Definitely Not TSA

June 11th, 2009 | Posted in Articles, Personal | Comments Off on Definitely Not TSA

Going through security at Narita made the comparisons with home as stark as they get. I began the ritual familiar to air travelers everywhere. Take off the shoes, take out the lap top, it’s time to be led like cattle through the gate. Except this time a uniformed guard offered me leather slippers to lessen the indignity. Then two women in equally sharp uniforms assisted me in feeding my belongings into the x-ray machine to insure that my belongings were properly cared for while out of my possession. They wore gloves, but not the plastic kind they wear back home because they think you’re carrying ebola virus. No, these were white cotton gloves that would be all black if there any dirt or grime around, but they aren’t because there isn’t. At the other end, I returned the slippers and recovered my shoes and luggage. I felt an unnatural sense of tranquility and goodwill toward humanity.

Equally jarring was the outing I took with my son to see a baseball game between the Seibu Lions and the Nippon Ham Fighters. Although their name might suggest otherwise, the Fighters do not vanquish their opponents by bashing them with smoked pork products. Actually, they are a fully owned subsidiary of Nippon Ham, a large food conglomerate. The Seibu Lions are themselves owned by a huge real estate and railroad grouping.

The game was held at Seibu dome, a ballpark owned by Seibu at the end of a rail line owned by another branch of the Seibu octopus. We and the other fans boarded a spotless and comfortable train that rode swiftly and noiselessly through the enormity that is Tokyo and its suburbs. Since it was an express, we sped through one station after another as the city shaded imperceptibly into a slightly more spread out version of itself. Eventually, we began to see small plots of vegetables and tea and more trees and open vistas.

The ballpark sits in a park like setting with small tree-covered hills. The path to the dome is flanked by souvenir booths and small vans selling prepared food. We opted for one that sold Okinawan food. Okinawa has a reputation in Japan for being friendly and laid back; and the service offered by the young woman and her co-worker was indeed cheerful and inefficient. The stewed pork on rice was nonetheless (therefore?) delicious.

We arrived at out seats just as the Japanese national anthem was playing, a decidedly non-threatening and non-martial piece of music. Like the train, the stadium was spotless and neat. A lot of English is spoken. The scoreboard gave all the important information in English. Much of what I saw would be familiar to an American baseball fan. The game was played with great skill and passion. In particular the fielding was crisp and precise. There was less emphasis on power and speed. The pitchers threw stuff in the 80’s and batters were very good at making contact and adjusting to the defense.

Of course, my attention was drawn to the differences and there were many. The relief pitchers bowed toward the mound before crossing the baseline as if they were entering a dojo to practice karate. The ball girl, dressed in a uniform with a skirt, carried the extra balls to the umpire in a delicate wicker basket. The beer vendors were dressed in bright neon colors with beer nuts dangling from their shoulders and small kegs on their backs from which they dispensed beer into cups. Oolong tea highballs were dispensed by other vendors who carried trays with bottles of hard liquor.

The major difference was the cheering sections for both teams. It is difficult to capture in words the sound and sight of these fans. What would be the bleachers in an American stadium are large open areas where fans spread mats to sit on when their team is not at bat. When their team is on offense, they spring to their feet and begin a non-stop, pep rally with flag-waving, singing, chanting and dancing. There is a cheerleader, drums, a band of sorts and a chant for all occasions.

And the cheers went way beyond “dee-fence, dee-fence.” The cheering sections offer practices before the game where neophytes can learn the intricacies of the latest offerings such as, “With one million horsepower, crush the ball here! Smash ’em, bash ’em, let’s win the game!”  The Ham Fighter fans had a cheer where first the women and then the men chant a line, filling the stadium with a rhythmic call and response.

The seventh inning stretch was a goofy celebration involving the entire stadium. There were cheerleaders and mascots doing flips and firing balls into the crowd with air guns. The fans stood to sign the Seibu Lions team song while waving long blue balloons in time with the music. At the finale, they released the balloons in unison sending a blue cloud toward the ceiling of the dome. The effect was exhilarating.
The fans had taken a completely foreign sport, combined it with some uniquely Japanese traditions to create something wonderful and new. My son, who has spent a lot of time in Japan, recognized in the cheering sections the chanting and dancing that accompany the portable shrines that crowds carry through Japanese towns during summer festivals.

But the most memorable moment happened on the train ride back to Tokyo. Justin and I noticed two little girls sitting across from us holding bags with noisemakers and flags for the Seibu Lions. They were about 10 years old and were obviously enjoying an afternoon spent with their best friend in the entire world. Eventually, it dawned on us that they were by themselves. I found myself astonished that parents would send children on a train to a stadium with 20 thousand base ball fans, some of whom were drinking highballs and beer. Even more amazing is that it was completely natural.

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