About the Country: Japan is an ancient nation, traditionally said to have been founded in 660 BC. For most of that time, it existed with relatively little change and contact with the outside world, save for the occasional war with Korea or internal feudalistic battles. That all changed in 1853, when a small force of the United States Navy, led by Admiral Matthew Perry, arrived in Japan to demand that it be opened to traffic. The arrival of Western influence shocked the Japanese, leading to reforms and programs that led the nation to grow from hermit kingdom to one of the world’s leading empires within a century, a period that ended only with Japan’s defeat in WWII. Scarred by the war and with a new constitution that prevented it from actually having a military, Japan became an economic power, a hub of global trade and technological innovation, and remains the world’s third-largest economy despite slow growth since the late 1980s. Fun fact: It would have been entirely possible for a Japanese person to have been born under the rule of feudal leaders and died in an atomic bombing. This would be roughly the equivalent of somebody in the West being born in the middle ages and dying in the 20th century.
Baseball History: Japan was introduced to baseball by a teacher named Horace Wilson, who introduced it to some of his students there. And in the decades after that, its popularity skyrocketed as Japan became more industrialized, although it remained strictly amateur until the 1930s. The beginnings of Japan’s professional baseball came about because of Major League Baseball in general and Babe Ruth in particular, as a barnstorming tour by the Great Bambino caused baseball to become even more popular than before. In 1936, the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper conglomerate founded the first professional team in Japan, the Yomiuri Giants, primarily out of players who had distinguished themselves against the Americans. After WWII, the Japanese again turned to baseball, founding Nippon Pro Baseball in 1950. Baseball remains the most popular sport in Japan, and the National High School Baseball Championship is a cultural phenomenon in the country perhaps even greater than America’s “March Madness” for college basketball. In international play, the Japanese won the first two World Baseball Classics before coming in third in 2013 and 2017.
Olympic History: Japan, not surprisingly, has a long history with baseball at the Olympics, although it would take awhile before they actually took part. Japan was to have played an American team at the 1936 Olympics when baseball was a demonstration sport, but withdrew. Baseball was to have again been a demonstration at the 1940 Olympics Tokyo, which was cancelled due to the war. It wouldn’t be until the last time Tokyo hosted the Olympics, 1964, that Japan would make its Olympic baseball debut in a demonstration sport game against a team of American college all-stars who beat a team of Japanese amateur all-stars 6-2. Japan would later take part in demonstration baseball tournaments in 1984 (winning gold) and 1988 (taking silver) before taking part in every official Olympic baseball tournament from 1992 to 2008, with their best showing being silver in 1996.
Outside of baseball, Japan ranks 11th in all-time Summer Olympic medals and 13th in gold. Their most success have come in judo, gymnastics, wrestling, and swimming. The most successful summer athletes historically for Japan have generally been gymnasts, such as Sawao Katō and Takashi Ono. The Japanese have also had success in the Winter Games, which they have hosted twice (Sapporo ’72 and Nagano ’98), primarily in speed skating.
Road to Tokyo: Japan being the host country is the major reason why baseball is in these Olympics at all. Tokyo beat out Istanbul and Madrid for the 2020 games in a vote in 2013.
Notable Names: Undoubtedly the player on the Japanese roster most familiar to MLB fans is Masahiro Tanaka. The former Yankees star has returned to Japan, where as of this writing he is 3-5 with a 3.00 ERA, a 1.028 WHIP, and 62 strikeouts in 72 innings pitched.
Ones to Watch: Not surprisingly, the cream of the NPB crop makes up Samurai Japan’s roster.
Yūdai Ōno, last year’s Sawamura Award-winner (equivalent to the Cy Young), is on the team, as is Tomoyuki Sugano, a pitcher who has won the Sawamura twice as well as two Central League MVP trophies. In the bullpen, expect to see pitchers like Ryoji Kuribayashi and Kaima Taira, among the leaders in NPB in saves.
At the plate, Japan will be led by players like Yuki Yanagita. The 32-year-old outfielder has been named an All-Star six times and the Pacific League MVP twice, including last season. He currently is tied for the HR lead in the Pacific League with 18. The Central League’s HR leader, Munetaka Murakami (with 24), is a 21-year-old wunderkind corner infielder who MLB teams no doubt are hoping will cross the Pacific Ocean in the future. Outfielder Seiya Suzuki was the MVP of the 2019 Premier12 tournament and also played for Japan in the 2017 WBC. 2020 Japan Series MVP Ryoya Kurihara is also on the team as an outfielder but may also be asked to catch in case of emergency.
Outlook: It is hard to really determine the favorite in such a tournament as this Olympics, but Japan must be regarded as one of them. Outside of a lack of MLB stars like Shohei Ohtani and Yu Darvish, Japan has basically their best roster possible and one can easily imagine them having roughly this roster (with the addition of some MLB players) next WBC. In addition, they’ll have the home crowd behind them (although it will be smaller than they no doubt hoped, given COVID protocols). At the very least, Japan should medal, and they need to be considered one of the favorites to win gold.
Check back at the Baseball Continuum as we near the 2020/21 Olympics for more previews of the teams that will be competing in Tokyo.