The United States, Japan, and Baseball
December 13, 2017
For well over a century, baseball has been considered America’s pastime, though it long ago spread from the United States to many nations around the world. Since the early twentieth century, years before the United States was dragged into World War II, Japan and the United States shared a love for at least one thing – baseball.
Though it was still relatively new in Japan, the sport started to catch on across the Pacific. Japanese college teams came to play in the United States and American professional players became baseball diplomats to Japan. In the 1930s, an American All-Star team featuring baseball superstars including Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth toured the Asian power. Looking back at the Japanese–American relationship over baseball, such as in 1934 when Ruth was greeted by more than 100,000 fans in Tokyo, it didn’t seem like the two nations were feuding.
Then, in October of 1940, Japan started to make changes that made the sport less “American.” Common baseball terminology like “strike” was removed from the game entirely and replaced with the corresponding Japanese words. American team names like the Giants, Senators, and Tigers used overseas were replaced by Japanese names.
Though it may have seemed like an innocuous move, eradicating the English-language origins of baseball from the Japanese version was a small sign that something was brewing over the horizon. Tension between the two nations grew and it was clear that Japan wanted no affiliations with America’s pastime, but the severity of such a decision wasn’t really known until a little over a year later.
A Blow to Sports Relations
On Dec. 7, 1941, the American naval base at Pearl Harbor came under attack by a Japanese strike force. The devastation shocked the nation, as did Japan’s ability to pull it off without anyone knowing it was coming.
As the United States struggled to recover, baseball writers seemed to have a surprisingly difficult time coping with the unexpected assault. To them, the years of baseball diplomacy symbolized a good relationship between the two nations.
While America’s brave soldiers fought the Japanese in the Pacific, sports writers did their own work on the home front, using their pieces as a form of propaganda. Prominent sports writers wrote about how the “gift of baseball should be withdrawn from Japan,” and “Mr. Tojo will wake up some night with the feeling that he got into this thing with two strikes against him and Feller having one hell of a day.”