2019 / December
Cathy Teng /photos courtesy of Chuang Kung-ju /tr. by David Mayer
In 1895, the Japanese introduced the sport of baseball to Taiwan. It caught on spectacularly, and we’ve now been playing it for over a century. It would be no exaggeration to call baseball Taiwan’s national sport. Over the years, it has been a focus of social cohesion.
Baseball is a big thing that Taiwan and Japan share in common. Many young athletes in Taiwan grow up dreaming of one day playing professional baseball in Japan, and many of them pursue that dream by playing high school ball in Japan. This past summer we traveled all around the island of Kyushu in southern Japan to learn about the many ways that baseball links Taiwan and Japan together.
One sunny afternoon in Fukuoka, with a baseball game scheduled for six o’clock, excited fans were already thronging the streets around the Fukuoka Dome at three o’clock. It’s a scene that gets repeated every game day.
The Fukuoka Dome, built in 1993, is the home field of the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, a pro team whose chairman just happens to be Sadaharu Oh, who is far better known in Taiwan than anyone else in Japanese baseball. Oh managed the Hawks from 1995 to 2008 before finally leaving the ball diamond behind after 50 years and slipping into a new role as honorary advisor to the club.
On the sunny afternoon in question, the Hawks were pitted against the Rakuten Golden Eagles, a team from Sendai in northern Japan. As both teams warmed up on the diamond before the game, we spotted a player wearing a dark blue jersey with the number 43 on it. The player was a pitcher from Taiwan named Sung Chia-hao.
Taking on a challenge
Sung Chia-hao, who hails from Taitung County, signed on with the Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2016 after graduating from National Taiwan Sport University.
We took advantage of some pre-game downtime to get in a short interview with Sung. 183 centimeters tall and powerfully built, Sung shared what was on his mind as he decided to take up pro ball in Japan: “I had always dreamed of playing in Japan, and then this opportunity came along. I didn’t have much chance at any big success, but I figured I might as well challenge myself and see how far I could get.”
Sung, in effect, laid down a gauntlet to himself. He became his own competitor. Now in his fourth year in Japan, Sung started out playing with the Rakuten Golden Eagles minor league team, but within less than two years he was called up to the majors, and in 2019 has set a personal high for number of appearances in Japan. He made 48 appearances during the regular season, notching up 24 holds and compiling an earned run average of 2.18. During the latter half of the season, in fact, he went 19 straight games without surrendering a single run.
Although he hasn’t played pro ball in Taiwan, Sung feels there is no big difference in player development between Taiwan and Japan. “But there are a couple of differences,” he says. “First, the competition in Japan is much more intense. And second, the players in Japan take a much more active role in their own development.” “At the pro level, everyone is in competition with everyone else, so you’ve got to identify your weaknesses and make improvements.”
Sung confides that it was the sound of cheering crowds that first got him hooked on baseball: “When you make a good play on the field, the cheering really fills you with self-confidence. It really motivates you.” Sung feels quite proud of his performance over the past four years, because he has worked steadily and made progress each year. Each game is an unforgettable memory, and proof of the unstinting effort he has put in.
In the footsteps of a hero
Sung’s success has inspired others to pursue baseball dreams of their own. Indeed, lots of Taiwanese students have decided to get an early start by enrolling in high school in Japan. Wu Nien-ting, who currently plays pro ball for the Saitama Seibu Lions, graduated from Kyousei High School in Japan’s Okayama Prefecture. And Fukuoka Daiichi High School, which we visited on our travels through Kyushu, is the alma mater of Yang Dai-kang, who immediately upon graduating from high school joined the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters and is now playing for the Yomiuri Giants of Japan’s Central League. Chang Yi, who performed so well in the 2019 WBSC Premier12 competition, is also a Fukuoka Daiichi alumnus.
Lan Huaiqian and Chen Changheng both played junior-high baseball in Taoyuan County before enrolling in Fukuoka Daiichi High School.
Traveling off to Japan to play high-school baseball is by no means the path of least resistance. On school days, after getting out of class at 3:30 p.m. the athletes train with barely a break straight through till eight or nine o’clock. Then on the weekends they play against other schools to familiarize themselves with many different kinds of competitors. Over three years of high school in Japan, the athletes don’t get a single day off, but they don’t complain a bit, because they’re on a mission to play pro ball in Japan.
Having played baseball virtually their whole lives, Lan and Chen have observed certain differences in the way student athletes train in Taiwan and Japan: “In Japan, they emphasize the fundamentals. They do a lot of running and practicing of basic skills, and everyone practices the same skills. But in Taiwan, different people have different training routines depending on what position they play.”
Chen Changheng says that, perhaps due to national character, their Japanese teammates play more cautiously and conservatively, but he feels their never-say-die attitude and their willingness to give 100% are traits that Taiwan would do well to emulate.
And Lan Huaiqian has noticed a big difference in the way Taiwanese and Japanese people approach the game: “In Taiwan we put a lot of emphasis on winning, and in order to win we are expected to execute whatever tactics the coach calls for. But a Japanese coach, in an ordinary game with another school, will generally take a more hands-off approach and let the players decide among themselves what they want to do. Players have a chance to build up experience that way.” Lan feels this is another area where Taiwan might learn from Japan.
The decision to play high-school ball in Japan has put their lives on a very different track from those of their old classmates. Now, Lan and Chen are thinking about where to continue their studies after high school so they can continue pursuing their baseball careers. When asked about his plans for the future, Lan answers without hesitation: “I’m going to keep at it, until I get into the pros.”
Early this year Toru Hoshihara, the president of Miyakonojo Junior Baseball Association, led some teams from Japan’s Miyazaki Prefecture to take part in the Hsinchu County Taiwan‡Japan International Junior Baseball Friendly Tournament. Then in the summer Guo Bixuan, the principal of Chung Shan Elementary School in Hsinchu County, led several teams to play in a tournament in Miyazaki. This back-and-forth has been going on now for the last nine years.
Hoshihara, a member of the Miyazaki Prefectural Assembly and an avid fan of both baseball and golf, has been a major supporter of the junior baseball tournaments between Hsinchu and Miyazaki. When we interviewed him, we saw that his home was full of plaques and calligraphic works from all sorts of people in Taiwan, and he had received a Friend of Foreign Service Medal from Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Quite clearly, he has deep ties to Taiwan.
After his election to the Miyazaki Prefectural Assembly in 2006, Hoshihara began working hard to promote ties with Taiwan. The first time he led a group of Japanese baseball teams to Taiwan to play in a tournament was in 2011.
The Taiwanese teams compiled a win‡loss record of 5‡2 this summer in Miyazaki. Coach Cai Jiawei said his hitters at first had a tough time getting used to the opponents’ left-handed pitchers. Nevertheless, he said, it was a valuable learning opportunity.
Guo Bixuan observed differences in the Taiwanese and Japanese approaches to formative education: “The Japanese emphasize the importance of students’ attitudes and concepts. But in Taiwan we are more concerned about developing skills and winning games. In the course of our interactions with Japan, this observation has been a big eye-opener for me.”
And there’s more than just baseball involved. Hoshihara stated: “Exchange between Taiwan and Japan has to be about more than just tourism. Interactions on a personal level are the most important thing.”
And indeed, his point was borne out in our interviews with the young players from Chung Shan Elementary. To be sure, their thoughts on baseball remain focused at this point on winning and losing, but they still made some interesting observations about their Japanese counterparts: “When they did calisthenics, they all shouted in unison, and they didn’t trail off one tiny bit.” “They laid out their equipment all nice and neat.” In little details like these, we see each other’s values.
Have fun at the game!
Let’s get back to the Fukuoka Dome, where the game is now in progress.
Once the game gets underway, the air of excitement in the stands ratchets up a few notches. Before long, a batter for the Softbank Hawks blasts a home run, and the fans go wild.
Sehee Myoung, an executive in the Softbank Hawks Inbound Promotion Department, explains that the Fukuoka Dome can seat about 40,000 fans, and the weekday attendance rate can reach 90%. When an important game comes up, it’s practically impossible to get a ticket. Small wonder, then, that the Taiwan Trade Center in Fukuoka has bought advertising space at the stadium to market high-end goods from Taiwan.
The SoftBank Hawks organization has designated a section of 100 “Hello Seats” in the center field stands, and reserves them for fans from overseas. Better yet, the club staffs this section with people who can speak Chinese, English, and Korean. At the game we attended, over ten fans from Taiwan were there cheering along with the other 40,000 fans.
So it isn’t just the players on the field who are going at it with all their might; in the stands, too, the cheerleaders go nuts with enthusiasm as they beat on taiko drums and blow on horns. Each team’s cheering section has its own musical numbers, and they get the crowds revved up. At any pro baseball game in Japan, fans throughout the stadium start blowing up big yellow balloons during the top of the seventh inning, and when the top of the seventh comes to an end they release the balloons, which swirl around the ball diamond and get everyone really excited. As we watch amidst the crowds of twirling, jumping fans, we get a strong feel for everyone’s utterly unrestrained passion for the game. There is no language barrier, or any feeling of being an outsider. Sharing a “baseball feast” right alongside all the others really is fun!