who had the Asahi Spirit. For the coaching team and the association, the Asahi Spirit encompasses respect for the game, respect for their teammates opponents and coaches, a strong desire to represent the Asahi name, and an understanding of the historical significance of the original Asahi.
For over a year and half the players and parents spent countless hours raising money for the tour.
With the generosity of so many friends, sponsors, and donors, the players were able to reach their goals to pay for their tour of a lifetime. The players will be the first to thank everyone for their support and they know that if it wasn’t for everyone’s generosity, they wouldn’t have been able to experience Japan in a way no other visitor could. In addition to the financial support, the Japan Tour wouldn’t have been a success without the support of so many in Japan. Specifically, Asahi Coach and Iiasion Takuya Mizukami, Asahi Japan Tour representative and organizer Shoichi Setoh and Mr. Matsumiya from Hikone who all dedicated countless volunteer hours communicating and negotiating with our partners in Japan.
Tour Theme: “Underlying Layers, Details, and Hospitality”
This year’s tour theme was “underlying layers, details, and hospitality”. Once in Japan the players were shown a picture of a pair of disposable chopsticks from a convenience store. After some discussion, the players realized that the chopsticks were not just eating utensils, but a symbol of Japanese hospitality, attention to detail, and high level of service. The players recognized and identified the underlying layers: that the clerk put in chopsticks for each purchased item, the clerk did it without anyone asking, they place it in carefully so that the bag wouldn’t rip, and each chopstick had a toothpick in each pack, and each pack is designed to open easily...all next to the wet tissue pack. The players were challenged to observe, recognize and appreciate all the details and attention that went into every aspect of the Tour and their two week stay in Japan and how the theme related to baseball in Japan. Just like the chopsticks from the convenience store. The players were to Look beyond the surface, Look at the underlying process and details, Look beyond the scoreboard and Look beyond how many innings they got to play.
The Tour Begins
On March 14th the players flew to Haneda and made their way to Yokohama. For the first five days, JICA Yokohama graciously housed the players and parents. JICA, a branch of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has assisted the past three tour teams. They recognize the Asahi Association’s cultural exchange efforts through baseball, and how we are providing our youth an opportunity to experience Japan’s culture and visit many historical sites. During the Yokohama portion of the tour, the players had an opportunity to meet, practice and play with members from Yokohama Minami Boys and Izumi Little Senior ball clubs. The boys exchanged jerseys and hats for the day and the coaching staff mixed all the players together for the joint practice.
Watching the players trying to communicate with smiles on their faces and laughing about nothing was priceless. This is what the team came to Japan for.
The day after the friendly exchanges and practices and a few rounds of arm wrestling, the Tour team played a double header against Yokohama Minami and Izumi Sr. While the Asahi team took both games, the players knew that the upcoming games in Hikone would be much tougher and more attention to details and the “process” would be required to win more games. While the wins were a nice bonus, the coaching staff was more pleased with the Asahi players execution of the customary bow when entering and leaving the field, the run and lining up prior to the game, and the bowing to the umpire before stepping into the batter’s box.
These actions illustrated the players’ willingness to learn and adapt to the Japanese way of ball and their pride of being Asahi ambassadors. They were understanding the process and the details.
After a weekend of ball, the players and parents had an opportunity to take in the sights, shop and indulge in all the fine foods of Tokyo. Although the players took time away from the field, baseball was still on the itinerary. First stop, Tokyo Dome to watch the Tokyo Giants and Seattle Mariners. Unbenounced to anyone, it would be one of Ichiro’s last games.
Watching the legend play made the Asahi players realize that longevity and success depends on the process (personal off season training, body maintenance), attention to details, preparation, effort and passion.
While marvelling at Ichiro’s performance, many of our players and parents were spoiled by the beer vendors selling beer on tap on the spot and the chicken karage and yakisoba also available from the vendors. The players and parents, many who had never watched a professional game in Japan, were entertained by the customized chant songs for each Giants player and the coordinated cheers led by the Oendan (cheering section and supporters), a big difference from the games in North America.
The next day, the team was off to the Tokyo Giants’ Kawasaski training facilities. On this special day, Scott Mathieson the Tokyo Giants’ closer, a former player with the Langley Blaze of the Premier Baseball League in BC and draftee of the Philadelphia Phillies, invited the team to watch the Giant’s rookies play and to spend some time with him to ask questions and get advice. Graciously, spending over an hour of his time with the players, he answered every question and provided insight into professional baseball.
When asked what he appreciated about baseball in Japan and what he would take back to Canada, his answers were, The Japanese players’ work ethic and The Japanese players’ respect for the game.
When asked what frustrated him most about playing in Japan, he said it was the foreign players who do not accept, respect, and embrace the Japanese way of baseball and all the etiquette and expectations in playing for a Japanese ball club. Scott’s answers truly showed why he’s been so successful in Japan, why he’s a fan favorite, and why the Giant’s organization have retained his services for 8 seasons.
After 5 full days in Yokohama, the team was off to the city of Hikone in Shiga prefecture. After a few rest stops during the 6 hour bus ride a stop to take photos of Mt. Fuji, the team made it to Hikone. For this Tour, Hikone was added to the itinerary for the city’s significant connection to the original Asahi team. On the original Asahi teams (1914-1941) there were at least 16 players who were from Hikone. And our tour coordinator in Hikone, Mr. Matsumiya’s grandfather was an early president of the Asahi baseball club.
As the players began to meet and hear the stories from relatives of the original Asahi, they further realized the significance and importance of preserving the Asahi name, spirit, history and tradition.
While in Hikone, the players had the opportunity to play with 5 different club teams (Hikone Little Sr, Kusatsu, Moriyama, Koto, Kouka) rostered by Jr. High aged players. For the Japanese players playing on private club teams (a program which is completely different from the national Jr High baseball system) their goals are to refine their skills and prepare themselves to be recruited to High Schools famous for their baseball programs, parallel to how some High School players in Canada prepare for College ball. The Japanese players simply put everything on the line for High School ball. Needless to say, the players we faced were faster, stronger and were more refined. While the Asahi Tour Team was really competitive in a few of the games, we were unable to come away with a win in Hikone. The players learned that players their same age are about 2 years ahead in all aspects of the game.
Our Japanese counterparts just simply put more time and effort into the game. Most players practice after their team practices and games. They take an average of 300-500 swings a night, everynight on their own. And with each club team carrying about 40 players, it’s up to the player to work their way onto the top team. There’s no entitlement, there’s no “fair play” rule where each player is guaranteed game time. The players earn their spot. And there are definitely no parents complaining or campaigning for their player to get more play time.
The four game weekend marked the graduation of the grade 10 Asahi players from the Japan Tour Program, and it was time to rest and enjoy the Kansai area. Before parting ways, the players were fortunate to take in the 91st Senbatsu High School Tournament at Koshien. Taking in the game put everything into perspective. The Asahi players understood how difficult it is for any team to make it to Koshien. Our players had an appreciation for the “layers” the “process” and “details” that goes into getting onto a High School team. After battling 3 years on a Jr High Club team, in order to make the High School rep team roster of 18 out of 90 candidates, and ultimately, how difficult it is to play in the Senbatsu Tournament with the best 32 teams in the country, and how quickly things end in a single game knock out format.
The journey of baseball players in Japan inspired the boys to work harder and taught them what it takes to be successful in life and in baseball.
For the final team outing, the players were taken to lumber yard with a 140 years of history. This historic lumber company that provided fine woods for shrines, temples, and castles welcomed the team to their factory. For 2 hours the players sanded, polished, and finally personalized their own pair of chopsticks. The craftsmen / sensei instructed each player to take pride in their work as each set of chopsticks was original and unique and represents each player’s identity and personality. After the players made their set of chopsticks, the coaching staff showed the players the first photo of the tour -- the chopsticks from the convenience store. With the chopsticks in hand, the 2019 Tour was complete. The players got to experience first hand the process, the underlying layers, and the details of Japanese culture both on and off the field. It was another memorable tour with experiences that will last a lifetime.