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Culture

Take Me Out to the Ball Game: A Primer for the Nippon Professional Baseball Season

Japanese baseball, also known as Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), is a beloved sport in Japan. Here are some things to know and how you can catch a game.

By 6 min read

The Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) season in Japan is one of the most popular sports leagues in the country. It features 12 teams divided into two divisions: the Central League and the Pacific League.

Each team plays a 143-game regular season from late March to late October. The top three teams from each league advance to the playoffs, with the winners of each league facing off in the Japan Series championship. Attending a professional baseball game, known in Japan as puro yakyu, is a fantastic way to experience Japanese sports culture.

Here’s a quick rundown of the teams, rules and how to see a game yourself.

The 2023 season runs from Mar. 30 – Oct. 2.

Central League Teams

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Tokyo Dome is home to the Yomiuri Giants.

Let’s look closer at the Central League and their home stadiums.

  1. Yomiuri Giants: The Giants are the most successful team in NPB history, with 22 Japan Series championships. Their home stadium, Tokyo Dome, is in Bunkyo, Tokyo, and can hold up to 55,000 spectators.
  2. Hanshin Tigers: The Tigers have a large and passionate fan base known as the “Koshien faithful,” named after their home, Koshien Stadium in Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture. It is the oldest baseball stadium in Japan. They have won the series once.
  3. Chunichi Dragons: Based in Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture and their home stadium, Nagoya Dome. The team has won the Japan Series championship three times in its history.
  4. Yokohama DeNA BayStars: Based in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture. Their home, Yokohama Stadium, is Japan’s second oldest baseball stadium. They have won the Series twice.
  5. Hiroshima Toyo Carp: Based in Hiroshima Prefecture. Mazda Zoom-Zoom Stadium is one of the most modern stadiums in Japan. The team has won two Series championships.
  6. Tokyo Yakult Swallows: Based in Tokyo, the Swallows play their home games at Meiji Jingu Stadium. They are considered “The Mets” of Tokyo—underdog rivals to Tokyo’s Yomiuri Giants. The Swallows have won six Series championships.

Pacific League

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Chiba’s Zozo Marine Stadium.

And these are the teams representing the Pacific League.

  1. Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks: The Hawks have won the Japan Series championship 11 times. Their home stadium, PayPay Dome, is located in Fukuoka City in Fukuoka Prefecture and can hold up to 38,561 spectators.
  2. Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles: Based in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture. Their home stadium, Rakuten Seimei Park Miyagi, can hold up to 23,000 spectators. The team has won one Japan Series championship in its history.
  3. Saitama Seibu Lions: Based in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture. Their home stadium, MetLife Dome, can hold up to 33,000 spectators. The team has won the Japan Series championship 13 times, the second most in NPB history.
  4. Orix Buffaloes: Based in Osaka, Osaka Prefecture. Their home stadium, Kyocera Dome Osaka, can hold up to 36,477 spectators. The team has won the Japan Series championship five times.
  5. Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters: Based in Sapporo, Hokkaido, and their home stadium, Sapporo Dome, is a unique stadium with a retractable roof that can hold up to 41,484 spectators. The team has won three Japan Series championships in its history.
  6. Chiba Lotte Marines: Based in Chiba City, Chiba Prefecture, located just outside Tokyo. The team’s home stadium is ZOZO Marine Stadium, one of Japan’s largest and most modern baseball stadiums. The team won the Series four times.

Rules of the game

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Japanese pitchers use fewer speedballs but more spins.

While the basic rules of baseball are the same in America’s Major League Baseball (MLB) and the NPB, there are a few key differences, including:

  • Smaller balls: The NPB ball is slightly smaller than its MLB counterpart, which allows better grip and handling for a spin.
  • Smaller strike zone: The NPB uses a smaller strike zone and playing field.
  • Tie games: The NPB will call a tie after 12 innings, except in Japan Series games beyond game seven. However, a game eight has only happened once in history.

The NPB also has a rule called the “no-challenge zone,” which prohibits a player from sliding into home plate to knock the ball out of the catcher’s glove.

Unlike the MLB, NPB teams are not privately owned. They are owned by corporations (for example, the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks), and players are not free to negotiate contracts with their teams of choice.

Some baseball fans say these rules make players in the NPB less competitive than in MLB. Others think they make Japanese players more team-focused and rely on technical pitching (compared to fastballs).

Experience Japanese baseball

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Hanshin Tiger’s fans get pretty rowdy.

There are unique celebrations and activities that NPB fans love, which makes the watching experience different from that in MLB. In Japan, fans have specific cheers and chants for each player, and they sing and dance in unison to show their support. Cheers are led by a group of die-hard fans called oyakata (boss or superior), who organize the chants. The whole experience is a lively and energetic display of fan collaboration.

Hanshin Tiger fans are known as the rowdiest bunch in the NPB. They also like to toss effigies into the Dotonbori River in Osaka. They famously dumped a statue of KFC’s Colonel Sanders into the river in 1985, allegedly causing an 18-year losing streak known as the “Curse of the Colonel.”

Fans also have seventh-inning stretch traditions, such as Swallow fans singing the traditional “Tokyo Ondo” and dancing with their umbrellas when it rains. Fans on both sides will also sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

Buying tickets

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Yokohama DeNA BayStar’s cheerleaders hyping up the crowd.

Ticket prices for regular season games can range from around ¥1,500 for the cheapest seats (standing) to ¥10,000 or more for premium seats. However, playoff and championship games can cost over ¥20,000. Teams known for having particularly passionate fans can sell out quickly. Popular matchups (Swallows and Giants) and games on weekends or national holidays can also have higher demand.

You can purchase tickets online or at the stadium. However, buying your tickets in advance is recommended, especially for popular games or during the playoffs.

You can purchase tickets at each team’s official website:

Central League

  1. Chunichi Dragons
  2. Hanshin Tigers
  3. Hiroshima Toyo Carp
  4. Tokyo Yakult Swallows (Tokyo)
  5. Yokohama DeNA BayStars
  6. Yomiuri Giants (Tokyo)

Pacific League

  1. Chiba Lotte Marines 
  2. Fukuoka Softbank Hawks
  3.  Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters
  4. Orix Buffaloes Osaka
  5. Saitama Seibu Lions
  6. Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles

Tips for enjoying the game

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Don’t let the rain ruin the fun.

Finally, here are a few things to remember:

  • Choose your seating: Box, infield, outfield and standing-room-only seats. Box seats are the most expensive, but they offer the best view of the game.
  • Check the weather: The weather in Japan can be unpredictable. If the stadium doesn’t have retractable roofs, bring an umbrella if it rains.
  • Arrive early: Arriving at the stadium at least an hour before the game is best. This also allows you to explore the stadium and buy food and drinks.
  • Bring cash: While some places accept credit cards, it’s best to bring some money to buy food, drinks and souvenirs. ATMs are available at the stadium, but they may have long lines.
  • Know the customs: As mentioned earlier, there are unique customs and traditions when watching baseball in Japan. Learning about them beforehand is a good idea, so you can participate and enjoy the full experience.

Love Japanese baseball? Ever been to a game? What was it like? Let us know in the comments!

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