Why Japanese fans love baseball strikes.

The stadium scene.
Sept. 29 2004 8:16 AM

The Fans in Japan

Why they're happy when baseball players go on strike.

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Japanese fans back striking players like Tsuyoshi Wada

They said it would never happen: A baseball strike in harmony-conscious Japan? Yet two weeks ago, after lobbying unsuccessfully to block the proposed merger of two of the country's 12 professional baseball teams, the Nippon Professional Baseball Players Association walked out for the first time in 70 years. The strike had a decidedly Japanese twist. The players sat out during the weekend of Sept. 18-19, but, so as not to totally inconvenience everyone, returned to action during the week.

"I sincerely want to apologize to everyone for doing this," said teary union chief Atsuya Furuta, "but it can't be helped."

Oddly enough, the fans didn't seem to mind at all. After experiencing a decade of recession and seeing the dream of lifetime employment disappear through restructuring, downsizing, and corporate malfeasance, they were in a sympathetic mood. In survey after survey, more than 80 percent of the public supported the strike; more than a million fans signed a petition to stop contraction. The sporting press took the players' side too. "It's great to see them finally stand up to the owners. I wish they had done it sooner," said influential sportswriter Masayuki Tamaki.

It's hard to believe, but the Japanese game is even more chronically mismanaged and economically backward than its American counterpart. The Tokyo Giants, run by a conglomerate led by the Yomiuri Shimbun, the world's largest newspaper, and NTV, the largest commercial network in Japan, reportedly bring in as much money as the New York Yankees. But the Giants are one of only two or three teams in Japan that make any money at all.

Although most franchises operate in the red, Japan's mega-corporations think of baseball teams as an advertising expense: Nippon Ham, for example, uses the Nippon Ham Fighters to promote pork sales. Little money is spent on infrastructure, and front-office employees are often indifferent corporate hacks, dispatched on a short tour of duty before returning to the executive track. "We're just doing this for the exposure," says the owner of the Orix Blue Wave, the head of a financial firm called Oriental Leasing, "We're not that interested in baseball per se."

Even with a heavy concentration of teams around Tokyo and Osaka, a lack of integrated TV rights, and no revenue sharing, the system worked for a long time. Then came the corporate belt-tightening that followed the long recession of the 1990s and the departure of superstars Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui. With the Mariners and Yankees on satellite television every morning, the ratings for nighttime telecasts plummeted. 

Earlier this year, Osaka's Kintetsu Buffaloes, hemorrhaging nearly $40 million a year, decided to merge with Orix. That move, which would have reduced the number of teams in the Pacific League to an awkward five, sparked talk of further contraction from two six-team leagues to a single eight- or 10-team league. The decision, which threatened the jobs of 60 players, was made without consulting anyone in the union.

When the NPBPA player rep Furuta asked the owners for a meeting, he was dismissed. "He's just a player, he should know his place," said Tsuneo Watanabe, the influential president of Yomiuri Holdings and the de facto honcho of the NPB. When 31-year-old Internet millionaire Takafumi Horie offered to either buy the Buffaloes or establish a new franchise, he was met with similar disdain. Said the dictatorial 78-year-old Watanabe, "We can not let some unknown person in, someone even I don't know."

This arrogant attitude forced the union to strike and won it the support of ordinary Japanese citizens. Most of the seemingly guilt-ridden NPB players, perhaps traumatized by what they had just done, spent their weekend off the job offering free baseball clinics for younger fans and autographs for all. About 20,000 fans lined up to get into the Fukuoka Dome, home of the Japan Champion Daiei Hawks. Said one fan interviewed on television, "This is better than a real game. We'd never get this close otherwise."

Union leaders made the rounds of the TV news shows, stating their case, asking for public understanding, and apologizing over and over again for their behavior. "I apologize again for not being able to let you see games this week, but I promise to do everything I can to maintain the 12-team system," said Furuta during one rally. "Stop apologizing so much," shouted a voice from the audience.

By this weekend it was all over. Management, in the face of overwhelming opposition, agreed to the addition of a new team for the 2005 season. Owners and players also agreed to establish a panel to discuss additional reforms like revenue sharing. And there were even more apologies. "We apologize for causing concerns among the fans. I am happy that we were able to greatly recover trust in each other," said one NPB official.

Furuta was visibly relieved, the strain on his face replaced by a beaming smile. While the players' union will no longer be a marginal presence in Japanese baseball, it doesn't seem like the game is ready for a sea change. The leading candidate to head up next year's expansion team isn't the brash, young entrepreneur Horie. It's Rakuten, Japan's top Internet retailer. The company's CEO told reporters that his primary reason for starting a new team was to promote his company—the same tired rationale every NPB franchise owner has used since the dawn of pro ball in Japan. Investors were so unimpressed that Rakuten stock immediately plunged an estimated 10 percent. It was an inauspicious way to start a revolution.

Robert Whiting is the author ofThe Meaning of Ichiro.