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The shoes come off at Japanese baseball games just like they do before you walk into a Japanese home.

Eighteen baseball seasons ago I had the unique opportunity to attend a professional baseball game in Japan. The game was held at Seibukyujo in Tokorozawa, Japan—less than an hour west of Tokyo by train. The game left an everlasting impression on my mind, not because of the way the game was played or who won (as I don’t even remember who the Seibu Lions were playing, let alone who won) but because of the fans. About the only thing I can still remember from that game is the chant that went “Ka-To-Ba-Se Kiyohara!”

Kazuhiro Kiyohara was the slugger at the time for the Lions and the fans were cheering for him to hit a home run. Not once, but continually throughout every one of Kiyohara’s at bats during the game the mantra continued. Hence, the cheer became forever imprinted on my brain.

Fast forward to 2007 and a trip I made to Japan with my wife and kids. The trip coincided with the beginning of the Japanese professional baseball season. Initially I wanted to see a game featuring the Hanshin Tigers because their fans are supposed to be the craziest in the world. However, the Tigers opening series was sold out long before the season started. My next choice was the Lotte Marines, managed by American Bobby Valentine, because their fans are supposed to be the second most fanatical. On game day, though, the forecast was for rain and the Marines play outdoors. The backup plan was to once again go see the Lions since they have put a dome over their Seibukyujo since the last time I was there. I was a little disappointed at the prospect as the Lions’ fans are supposed to be pretty mellow by Japanese standards. After losing Daisuke Matsuzaka to the Boston Red Sox, I figured the fans would be even more tame than usual.

We arrived at the game without tickets and purchased outfield seats at the walk-up window. As we proceeded to the area in which we could sit we discovered that everyone around us was a Rakuten Eagles fan (the team the Lions were playing that day). Sitting in the visitor’s section would not do. (Large numbers of visiting fans attend away games in Japan since the public transportation system is so efficient in the country.) So we went over to the Lions’ side of the outfield only to find that it was packed, and we were too late to get a seat rooting for the home team.

Just as we were wondering what to do to get a seat before the game was to begin a Japanese lady (we were the only non-Japanese people there out of the tens of thousands in attendance) appears out of nowhere and asks if she can help us. I respond that it doesn’t look like there are any places left to sit. She tells us to follow her. I’m thinking that she is an usher or something when she then informs me that she would be honored if we would sit with her family even though it might be tight. I gladly thank her and say that would be wonderful. She apologizes that it is in the front row. “All the better,” I respond and we proceed through the masses to the front row.

It turns out that she has a daughter the same age as my daughter. Maya is her daughter’s name and the two became friends through non-verbal communication by the end of the game and are now email pen pals. I should point out that Maya and her mom speak and understand only Japanese. My wife and kids can’t speak or understand Japanese either so all communication is being done through me in Japanese.

Anyway, the pregame particulars and top half of the first inning proceed as in America with the national anthem (of Japan of course), announcements including lineups, and the visiting team batting. After the first three outs Maya’s mom tells us to stand up. I translate for my family and we all stand up though we are not sure why. As it turns out Japanese fans cheer non-stop, while standing, from the time the other team makes their third out until the home team makes their third out. I figured this was just for the first inning, but Maya’s mom told us to stand up again after the first half of the second inning. She didn’t need to prompt us again. We were on our feet in a timely manner for the remaining seven innings.

Non-stop cheering during the offensive side of the inning. Can you spot my two foreigner kids?

Late in the game my wife was going to purchase some food from the concession stands (as the mobile vendors in Japan sell mostly beer and whiskey rather than the hot dogs and peanuts we see in the states). My wife couldn’t get to the better concessions due to her outfield ticket seat and her inability to speak Japanese to explain why she wanted to enter the other seating area. Out of nowhere, again, our guardian angel—Maya’s mom—appears and gets her into the other area by telling the usher that she is shopping.

Maya’s family was incredibly nice and hospitable. Not only did they split their seating space with us but they also shared their food with us, loaned us cheering devices and cushions, and gave my daughter a Seibu Lions jersey. I’ve been to hundreds of professional baseball games in the states and have never witnessed such kindness being offered to complete strangers.

The cheers haven’t changed much in the past eighteen years although the names have. The Lions’ star player these days is Alex Cabrera (Kaburera when rendered into Japanese). So his cheer, among many, this time went “ho-mu-ran, ho-mu-ran ka-bu-re-ra, ka-to-ba-se ka-bu-re-ra.” “Homu ran” is the Japanese rendering of the English “home run.” Hopefully, it will be less than 18 years before I can replace this cheer, which is now stuck in my head, with another by experiencing professional Japanese baseball, and especially their magnificent fans, yet again.

This is what it looks like when your team is down by several runs late in the game. Contrast it to Major League Baseball games when at this point many fans have gone home and the rest are sitting on their hands wishing the game was over already.
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