Always Keeping Score: Baseball in Japan, South Korea, and the United States
Back in November, the World Baseball Softball Confederation—a recent merger of the older International Baseball and International Softball Federations—held the first ever Premier 12, an international baseball tournament featuring the twelve best-ranked national baseball teams from around the world. A replacement for previous international baseball tournaments, it was viewed by many as a bid by the WBSC for the inclusion of baseball/softball in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics after the events were unceremoniously removed from the 2012 games, the first cuts from the Olympics since Polo in 1936. Of the twelve teams who competed in the Premier 12, Japan went in ranking number one and the US sat at number two. South Korea was ranked eighth of the twelve. So imagine the surprise when Korea unseated Japan during the semifinals with a last minute, come from behind four point rally, making the final score 4-3. [You can watch some highlights below. South Korea turns the tides around the three minute mark.]
To level with you, I have no particular interest in baseball. I had no idea that a) the Premier 12 was happening, b) there was an international baseball/softball governing body, and c) baseball/softball had been in/booted from the Olympics. Still, the South Korean victory struck me as notable beyond all of its classic underdog story touchstones. Following the completion of the tournament, many South Koreans criticized the WBSC for showing favorable bias towards co-host nation Japan’s team. Whether there is weight to these accusations remains to be seen, but regardless, the dispute brings the opposition that has existed between Japan and South Korea for decades to the baseball diamond, much like Toshiki Okada’s new play God Bless Baseball, showing here at FringeArts January 21-23. A collaboration between Okada and actors from both Japan and South Korea, the play finds two young women struggling to understand the game that looms large over their respective countries’ consciousness with the help of two men, one with nothing but contempt for it and the other with nothing but reverence.
Though his new work is centered around the favorite pastime of both countries involved, in an October article in The Japan Times, Okada admitted, “I’ve always had a negative image about baseball myself, and many of the play’s plots stem from my own feelings and experiences,” adding, “I’ve been wanting to publicly announce my negative view through my work for a long time.” Spoken like a true dramatist. But God Bless Baseball is far more than an artist’s gripes against an institution that, in his opinion, takes attention away from more worthwhile endeavors. In the play, baseball and “baseball culture” are front and center, but it’s the turbulent relationship between Japan and South Korea—as well as the looming influence of the United States—that hangs heavily over the proceedings. “I think I’ve finally succeeded in dealing with the two countries’ historical controversy without writing directly about historical incidents or subjects,” Okada told The Japan Times.
Japan-South Korea relations have been troubled for decades now, marred by territorial disputes, disagreements on trade, and unreconciled views of the two countries’ shared histories. Based on a 2014 BBC World Service Poll, 19% of Japanese people view South Korea’s global influence as positive while 28% view it negatively. Similarly, 21% of South Koreans view Japan’s influence positively, while a staggering 67% take the negative view. The United States has a vested interest in seeing relations between the neighboring nations open up, as trilateral cooperation among the three of them becomes increasingly important to the US in the face of North Korean threats and aggressive movements from China. Late in December of last year, the two countries reached a landmark settlement in the hopes of finally putting to rest the vitriolic conversation surrounding “comfort women”—women, a large percentage Korean, forced to work in Japanese military brothels during WWII—with Japan contributing one billion yen to a fund for the surviving elderly victims in exchange for South Korea’s agreement to refrain from criticizing Japan over the issue, as well as the removal of a statue memorializing the victims that currently sits in front of the Japanese Embassy in downtown Seoul. Though this settlement marks a major stride in relations between the two nations, some have suggested the rift is rooted in something less tangible than past atrocities.
In the aforementioned interview with Okada, he argued, “Japanese realize things about themselves when they regard the Korean situation or Korean people that they can’t do by looking any other place.” While major similarities between the two societies abound (both are Western-style democracies, have open market economies, love baseball), they only serve to magnetize the differences as the nations continue to develop alongside each other, all while the United States continues to exercise its influence on both countries. The history of baseball in Japan and South Korea is a perfect example of this dynamic. The US introduced the sport to both countries and each developed it into their own national institution over the course of a century. The result today may be the same game being played in all three countries, but what that game means and how it is treated nationally remains unique to each.
Two days after South Korea took down Japan in the semifinals they faced off against the United States in the championship game. Fresh off of their dramatic rally, this matchup had the makings of a thrilling conclusion tournament organizers were surely hoping for. Unfortunately for them, it was an absolute blow out. South Korea beat the US 8-0. No edge of your seat thrills, just an easy win. While that may have surprised some people based on rankings alone, at a time when baseball’s popularity is steadily declining in the US, it seems fitting that a later adopter with greater enthusiasm for the sport would be able to unseat even the originator of the game. The final outcome of the Premier 12 saw South Korea receiving the gold, the US taking the silver, and Japan getting bronze. The parent/sibling relationship among the three nations may still exist, but the dynamics of it are not as clearly defined as they used to be.
God Bless Baseball runs at FringeArts January 21-23. Click here for more information and to get your tickets.