Commentary

Welcome to Japan

Updated: March 4, 2009, 2:32 PM ET
By Joe Connor | Special to ESPN.com

QUICK FACTS

Most Known For Its … Civil engineering marvels; Shinkansen bullet trains that whip under the ocean between Japan's islands; Mount Fuji; subways so packed officers actually push crowds in like sardines during peak hours; of course, awesome sunrises.

Location: Eastern Asia, island chain between the North Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan, east of the Korean Peninsula

Size: 145,882 square miles, or slightly smaller than California

Population: Approximately 127 million

People: Japanese 99 percent, others 1 percent (Korean 511,262, Chinese 244,241, Brazilian 182,232, Filipino 89,851, other 237,914)

Language: Japanese

Government: Constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary government

Capital: Tokyo (population: approximately 12 million)

Famous National Anthem Verse: "May the reign of the Emperor continue for a thousand, nay, eight thousand generations and for the eternity that it takes for small pebbles to grow into a great rock and become covered with moss."

QUICK BASEBALL HISTORICAL FACTS

Most Known For Its … Disciplined ballplayers with uncanny and amazing abilities (see Ichiro Suzuki for Exhibit A); having won the inaugural WBC.

Japan's Baseball Debut: 1872, introduced by Horace Wilson, an American professor of English at Tokyo University (then named Kaisei Gakko).

First Japanese-born to play MLB: Masanori Murakami, born in Otsuki, Japan, pitched for the San Francisco Giants in 1964.

Trailblazer: Hideo Nomo was the first to leave Japan voluntarily for MLB in 1995.

Greats from the Past: Sadaharu Oh remains the greatest Japanese player, having hit 868 home runs during his 22-year career from 1959 to 1980. Born in Tokyo to a Chinese-born father and Japanese-born mother, Oh means "King" in Chinese. Oh was manager of the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, leading the team to three pennants and two Japan Series titles.

Japan's Best Baseball Town: The capitol, Tokyo, where baseball can be had with two pro teams in the city and three more pro teams just outside it in neighboring prefectures.

Japan's Other Baseball Hot Spots: All of Japan is a baseball "hot spot," but particularly in and around the big cities such as Osaka, Yokohama, Nagoya, Hiroshima and Fukuoka, among others.

Japan's Baseball Weather: Varies from tropical in south to cool temperate in north. In general, rain can be a common occurrence, especially in summer; hence, half of Japan's professional league ballparks are domed.

Biggest Sports Competitors: Soccer, Golf, Sumo.

Best Baseball Museum/Most Important Shrine: Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame, Tokyo. (Honorable mentions: The Ichiro Exhibition Room, in honor of Suzuki, a four-story shrine a few blocks from his boyhood home). And if that wasn't enough, there's a Hideki Matsui museum and a Daisuke Matsuzaka museum. Seriously.

Distinctly Japanese: Do you find medicine balls as part of the batting practice routine … Do fans release condom-shaped balloons as part of "rakii sebun" (lucky seven), Japan's version of the seventh-inning stretch … Does high school baseball trump the pro game. Known as the Summer "Koshien," which means high school in Japan, it's the U.S. equivalent of the NCAA men's basketball tournament -- only much, much bigger. This event is a stage on which many players turn into overnight sensations, as happened with Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish, who could be the next Dice-K in MLB. Ballparks are packed and national television covers the tournament live. What's more, a more than 50-year-old tradition exists in which each player on the losing team in the championship game takes home a pouch of Koshien's dirt, scooping up infield dirt into plastic bags.

QUICK TEAM JAPAN AND PLAYER FACTS

Biggest International Rival: South Korea

Biggest International Successes: Japan won the inaugural World Baseball Classic, but it has also captured two Intercontinental Cup titles, most recently in 1997, when it upset Cuba. The country also won back-to-back "AA" Youth World Championships (age 16 and under) in 1989 and 1990. Japan's best Olympics showing was in 1996 when it finished second, and the country placed third in the 1992 and 2004 games. Japan has won the Little League World Series three times in the past 10 years.

Most Notable MLB Exports: Ichiro Suzuki (Mariners). Suzuki broke George Sisler's single-season MLB hit record (257) in 2004, finishing with 262 hits; Daisuke Matsuzaka; Hideki Matsui.

2006 WBC showing: Japan won the whole enchilada.

Back from the 2006 WBC team: Suzuki, Matsuzaka, Kosuke Fukudome, Akinori Iwamura

Gone from the 2006 WBC team: Akinori Otsuka, Koji Uehara

Now on 2009 WBC team: Yu Darvish, Kenji Johjima

Missing in action from the 2009 WBC team: Hideki Matsui, Hiroki Kuroda, Takashi Saito

PLAY BALL -- IN JAPAN!

Nippon Professional Baseball Overview: Founded in 1936. Today, 12 teams, split among two leagues, each play about 135 regular season games from April to October in Japan's pro league. Traditionally, the team with the best record from the Central League (older league; pitcher hits) and Pacific League (younger league; employs designated hitter) met in a best-of-seven Japan Series. Each team can have four foreign-born players on its active roster at any one time (often, two position players and two pitchers). The majority of these foreign-born players are U.S. born; however, they also come from Latin America and other parts of Asia, namely South Korea and Taiwan. Typically, most foreign-born players sign a one-year contract, with an option for a second year. Each team is named after a corporation. For example, Nippon Ham (which sells meat products), the Yomiuri Giants (named for the media giant), the Seibu Lions (a department store and railway company), the Chiba Lotte Marines (a candy company) and the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles (who bear the name of an Internet shopping company).

Most Successful Franchise: The Yomiuri Giants, Japan's oldest professional team, have won 20 championships.

Biggest Rivalry: As two of the oldest franchises from two of Japan's most historic cities, the Tokyo-based Giants and Hanshin Tigers of Osaka have the strongest rivalry.

Notable Players (Non-Japanese): Foreign-born players usually come and go after a year or two, but Tuffy Rhodes is among the success stories. The former Chicago Cub has been among Japan's top home run hitters since 2001, as has Venezuelan Alex Cabrera (once property of the Arizona Diamondbacks). A more notable name in Japan is former Major League Baseball manager Bobby Valentine, who guided the Chiba Lotte Marines to the 2005 championship.

Some Famous Alums (Japanese): Oh, Hideki Matsui (Yomiuri Giants), Ichiro Suzuki (Orix Blue Wave, now Orix Buffaloes) and many others.

Notable Record Breaker: Oh hit 868 home runs over 22 seasons, still a world record.

Best Ballparks: It's not the prettiest, nor does it employ many of the modern amenities found in MLB, but Japan's most historic ballpark is Hanshin Koshien Stadium. Opening in 1924 and heavily influenced by the Polo Grounds in New York City, the ballpark was built to house Japan's national high school baseball tournaments. In 1924, it was the largest stadium on the continent at the time, with a capacity of 53,000, and it hosted Babe Ruth during a 1934 exhibition game. The aisles are even narrower than Fenway Park, but the playing surface at Koshien is dirt. Among modern, domed ballparks, the most notable is the Tokyo Dome, which is known as "The Big Egg" for its marshmallow-like, white Teflon roof. Because there's very little open space in Japan, ballparks and ball fields have some unusual neighbors. You can have a pregame catch on the beach behind Chiba Lotte Stadium.

Ballpark Atmosphere: Be prepared to leave the ballpark humming a few new tunes. Even when there's a sparse crowd, the bands play, and their beats -- a different one for each player -- will be ringing in your head for the following 24 hours, even if you try to block it out. And there are lots of cheerleaders. And there are a lot of folks in costume. Really want to get in the game? Buy a balloon, blow into it and then let the air out of the sucker after the top of the seventh. Yeah, air balloon time in Japan equals the seventh-inning stretch in North America.

Ballpark Food & Drink: Plenty of great Japanese fare to be had with chopsticks in hand, including ramen, soba, sake, udon, yakitori, noodles and curry rice. Try onigiri -- rice balls wrapped in seaweed -- or shabu shabu -- little strips of meat prepared in boiling water with vegetables. And "Keg Me!" Cute Japanese women roam the aisles with mini-kegs on their back pouring beer suds.

Japanese Speak: Baseball is Japan is known simply as "Yakyu," or field ball. In 1894, Kanoe Chuma, a former player translated baseball in the English-Japanese dictionary as yakyu and ever since it has been the name for baseball. "Yusho!" means victory. Other notable phrases are "Pure boru!" (Play Ball!); "Ganbare!" (which means "good luck," shouted at players); and "Gaijin" or "Suketto" to describe a foreign-born player.

Joe Connor is a contributor to ESPN.com who has visited more than 30 baseball countries on six continents. He's the author of "A Fan's Guide To The World Baseball Classic," which is available for purchase exclusively at his Web sites: www.modernerabaseball.com and www.mrsportstravel.com.