Japanese Baseball Culture at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century: Imperial Game or Adopted Pastime?
My current research examines two trips made by the Waseda University baseball team in the 1910s. Waseda University was central to the growth in popularity of university baseball in Meiji-period Japan at the beginning of the twentieth century, as Japanese university teams sought to play American opposition at home and abroad and set out to visit colonial territories recently conquered by the rising force of the Japanese military. In 1911, Waseda sent a squad of baseball players to the United States to play the University of Chicago, a reciprocal visit agreed upon as part of an arrangement that had seen the American team travel to Japan the previous year. In 1917, Waseda University sent a baseball team to Taiwan, the former Chinese territory colonized by the Japanese in 1895, where a nascent baseball community was growing in direct emulation of the sport’s popularity in Japan.
Both trips were typical of the Japanese baseball community’s desire to expand its presence internationally and each visit was the first of several to each location, with Waseda continuing to send squads to Chicago until the 1930s, when the militarization of Japan’s government and society began to affect relations between Japan and the United States, and to Taiwan until the 1960s, more than a decade after the island had returned to the auspices of the Republic of China. The similarities end there, however. Communications between Waseda baseball godfather Iso Abe and staff at the University of Chicago reflected the desires of a well-educated westernized Japanese elite looking to establish closer relations with one of the most respected institutions in the United States. In Taiwan, visits by the Waseda team represented a type of outreach from the imperial metropole, with Abe bringing his team of superstars to support the colonial Japanese community in Taiwan and strengthen connections between the two communities. The legitimacy of Japanese baseball, whether on the baseball diamond itself or in the more politicized arena of a distinctively Japanese modern popular culture, was at stake both in Taiwan and in Chicago.
My work seeks to identify the importance of these international visits in the composition of Japanese sporting culture at the beginning of the twentieth century, in the period between the creation of a modern Japanese state modeled on western example in 1868 and the increased militarization of the 1930s that would lead to war in the Pacific. Was the Japanese baseball community seeking the approval of its American forbears, or seeking to show how “Japanese” the game had become, as evidenced by its successful spread through Japanese colonies? What does this mean for our assessment of Japanese baseball culture and for the study of sporting cultures in general?