Japan's Rites of Spring Resume

Amid questions about whether such frivolity was appropriate during a time of national disaster, baseball is on again in the Japanese spring. With high schools deciding to maintain their passionate national championship game, the professionals followed suit.

Even cherry blossom frolics put on a forced smile in the face of tragedy.

The opening game of the 2011 season pitted the Rakuten Golden Eagles, from the quake-hit northeast, against the Chiba Lotte Marines in the Marines’ home park near Tokyo. All the familiar opening day rituals were on display, cheerleaders in pink satin dresses and hawkers selling hotdogs on a stick and soba noodles.

Still, the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami was present. The national flag was flying at half mast, honoring the tens of thousands killed or missing. Play was also halted for a short while during the fourth inning because of an aftershock.

Although the earthquake left Tokyo mostly undamaged, it did cause considerable structural damage to this suburban city of Urayasu because much of it is built on reclaimed land subject to “liquefaction” during a severe quake.

The parking lot was closed because the concrete buckled in many places. The same problem kept the nearby Tokyo Disneyland closed for a month, costing its owner about $250 million in lost revenue. It only recently reopened, but other theme parks along this stretch of Tokyo Bay remain closed.

In the immediate aftermath of the 9-point quake and tsunami that devastated the northeast and precipitated multiple feared meltdowns at four nuclear power stations, it was uncertain whether there would even be a baseball season this year. The quake struck only two weeks before the season was officially expected to get underway.

Questions were raised as to whether it was proper to hold such games when so many fellow Japanese are suffering, stranded in earthquake shelters or fleeing from radiation leaking from the Fukushima power plants. Indeed, some questioned whether Japanese should enjoy themselves at all during this crisis.

It may be that high school players decided the issue for them. Spring is also the season for another time-honored rite of passage in Japan, when the best high school baseball teams meet in their traditional venue, the Koshien Stadium near Osaka for national championships.

High school baseball is a national obsession. The games have been played every year since 1924, except for a couple years during World War II, and were not to be canceled this year because of a mere earthquake. If the high schoolers could play, then how could the professionals not play also?

The decision was made to simply delay the season opening two weeks from March 25 to April 15. The time was needed to rearrange schedules and the logistics of moving teams around Japan and accommodating them. After all, travel to the impacted region is still problematic, and much of Tokyo is suffering from electric power shortages.

The opening professional game was supposed to have been played two weeks earlier on the Eagle’s home field. But the team’s stadium near the city of Sendai was damaged during the quake and is not expected to be fully repaired for patrons until the end of April at the earliest. So the game was moved to Chiba.

The Eagles are the Tohoku team, using the common Japanese term for the northern part of Honchu island centered on Sendai (Japanese baseball teams are usually named after their corporate sponsors, not home cities – Rakuten is Japan’s largest Internet retailer.) As such, they are the sentimental favorite during this coming season.

In the same way, the Orix Blue Wave (with Ichiro Suzuki, now a star in the US, still playing for them), based in Kobe was the sentimental favorite following the 1995 quake that destroyed much of that city. Indeed, the Blue Wave went on to win the league title, although it lost the Japanese Series, the local equivalent of the World Series).

The Eagles got off to a good start this season, winning their first game against the Marines on a three- run homer by Motohiro Shima. The team was, as of this writing, in first place in the Pacific League with a 3-1 record, although, of course, the season is still only about a week old.

Most night games are out in order to save on electricity. The Yomiuri Giants will use open stadiums for the time being, instead of the enclosed Tokyo Dome, which is their usual venue. Baseball unions are being asked to bend on their normal opposition to double-headers (two games played by the same teams on the same day) to help complete a 144-game season.

The Eagles are still hoping to play their first home games in the 22,000-seat Kleenex Miyagi Stadium during the Golden Week national holiday, which begins in early May. By that time transportation links and accommodations for the out-of-town teams may have been worked out. .

Meanwhile, there was some debate about whether it was proper to observe another spring rite of passage, the annual cherry blossom viewing parties, which is a time when friends gather together to sit on plastic sheets in city parks to look at the cherry blossoms, eat barbecue and drink sake.

That supreme kill-joy, Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, 78, had urged Tokyo folks to forego the traditional hanami festival this year out of solidarity with fellow Japanese struggling in the northeast.”Just because the cherry trees are blooming doesn’t mean we should be drinking and chatting,” the governor said.

But the Tohoku sake brewers complained that self-restraint could go too far, and they urged everyone in Japan to eat, drink, be merry – and buy more sake. The Tohoku region happens to be a major center for brewing Japanese sake, and many of the brewers were hurt by both the tsunami and the falloff in sales of products coming from the impacted prefectures.

In the end, Japanese in the capital flocked to the parks. The weather suddenly turned mild and spring-like, perfect for viewing cherry blossoms and baseball games. The warming weather had the added advantage of lessening the demand for electricity, which allowed the local utility to suspend rolling blackouts. And that was really something to celebrate.