Fieldwork in the Outfield: William W. Kelly on The Sportsworld of the Hanshin Tigers

Baseball tickets as a research expense? Nice try. It’s no surprise that a funding agency expressed skepticism when anthropologist William W. Kelly included a $900 “purchase of baseball game tickets” line item on his proposed grant budget. Kelly, however, had a legitimate reason for requesting the support: he was conducting an ethnographic study of Osaka’s Hanshin Tigers and needed to attend baseball games—for fieldwork. (He got the grant.)

Kelly, professor emeritus of anthropology and Japanese studies at Yale University, began that fieldwork in 1996 and has recently wrapped up the project with publication of The Sportsworld of the Hanshin Tigers: Professional Baseball in Modern Japan (University of California Press, 2019). American baseball fans might recognize the name of Tokyo’s Yomiuri Giants, which are the Japanese equivalent to the New York Yankees in terms of their popularity and record of championships. The Hanshin Tigers, on the other hand, are not as well-known outside Japan, and their club history is marked by “five decades of loss, frustration, and perennial infighting.” (As a longtime Philadelphia Phillies fan, I smiled in recognition at this line in Kelly’s introduction.) But the Tigers are nevertheless the second-most-popular team in the country, and the fervent fandom despite Hanshin’s poor performance led to Kelly’s central ethnographic question: “What was it about the Hanshin Tigers?”

Kelly’s answer is that a “sportsworld” existed around Hanshin, encompassing not only the players on the field but also the club’s senior management, the fan organizations cheering in the bleachers, the sportswriters who covered the team’s soap opera-worthy personnel dramas, and the television viewers watching Tigers games at home or in bars. All of these participants contributed to the construction of a sportsworld that helped the team remain at the center of media attention and retain the loyalty of its fans, even when it languished in the cellar.

In The Sportsworld of the Hanshin Tigers, Kelly examines the many elements of that matrix, analyzes how his observations during fieldwork between 1996 and 2003 relate to episodes further back in the history of the Hanshin Tigers, and explains how events in the years since his fieldwork ended have caused that sportsworld to dissipate. His book captures the Tigers world at a turning point, shortly before they shed their reputation as perennial losers and became regularly competitive, as well as before digital journalism and social media changed the ways both sportswriters and fans interacted with each other.

Learn more about The Sportsworld of the Hanshin Tigers in my interview with William Kelly, conducted over email, below.

Cunningham: There’s certainly no rule saying that scholars must stick with one subject or time period, but how did you shift from studying water control in Tokugawa Japan to baseball at the end of the 20th century? What were the origins of this research project, and do you see any connecting threads between your earlier books and this one?

Kelly: I would like to imagine a connection between rice paddy fields and baseball playing fields, but in fact there wasn’t any! The real motivation for my baseball project came instead from my general undergraduate course on Japanese society. Back in the 1980s, popular fascination and fear of Japan’s booming economy drove student interest and enrollments to high levels, and students with sports interests kept asking me about Japanese baseball. They shared the general stereotype that the U.S. and Japan played totally different versions of the same sport—the daring American individualistic player swinging for the fences versus the timid, self-sacrificing Japanese player grinding out bunts for the team and his domineering manager. I spent a number of years in the course trying to debunk these stereotypes (not hard to do!), but I realized that I actually didn’t know much about baseball in Japan to offer a different view. Finally, in the mid-1990s, I had the time to begin some actual fieldwork, and that is what led to this book. What are the real conditions of playing and watching (and reporting on) baseball in Japan?

Cunningham: At several points in the book, you tackle those stereotypes about Japanese baseball: that it’s “samurai baseball,” a stern, mechanical version of the sport, and/or continuation of the “Japan, Inc.” corporate culture made famous in the 1960s. What do you see as the inaccuracies of those descriptions, especially when compared with how the game is played in the United States?

Kelly: Sports are actually a very instructive place to question national character stereotypes. Might we wonder about the U.S., what kind of schizophrenic country is it that valorizes three such disparate sports as football, baseball, and basketball! For Japan, the selectively fabricated figure of the samurai has been an all-purpose label in modern Japan (to inspire and coerce students, workers, soldiers, and others), and it has made its way into some commentaries about baseball and other sports. But over 20 years, I have found virtually no one who really talks that way, on the field or in the stands, in the everyday life of baseball. Guts, teamwork, giving your all—the idioms of sports talk among elite athletes are surprisingly universal.

Take the matter of tie games, which can occur in Japanese pro baseball but not in U.S. pro baseball. There are those who link it to some samurai sense of honor and the importance of saving face, but that is bunk. Most pro baseball games are at night, and almost all fans take public transportation to the stadium. If the league allowed extra-inning games to run on past the last bus or subway, it would have a massive logistical problem on its hands. That, plus neighborhood ordinances against noise around most stadiums, is why there is an innings limit that occasionally produces a tie.

Cunningham: One element of the Hanshin Tigers sportsworld that you examine at length is that it offered observers “a compelling melodrama of workplace life and regional rivalry.” How did those two factors draw people in and contribute to their fascination with the team?

Kelly: Both of these attractions relate to the nature of Osaka and the Kansai region. Osaka has been famously a city of smaller companies, often corporate subsidiaries or independent businesses. So too is Hanshin, the team within and below the front office, the club within and below that parent company. Part of the fascination with Hanshin has not been the ideal forms of legitimate authority and smooth workplace relations that has burnished the modern image of Japan, Inc. Rather they are drawn to the more common reality of rivalries and office politics, of unpredictable and sometimes undeserved success and adversity—in short, conditions of work familiar to the team’s followers in their own lives. They savor the tragicomedy that is the Hanshin Tiger soap opera.

This connects to a second source of fascination and affiliation. One reason why the Osaka regional economy had become so characterized by medium-small businesses is that so many of the major corporations that used to be headquartered in Osaka moved up to Tokyo, beginning in the 1960s. Like France, Greece, and Mexico and many other nations, Japan has become decidedly unipolar, and Osaka and the Kansai region more broadly have slipped to second-city status—with a second-city mentality that is alternately proud, defiant, and resigned. By the 1980s and 1990s, as the only Kansai area team in the Central League, the Hanshin Tigers had to carry the full weight of Kansai struggles against the national center through the season, particularly in the two dozen games they played each year against the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants.

Kōshien Stadium. Image via Wikimedia contributor 百楽兎 and used under the Creative Commons license.

Cunningham: How did a sense of place help to create the sportsworld of the Hanshin Tigers during the time of your fieldwork—specifically, why was the environment at Kōshien Stadium important to the team’s popularity?

Kelly: Kōshien Stadium is not only Japan’s oldest and most storied stadium but also its most raucous stadium. Americans coming to watch Hanshin baseball here are fascinated by the spectator garb, the chanting, trumpets, banners, balloons, and other elements of the festive atmosphere, but as baseball fans many of them are equally appalled that all of this noisy spectacle makes it hard to “properly” appreciate the subtleties of the game. This is a rather ethnocentric dismissal by fans who have apparently never been to a European soccer game, or even an American college football game! Hanshin fan behavior at the stadium is passionate, choreographed, and collective, but, I soon discovered, it is also more complex and variegated than its first assault on the senses. The exuberant passions and elaborate social organization of the fans in the stands often exceed those of the players on the field. They perform as spectators.

Cunningham: As you note in the book’s appendix, nearly 15 years elapsed between the conclusion of your fieldwork and publication of The Sportsworld of the Hanshin Tigers. You regard that passage of time as beneficial to your analysis, as it enabled you to put your observations within a longer context. How did your original thinking about the Tigers and their sportsworld change during that period?

Kelly: When anthropologists do fieldwork for one or two intensive years, we necessarily create an extended “ethnographic present,” as research moment and as time frame for a resulting book. But we don’t know what will happen subsequently in and to that small lifeworld, and sometimes the present tense we use in our writing conveys the impression of an unjustified permanence to our account. In following the Hanshin Tigers for over a decade since active fieldwork, I have seen fundamental changes in that sportsworld, which I tried to incorporate and account for. In a sense, the book converts an ethnographic present into an ethnographic past.

Cunningham: Can you share any memorable moments or favorite anecdotes from your fieldwork that didn’t make it into the book?

Kelly: Until recently there were several hundred fan clubs spread across the outfield bleachers at Kōshien Stadium, organized into two broad associations. The entire choreography of cheering was controlled by the head of the senior association, who sat every night in the lower corner of the right field stands and whose subtle hand gestures set in motion the collective cheering of 55,000 spectators. For all the time I followed Hanshin, the position was held by a single individual, who helped fashion the organization 30 years before, deeply dedicated, and, I must say, quite generous in educating me to the fan organization. Beyond the stadium, though, he and his wife owned a tiny, unpretentious neighborhood bar next to one of the local train stations. One night after a crucial game against the Yomiuri Giants, he invited me back to the bar. Of course, his wife actually ran the bar during the season while he sat in his place of privilege at Kōshien, the most influential person in the whole stadium, which rocked to his beat. We walked in to the bar, he introduced me to his wife, she told me to sit down at one of the eight seats at the bar and she brusquely told him to go back and start washing up dirty glasses—which he did without a whimper.

Cunningham: Finally, what are you turning to now that The Sportsworld of the Hanshin Tigers has been published?

Kelly: My main project at the moment returns me to the rice fields of northeastern Japan, or rather what is left of rice agriculture in early 21st century. I have been going frequently to the Shōnai region in the decades since the 1970s and have witnessed considerable change to what had been one of the country’s most productive rice plains. The mean age of farmers now is 67 years old, and only 5 of the 90 households in the settlement in which I stay do any significant farming. Like much of rural Japan, Shōnai is rural but no longer really agricultural, and I am fascinated by the question of what might be the grounds for its regional reconfiguration. This is certainly a question of broad salience across much of the developed world.