America's national pastime is the most popular sport in Japan, but it's also more than that. On a four-city tour of stadiums and historical sites from Tokyo to Fukuoka, one fan discovers how the game can act as a balm for the country's collective psyche.

Baseball in Japan
Hanshin Tigers players toss their manager, Senichi Hoshino, into the air after clinching the 2003 championship in a victory over the Hiroshima Carp.
| Credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Cozy spring breeze
Over the grassy ground
How I want to play ball!
- Shiki Masaoka (1897)

Day 1: Tokyo

At the start of the Japanese baseball season this past spring, the breeze over the grassy ground at Tokyo’s historic Meiji Jingu stadium was not cozy. It was a brisk, moist wind that swept over the diamond and crashed into the stands. Fans rubbed their arms with gloved hands. Even so, it was time to play ball, and nothing was going to dampen their spirits. It was the opening series between the Tokyo rivals, the host Yakult Swallows and the visiting Yomiuri Giants.

In Japan, baseball is the national sport, but even that description doesn’t quite capture the intensity, emotion, and enjoyment the Japanese attach to its rituals. I travel not to see sights but to see what the people who live where I go really care about, and that’s what I was looking for when I set out on a short journey across Japan. In Tokyo, I had met up with Katsura Yamamota and Nao Nomura, friends of friends from home, who were helping get me started.

Built in 1926, Meiji Jingu is a cherished venue like Wrigley Field or Fenway Park. The Swallows’ faithful wore the team’s alternative home jersey, a Day-Glo lime green that made the stands appear as if they’d been streaked with highlighter. Fan club captains, looking like martial artists in happi coats and black headscarves, shouted cheers through bullhorns. Fans serenaded players, such as the Swallows’ superstar second baseman, Tetsuto Yamada: Ya-ma-da! Ya-ma-da, Yamada Tetsuto! Ya-ma-da, Yamada Tetsutooooo! Yamada and the Swallows jumped on the Giants’ pitching early, and the fans stomped, high-fived, banged plastic bats, blew horns, and opened and closed plastic mini-umbrellas as players crossed home plate, a Swallows custom that made all of Meiji Jingu twinkle—except in left field, where Giants fans, wearing their team’s bright orange, sat, still and subdued, at least until the Giants came up to bat, when they raised such a ruckus that you might have thought their team was winning. An aerial view of Tokyo's historic Meiji Jingu Stadium (in the foreground). Built in 1926, it is the home of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. Getty Images/amana images RM

I hailed a “beer girl,” as the exclusively female purveyors of fresh brew in the stands are known. They run the stadium steps with kegs of Asahi, Sapporo, and Kirin in backpacks for three-plus hours, but even more impressive than their inexhaustible legs are their indefatigable smiles.

“The pretty ones make more money,” Nao said. “Some of them have been discovered and became models or actresses. If they work for the Giants they’re on television all the time.”

The Giants are Japan’s oldest and most beloved team. They’ve won 22 Japan League championships since the circuit was created in 1936. The Giants are also Japan’s most despised team, and Nao and Katsura, historians in non-baseball life, love to hate them. Nao’s team isthe Hiroshima Carp—her late father was from Hiroshima—while Katsura adores the Hanshin Tigers, the Giants’ archrivals, who play near Osaka. During the game, she frequently checked her phone for Tigers updates. Her love affair with the Tigers had not prevented her from marrying a devotee of the Chunichi Dragons, the team in Nagoya. Their intermarriage had produced a son, now 14, who had chosen the Tigers.

“He’s a good boy,” Katsura said with the unmistakable tone of a victor.

Other good boys sat throughout the section. They wore school uniforms and filed down the aisles to their seats with the correctness of parliamentarians shuffling into session. Despite their formal clothes and posture, they were having fun. But they were not just any students on a school trip. They were survivors of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that triggered the Fukushima nuclear accident. The Swallows had brought them as special guests, and when they were announced on the PA between innings, the entire stadium, including the players, stood and cheered. A play during a 1948 game at Giants Stadium in Tokyo. Getty Images

There was something quintessentially Japanese about the experience. The baseball stadium is where harmonious, courteous, rule-abiding Japan lets down its hair. Almost from the beginning, when an American missionary named Horace Wilson introduced the sport here in 1872, Japan adopted baseball as its own. As one Japanese writer put it, “If the game hadn’t already been invented in America, it would have been invented in Japan.” But the ballpark here serves other purposes, too: it is a cultural inheritance transmitted through bloodlines, a meeting spot, and, as I would discover soon enough, a place of emotional refuge.

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Day 2: Osaka-Koshien

My friend Shutaro Suzuki, a devoted member of the Swallows’ fan club, insisted that that I see Osaka’s team, the Hanshin Tigers. “They are the most crazy!” he told me. So I boarded the Shinkansen, a.k.a. the Bullet Train, west to Osaka. The train is state of the art, with airy compartments redolent of leather that offer an ideal vantage from which to watch the landscape of coastlines, forests, and mountains streak past.

The Tigers’ field, Koshien, has special meaning to Japan because it hosts a two-week, 49-team school tournament that, each year since 1915, has crowned a national champion. Koshien fans were certainly colorful, many in black and yellow, with tiger masks, tiger whiskers, tiger socks, and tiger tails. Some had dyed their hair with streaks of yellow. I took my seat in center field. No one around me spoke English, but once they saw I was an ally—as a matter of baseball-travel policy I always root for the home team—they offered me cold chicken tempura and whiskey highballs, and high-fived and fist-bumped me. When the Tigers chased the opposing Bay Stars’ pitcher and the fans bid him sayonara with “Auld Lang Syne,” I sang along, even though everyone else was singing in Japanese.

Outside, I found Koshien’s monument to Babe Ruth, a plaque set in a block of stone mounted in a pavilion. Ruth played here while leading a legendary 1934 tour of American all-stars across Japan. It was a spectacular success and critical event in the history of Japanese ball, helping launch the country’s professional league two years later. Babe Ruth signs a ball for Prince and Princess Kaya of Japan at Yankee Stadium in August of 1934. Getty Images

“Ruth was very important to Japan,” Robert K. Fitts, author of Banzai Babe Ruth, a superb history of the tour, told me. “He was the most popular athlete in the world. He was like Muhammad Ali. The Japanese considered amateur ball as pure, and professional as tainted. The Ruth tour showed it could be honorable. It also showed the economic potential.”

Japan was good for Ruth, too. His skills were in decline, his career drawing to a close. But in Japan he magically found his swing, and his youth, again, mashing 13 home runs in 18 games. Crowds lined streets serenading, “Banzai Beibu Rusu!” An enthusiastic fan cheers on her beloved Hanshin Tigers. Todd Pitock

Ruth even shared his hosts’ fantasy that the tour would restore deteriorating U.S.-Japan relations. He returned to America full of optimism, his trunks packed with rare Japanese objets d’art. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor seven years later, he opened the windows of his apartment above New York’s Riverside Drive and pitched the Japanese treasures one by one onto the street below.

The disaffection was mutual. For the Japanese, banzai turned into a different kind of rallying cry. Their soldiers in Burma were said to have charged into battle screaming, “To hell with Babe Ruth!”

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Day 3: Hiroshima

My next stop was Hiroshima, where the war ended when American bombers silenced those battle cries and really sent this Japanese city to hell. It is, somewhat incongruously, a cheerful place of 1.2 million people. It has wide, busy streets, pedestrian-only districts with fashionable boutiques, artsy cafés and teahouses, good restaurants, a red light district that has become somewhat standard in large Japanese cities, and an expansive public park along the Ota River with striking sculptures and statues recalling that it was here, on the morning of August 6, 1945, that in a hot flash of light 140,000 lives were extinguished, with tens of thousands more perishing later.

Hiroshima’s team, the Toyo Carp, was off for the week, but I wanted to see the city, which had risen from the ashes, a revival in which baseball played a role. Even after the war, the Japanese never considered abandoning their American sport. On the contrary, they seemed to embrace it even more warmly. In 1946, the Japan Baseball League resumed play and in 1949 announced an expansion from eight teams to twelve. Hiroshima wanted a squad, but the city was so devastated and impoverished that it couldn’t attract one of the corporate sponsors that typically fund Japanese teams. So its people raised a campaign, collecting public donations, and in 1950 fielded a team on their own. The city named the team for the abundant koi in the Ota River, but chose the English word, carp. Another name that was considered was the Atoms.

I visited the A-Bomb Dome, the former Hiroshima Prefecture Industrial Promotional Hall near ground zero that somehow withstood the blast, before arriving at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. The opening exhibit is a diorama of three figures, a woman, a girl, and a boy, their skin hanging like wax from their bones, an exact depiction of physical torment not even imagined by Dante. All of the exhibits were unspeakably sad, but perhaps none more so than the tricycle beloved by a three-year-old rider who perished. His father, feeling the boy was too young to be left in the cemetery by himself, had buried him in his backyard with the tricycle. A dozen years later, when the boy's remains were finally interred in a cemetery, the tricycle was moved to the museum.

“It’s a myth that people were vaporized,” a docent named Kumiko Seino told me matter-of-factly. “They were carbonized. Their bodies were burned black, like hard wood.” During the recovery, the Ota quickly filled with corpses. A lack of equipment made burial difficult; a lack of wood made cremation equally challenging.

Kumiko was one of the museum’s “memory keepers,” who share their experiences as hibakusha—survivors and children of survivors. One reason she began volunteering was that it pained her how often she met young Japanese who knew little about the bombing. “They think the bomb fell in an open park,” she said. “They don’t realize it was filled with people and it’s a park now because they were all destroyed.” The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Getty Images

She took me to the Peace Bell and the Children’s Memorial and into the basement of a building where I had to put on a hard hat. A worker had survived here, protected by the concrete despite being only a little over 500 feet from ground zero. In one corner was a senbazuru, 1,000 origami cranes on string. It’s a way of lighting up the space and showing that people remember. Little else seems to have changed. A steel door is still canted on its hinges.

Kumiko walked me around the Peace Park, showing me different cenotaphs—monuments to families that once lived here. “Takada’s wife and children,” said one. “Takagi and his wife,” said another.

“Sometimes I feel I am coming to see my grandmother,” Kumiko told me. “I don’t like to come at night. Maybe there are ghosts.”

“Why ghosts?”

“Because they don’t go to heaven. They died so quickly they didn’t know they were dead.”

I don't believe in ghosts myself, but in meeting Kumiko and others, it wasn't hard to see how the living people here could be haunted. Hiroshima is full of people born after the war who were their parents’ second try at life. I encountered no bitterness; on the contrary, Kumiko was careful not to make visitors uncomfortable. What happened happened, there was no going back, and Hiroshima’s mission as a city has become to make sure it never happened anywhere else.

Later, I walked down a side street and slipped into a plain but appealing little restaurant. Two men signaled that a seat next to them at the counter was free. Hironabu and Hiroyuki, both 61, spoke limited English, but between hand gestures, nonverbal cues, and a translation app, we passed an evening of remarkably wide-ranging conversation. I bought them a round of shochu; they reciprocated with a round of chicken meatballs. I got a lesson in restaurant Japanese: Yaki means grill and tori means chicken. To help me understand what I might be ordering they patted body parts. Behind a glass panel, the chef-owner turned skewers over hot coals with the attention of a surgeon performing an organ transplant. Which, in a sense, was what he was doing.

“Kidneys?” I asked. “You have two?”

“No! One!” he said. “Shio kimo.”

I offered other possibilities—heart, stomach, intestines. “Oh, I know,” I said. “Liver!”

“Yes! Liver!”

We ate atsu-age, thick cuts of deep-fried tofu, lotus root, and shiitake mushrooms. “Shiitake!” Hironabu said, and was overjoyed to learn we used the same word in English.

Their parents were survivors. Both were born in 1955, 10 years after the event. Like Kumiko, they represented the city’s reissue, its rebirth, but neither of them had ever discussed it with his parents. It was just there in the background. There were other things to talk about. A "cheer captain" leads a fan club at a college game in Tokyo between Toyo University and Chuo University. Todd Pitock

“You play baseball?” Hironabu asked.

Yes, I told him, I played third base in high school.

“He,” Hiroyuki said, pointing to his mate, “center field. Me, I watch.”

“I was no good,” Hironabu confessed.

“Me, neither,” I said.

“You know the Carp? They are the number one team! The best team!”

We drank to that.

On the way back to the hotel I stopped into a 7-Eleven, which had copy machines that also allow you to order and print baseball tickets. Everything was in Japanese, but it was easy to get a store clerk to help. The next day I planned to go to Fukuoka, the largest city in Kyushu, the westernmost large island of the Japanese archipelago, to see another game.

Back in my room on the 10th floor of my hotel, I lay on my back and closed my eyes. A little later I felt myself swaying, and for a moment wondered if I’d drunk more than I’d realized. As the bed began to swing like a hammock, I gripped both sides of the mattress and held on until the earthquake passed.

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Day 4: Fukuoka

The Fukuoka Softbank Hawks can play indoors when they need to—the Yafuoku! Dome, completed in 1993, was Japan’s first retractable-roof stadium—so the one thing I hadn’t worried about was being rained out. I couldn’t have anticipated an earthquake. In fact, it was a whole series of earthquakes, dozens of them, foreshocks and aftershocks sandwiching the main event, 7.3 on the Richter scale, that I’d felt all the way back in Hiroshima. Dozens died, at least a thousand were injured, and many tens of thousands found themselves without shelter.

Further spasms buckled highways and bridges. But the trains to Fukuoka were still running, so I decided to stick to my plan. When I checked in to my hotel, I got evacuation instructions along with my keycard. TV reports showed emergency workers freeing trapped victims and carrying zipped yellow body bags. Officials spoke with tight, grim expressions.

The first game after the earthquake was canceled, but the second took place as scheduled. Waves of people came out, filling the stadium. I had expected some kind of pre-game acknowledgment, a moment of silence at least, but at one o’clock, the Softbank Hawks unceremoniously took the field and the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles’ first batter stepped to the plate. The view from the field inside the Fukuoka Yafuoku! Dome. MLB Photos via Getty Images

The first seven innings featured some of the dullest, most error-ridden baseball I’d ever seen, as if after a tragedy of great magnitude no one’s heart was really in it. Although the fan club in right field tried, even they had a certain forced feeling. Finally, with the listless Hawks down 7-3 and showing no signs of life, I decided to leave. I visited the Sadaharu Oh Museum, which celebrates the life and career of the man known as the Babe Ruth of Japan, and the team shop, before catching the bus back to the city center. Somewhere along the way I had the sudden feeling something was amiss. I patted my pockets and checked my satchel to confirm the loss. My Japan Rail Pass was gone: you could only buy it outside the country, and you needed to keep the physical pass on you. I was a bit ashamed to feel as aggrieved as I did given the devastating loss the people here had just suffered, but it was expensive and I'd have to pay full fare to get back to Tokyo, so I decided to go back on the off chance I’d find it.

An hour had passed since I’d left when I got a taxi to go back, but the driver still had the game on his radio.

“The Hawks are still playing?” I asked.

He eyed me in the rearview mirror. “Tie,” he said. “Seven to seven.”

The Hawks had scored four times in the bottom of the ninth. I dashed back into the stadium, where the fans who’d stayed were on their feet waving rally towels and a team band banged taiko drums and blew horns as the teams slugged it out in extra innings. The Hawks were down to their last out in the bottom of the 12th (in Japan, games are declared a tie after 12 innings) when their 32-year-old outfielder Yuki Yoshimura, whose three-run pinch-hit homer in the ninth had evened the score, hit a walk-off blast to win the marathon contest.

Mic’d up in the outfield, Yoshimura addressed the fans. Japan calls these post-game exchanges the “hero of the game” interview. The whole place was silent as he spoke. A woman next to me translated, though I hardly needed her help.

“I know I’m just a baseball player, and we can’t do much,” Yoshimura said, “but we know the people of Kyushu are suffering and they won’t quit, and we were never going to quit, either.” A Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks fan brandishes a pair of noisemakers. Todd Pitock

I admired him for being able to speak even more than for what he’d done in the game—though later, when a television reporter asked him a question, he covered his face in his palms and sobbed.

It put the loss of my rail pass in perspective. Still, after the stadium exploded fireworks that reverberated dreadfully under the closed dome, and after the fans performed the ritual of releasing oblong yellow balloons in the air, so symbolic of letting it all go, I decided to check the lost-and-found—because you never know.

And, this being Japan, someone had, of course, turned it in.