JBall: A Real Japanese Pennant Race

JBall at the Tokyo Dome

It was the middle of a heated pennant race, and there were only three games left in the season when we decided to take in a Japanese baseball game. Without tickets or plans, we boarded the train to the Tokyo Dome (The Big Egg). The trip to the stadium itself was more complex than usual. Half a dozen transfers later, we arrived at the Big Egg and were immediately engulfed by a seemingly endless sea of baseball fanatics. We had no choice but to follow the crowd and hope we were headed in the right direction.

We arrived at the box office 10 minutes before game time and attempted to buy tickets. It was all the attendant could do to keep from laughing at us. SOLD OUT! Of course! What were we thinking?!

We’re from Los Angeles; what do we know about locals supporting their home team?

Dejected, we found what must have been the only isolated spot outside of the Tokyo Dome and sat outside admiring the extremely cool neon sign and wondering where we’d gone wrong. It was our last night in Tokyo, and we had lost all hope of actually seeing a Japanese baseball game. In a matter of minutes, the sea of fans vanished into the stadium, and the steps just outside the stadium were almost entirely abandoned. At that point, it was just us and the scalpers.

SCALPERS! It suddenly dawned on us. Japanese Scalpers! We might have been naive about purchasing tickets in advance, but we still had some hope.

Of course, the prospect of dealing with Japanese scalpers was less than promising. Three weeks of Power Japanese does not prepare someone to negotiate black market transactions outside the Tokyo Dome (it barely prepared us to negotiate the subway system). Deficiencies in the language notwithstanding, we quickly developed a strategy. Well, in reality, I decided we should wait. It was obvious who the scalpers were; their potential market was shrinking by the minute. We’d just sit on the steps outside the Tokyo Dome, take in the perfect view, and see what happened.

About ten minutes later, we heard something vaguely resembling a national anthem. The game was about to start, and almost no one was left outside the stadium. This was our signal to move in on the scalpers. Surely they would be desperate to unload any tickets they had left.

Negotiating With Japanese Scalpers

There was just one problem. A serious language barrier prevented us from initiating the transaction. It isn’t until you face a situation like this that you realize there is no international sign for ticket scalping. After a few false starts, we managed to attract a small group of scalpers who understood that we were interested in purchasing tickets to the game. At this point, we were outnumbered by scalpers.

First, they offered us seats behind home plate. A mere 25,000 yen each! That’s about $250 for a baseball game! Clearly, they were somehow under the impression that we were wealthy Americans. I quickly made the international sign for “we have no money,” and they began to lower their expectations. The following offer was better, but not much. 5,000 Yen for seats in some undisclosed area of the park. That’s still $50 per seat — more cash than we had between us.

I quickly lowered the scalpers’ expectations by pulling change out of my pocket and counting it carefully (mostly single yen pieces – practically worthless in Japan). At that point, the scalpers figured me for a total loss and began to scatter.

It didn’t take long for them to realize that the game had already begun, and their options were dwindling. I pulled out my wallet and showed a few thousand yen notes. Suddenly we were back in business. I emphasized that I had more American money than Yen. I showed them a twenty-dollar bill. They all nodded their heads knowingly. This was something they seemed to understand.

Ultimately they sold us a pair of seats in the right field at face value (2,000 Yen each – a little less than $20, a bargain in Tokyo). We were in our seats before the top of the first inning was over. There was only one out, but there were already three runs on the board. We missed some serious Japanese baseball action during our negotiations. But, not much, because in Japan, most of the action at baseball games is in the cheering section. And our seats were right in the middle of the home team’s cheering section. If you’re ever in this situation, be forewarned, the Japanese are serious about baseball and cheering (not necessarily in that order)! Every one of the approximately 2,000 people in the cheering section had a loud noise-making device; some had multiple devices. And believe me when I say they did not hesitate to use them.

That’s OK. Try Again!

The cheering section was led by a band of long hairs in orange and black Yutaka with the Yomiuri Giants mascot (a large, goofy rabbit) on the back. They had some very elaborate cheers that everyone seemed to know by heart (except us). Our favorite was repeated whenever a Giants batter swung and missed. It sounded something like, “That’s OK. Try again!”.

There was also a horn section. Lots of trumpets. Real trumpets, not toys. Real trumpets blaring what sounded like cartoon theme music from the 1940s. And drums! Big bass drums. More chanting and flag waving. And all of this racket never stops. My ears are still ringing. We were seated in the middle of all of this.

The rest of the crowd outside of the cheering section was surprisingly sedate. It’s almost as if the cheering section is the only area authorized to make noise. Or perhaps they were making noise, but I was temporarily deafened by the noise around me.

The excitement of the cheering section is fueled by a group of happy young Japanese women with kegs of beer strapped to their backs. They race up and down the aisles filling beers on demand. Make eye contact, and they smile and hold up a beer glass. Actually, what they really do is more along the lines of a model displaying a new automobile. Their every action seems to say, “This irresistible beer could be yours.” Simply nod your head, and they’re at your seat pouring a fresh draft beer right from the keg mounted on their back. American Baseball could learn a lot from the Japanese.

This all seemed strange and dangerous, at least for the traveling American.

Ultimately, the Yomiuri Giants lost the game (and the pennant race and the title, but that’s another story entirely and will be written when some great Japanese sports writer writes the complete history of Japanese baseball — sign me up for the first copy, please). By this time, we were such diehard Giants fans that we were shouting nasty comments about the umpire’s eyesight. We are not gracious losers.

There are more glamorous things to do in Tokyo. But my point is this: don’t pass up a chance to see a Japanese baseball game. You’ll witness a part of Japanese culture that isn’t readily apparent in any other public venue (except maybe at a Sumo match). And if you don’t have tickets, don’t let that stop you. Negotiating with those scalpers is at least half the fun.

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