I'm not a baseball aficionado. But last month I was carried away by the "fighting spirit" of Japanese teenage baseball players. NHK cancels all its daytime programs to live broadcast an annual national tournament over two weeks of August.
The teenage boys with their closely cropped hair bow every time they step on and walk off the field. At the end of every game, players of two teams exchange bows and handshakes. The winners rush toward their supporters to celebrate. The losers drop to their knees in tears and scoop handfuls of the dirt from the ground into their bags as mementoes of their fleeting time at their dream ballpark.
This is Japan's national high school summer baseball tournament, known simply as Koshien after the stadium in Nishinomiya, Hyogo prefecture, on Honshu island.
In its 99th season, the tournament, which ended on Aug 23 this year, is tailored to bring out regional rivalries among the youths in this supposedly homogenous country. The annual tournament has two versions－one held in March during the spring break, the other in August during the summer vacation. While the spring tournament is invitational, the summer event is more competitive and popular: about 4,000 teams fight their way up, win by win, in prefecture-level qualifying rounds. After the elimination rounds, each of Japan's 47 prefectures sends its best team for the final showdown－with extra ones from Tokyo and Hokkaido－to Koshien to compete for the trophy.
The chance to swing a bat or pitch a ball at Koshien, let alone win the trophy, has been the dream of every Japanese high school baseball player since the first competition in 1915. The event was not held for five years during and after World War II.
Koshien is special particularly for the graduating players, as it offers them the last chance to shine. They give the tournament their best. This is the spirit I noticed at Koshien.
In an interview with PBS in 2006, Marty Kuehnert, former Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles general manager, said high school baseball is important to the Japanese because it's the last bastion of amateurism: kids playing for the love of the game, for the glory of their school and for the honor of their hometown. There's no money involved, only honor and pride.
Koshien is more than baseball. It's a coming of age event－but also a test of physical skills, spirit and dedication.
To make it to Koshien, the baseball players discipline themselves. They go to school early and stay late for practice. A lot of high school teams in Japan practice 11 months a year, six hours a day, six days a week.
But some people criticize the schools, saying the demands of training to prepare for the long qualifying road to Koshien exact an unacceptably high physical and mental toll on the teenagers, according to The Guardian. And stories of coaches and senior players bullying and abusing younger players are not uncommon.
But baseball purists in Japan continue to see the tournament as the sweetest form of baseball. The boys put their heart and soul into the game. The "summer boys" represent the best qualities found in Japanese sports: a self-disciplined work ethic, teamwork and perseverance－qualities valued not only in sports but also in life in the country and beyond.
Although I don't know much about baseball, I can feel the messianic pull of Koshien. The tense moments the boys create under the sun are, to say the least, heart-stopping. The joy of winning and the agony of defeat are palpable. Baseball is a sort of education that helps Japanese teenagers to build their strength and character.
Do we have a message here for other countries?