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Tears and team spirit: high-school baseball grips Japan

AFP 8/23/2022 AFP
Outfielder Ryunosuke Nagata dives for a fly ball during the annual high school baseball tournament known as Koshien © STR Outfielder Ryunosuke Nagata dives for a fly ball during the annual high school baseball tournament known as Koshien

Japanese baseball star Shohei Ohtani matched a Babe Ruth record this summer in the United States and scooped an award for a top male athlete, but back home, everyone has been glued to the high-school tournament where he started out.

Members of Sendai Ikuei, a school in Miyagi prefecture, celebrate their championship victory in the final game of the two-week All-Japan High School Baseball Championship Tournament © STR Members of Sendai Ikuei, a school in Miyagi prefecture, celebrate their championship victory in the final game of the two-week All-Japan High School Baseball Championship Tournament

August in Japan means blazing heat, syrupy shaved ice and one thing on TV: Koshien, the contest that launched the career of greats like Ohtani, the 2021 American League's Most Valuable Player.

Cheerleaders, bands and classic uniforms at Koshien give a nod to baseball's US origins © STR Cheerleaders, bands and classic uniforms at Koshien give a nod to baseball's US origins

The annual two-week tournament, which held its championship game Monday in which Sendai Ikuei triumphed 8-1 over Shimonoseki Kokusai, was cancelled in 2020 and took place with nearly empty stands last year because of the pandemic.

But now that the spectators are back, a festive atmosphere has filled the revered Koshien Stadium in western Japan that gives the teenage showdown its name.

"You can't avoid it in the summer," said Ema Ryan Yamazaki, a filmmaker who directed the 2019 documentary "Koshien: Japan's Field of Dreams".

"It's very dramatic, because every game is a knockout. You only have one try, so unexpected things can happen. There are no guarantees," she told AFP.

While in Western countries "people love the winners", at Koshien, "it's almost like the cameras prefer the losing team," as they zoom in to broadcast the tears and heartbreak, Yamazaki said.

From cheerleaders and school bands to team jerseys in classic preppy styles, Koshien reflects baseball's American origins.

But there is much that makes the tournament unique, from its timing in mid-August, when many people visit their hometowns to pay respects to their ancestors, to the tradition of losers scraping up dirt from the ground -- not allowed this year because of Covid-19 infection fears.

Taiki Komatsu, the captain of Ichinoseki Gakuin of Iwate prefecture, exults after scoring the winning run in the bottom of the 11th inning against Kyoto Kokusai © STR Taiki Komatsu, the captain of Ichinoseki Gakuin of Iwate prefecture, exults after scoring the winning run in the bottom of the 11th inning against Kyoto Kokusai

- 'Extreme discipline' -

Koshien, officially called the All-Japan High School Baseball Championship Tournament, was first held in 1915. A similar contest takes place each spring at the stadium.

Players from Sendai Ikuei, a school in Miyagi prefecture, toss their coach into the air after winning the two-week All-Japan High School Baseball Championship Tournament © STR Players from Sendai Ikuei, a school in Miyagi prefecture, toss their coach into the air after winning the two-week All-Japan High School Baseball Championship Tournament

Thousands of teams compete in the qualifying rounds, but only 49 make it to the summer tournament -- one from each of Japan's 47 regions, except Tokyo and Hokkaido, which both send two teams.

Koshien is the birthplace of Major League Baseball stars including Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and the 28-year-old Ohtani, and it rivals professional baseball for popularity.

Ohtani, the two-way Los Angeles Angels star, matched Ruth's record, set more than 100 years ago, of 10 home runs and 10 pitching wins in the same season this year.

And Ohtani was last month named best male athlete at the made-for-television ESPY Awards for top sports performers, beating out luminaries such as NBA championship winner Stephen Curry for the accolade.

Young Koshien players hoping to emulate Ohtani face traditions such as marathon practice sessions and games played in punishing temperatures.

But some old ways are changing, said Yamazaki, with more schools abandoning shaving players' heads -- once a symbol of the "extreme discipline" and sacrifice required.

Koshien also offers a chance for people to show support for students from their region, even if they can't return home that year, according to Yamazaki.

"Adults also look and appreciate the purer versions of themselves -- the youth giving it their all, for one short summer," she said.

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