This is Koushien. Koushien can mean two things: the name of the famous open-air baseball stadium in Japan, home to Osaka’s professional Central League baseball team, Hanshin Tigers, and it can also refer to the name of Japan’s annual national high school baseball championship, which is held in Koushien stadium.
It surprises many people, as it did me, to discover that Koushien stadium is not even in Osaka, but rather located in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, near Kobe. Many people associate Koushien stadium with Osaka, due to it being home base for Osaka’s Hanshin Tigers. But the stadium was built for the purpose of hosting the national high school baseball tournaments, and not specifically for professional baseball. It was built in 1924 and didn’t become home to the Osaka Tigers until 1936. Hence, and this may seem bizarre to some, the high school tournament has priority over any professional baseball games.
My wife, Mandy, and I have had the good fortune to be able to watch a professional baseball game in Koushien stadium three times during our time here in Japan. Mandy and I are Hanshin Tigers fans, as are many of our Japanese friends. Together with our friends, we have driven to Hyogo prefecture, entered Koushien stadium, and watched our favorite team play ball. On our last outing there we enjoyed special festivities celebrating Koushien's 90th year. We even received a free green and gold Hanshin jersey upon entering. That meant a lot to Mandy and I, as Australia's official sporting colors are also green and gold.
We love the fact that Koushien is an open-air stadium; and even the outside of the structure is fascinating, especially with its ivy-covered walls, supposedly inspired by Wrigley Field in Chicago in the United States. Inside the stadium, the outfield is natural grass as opposed to artificial turf. The infield is dirt and soil. And once the game starts, the atmosphere is wonderful. Uniformed girls are roaming the stands selling beer, soft drinks, food and snacks. There is an official, organized cheer squad with its own brass band and 'cheer-guides', who wind the fans up with rhythmic chants, drumming and trumpets. There is even a much-loved custom of letting off long balloons at the end of the seventh innings. It is really quite a spectacle and a lot of fun to participate in.
Recently we were thrilled to see our local high school, Mie High School, represent Matsusaka city and Mie Prefecture at the Koushien National (Summer) Baseball Championship. For the first time in forty-six years, they made it into the quarterfinals. Busloads of people from our city and prefecture traveled to Koushien to cheer them on. We were excited to receive the news that they won and had made it into the semi-finals. They hadn’t managed that feat since 1955.
Suddenly lots of people, including those who had nothing to do with the school, made their way to Hyogo Prefecture to attend the game and cheer for the Mie High School team. Their success had stirred up pride within Matsusaka city as well as surrounding cities and towns. To everyone’s amazement, Mie High School was victorious again, and landed a coveted spot in the final! City officials also made the trip to Koushien stadium to watch this event. Playing against a strong team from Osaka, Mie High School was leading in the third inning. However halfway through the game Osaka nudged ahead by one run, and although Mie High School put on an incredible display of almost professional level baseball, they couldn’t defeat the more experienced team from Osaka.
Mandy and I were at a shopping center at the time, and were impressed to see so many locals gathered around the large TV screens and watch the game play out. They were cheering and clapping as if they were right there at Koushien. Mandy and I got caught up in the excitement as well, and felt pride for our local team.
What makes Koushien so special is that unlike professional baseball, the emotions of the high school baseball team members are so transparent. Seasoned players in the professional league maintain poker faces and don’t show their emotions, but the high school boys have huge smiles when their team does well and sometimes tears roll down their cheeks when they are under pressure or are facing certain defeat. It touches everyone watching the game in a way that professional baseball can’t do. Professional baseball is great to watch, too, with its higher level of expertise and a superb display of ball skills, but it rarely has the raw emotion that comes with watching a high school baseball team playing desperately to win as if their very lives depended upon it. This is “Koushien”.
Have a great week, and best wishes.