Even a strong high school that has participated in 12 Koshien tournaments is facing a “rough wave of declining baseball club members. | FRIDAY DIGITAL

Even a strong high school that has participated in 12 Koshien tournaments is facing a “rough wave of declining baseball club members.

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Kentai Takasaki won the Senbatsu tournament for the first time. While some powerhouses have the luxury of club members, many high school baseball schools are struggling with declining numbers

On March 20, Shohei Ohtani’s Dodgers opened their season in Seoul, South Korea. Tickets were hotly contested, and the game was broadcast daily on Japanese television, indicating the high level of attention.

The spring Senbatsu high school baseball tournament, which ended with Kentai Takasaki’s victory, was also slow at first due to bad weather and unseasonably cold temperatures, but the final game held on Sunday drew a decent crowd of 34,200, partly due to the presence of Houtoku Gakuen, a popular local school.

This situation reminds us of the influence and presence of the sport of “baseball” in Japan. However, the population of the sport is still very small.

For example, it is not unusual for many teams, with the exception of strong schools with large numbers of players, to have less than the maximum number of players on the bench for official fall games played by first- and second-year players. And this predicament is not unrelated to the once-strong teams.

Nowadays, if you have 10 new students coming in the spring, you might be surprised,” says a teacher and administrator.

Masao Kawaguchi, 60, has been leading his alma mater, Yamaguchi Prefectural Iwakuni High School, for more than 30 years while working for a general company, not as a teacher or administrator.

Iwakuni is one of the leading preparatory schools in Yamaguchi Prefecture, and is a prestigious school, boasting seven spring and five summer appearances in the Koshien (National High School Baseball Championship) Tournament. Most recently, in 2002, the team made consecutive appearances in the spring and summer.

Ten years have passed since then. Although two students withdrew from the team, in the summer of 2011, there was only one third-year student on the team.

Two quit in the winter of their sophomore year, one because he wanted to concentrate on his studies. The other said, ‘I don’t know if the first-year students will join next year, so I can’t stay motivated. Kawaguchi says , “ We consistently competed in the Koshien Tournament.

Even in the days when we were consistently participating in the Koshien Tournament, we rarely had 60 members in three grades, and even when we did, we often had the lowest number of members among the participating schools,” he says.

Although the phrase “a decade ago” is often used, the reality is that the teams that made it to the Koshien in spring and summer only 10 years ago are now struggling to recruit new members. Another factor is the reality that there are too many schools for the number of children.

There are currently six schools in Iwakuni City, including ours. For example, if there were 50 junior high school students playing baseball in the city, there would be 10 students in each school. But not all of them will play baseball in high school, so the number will decrease even more.”

Furthermore, there is the difficulty of recruiting players because the school is a preparatory school.

In the case of Iwakuni High School, however, the number of applicants is not always the same. I think it’s because it’s hard to get in. I think it was 2 years ago that I heard some people say, “I definitely want to enter Iwakuni High School and play baseball! and “I definitely don’t want to play baseball.” The one who definitely didn’t want to play baseball passed the entrance exam and the one who definitely wanted to play baseball failed (laugh). (Laughs.) There was a case like that. That child was not accepted, so he entered another public school for the second round of recruitment. It depends on the year, but you have to have a certain level of grades.

Another negative factor is the attitude that is deeply rooted in the locality.

Not only in Yamaguchi, but in all rural areas, many families feel guilty about going to a private school after failing a public school. It is not that private schools are bad at all, and I think it is normal to enter a private school’s preparatory class if you are in the city. There are many cases where students switch to other public schools at the entrance exam stage because they don’t want to fail Iwakuni.”

Plates commemorating the team’s Koshien appearance line the coach’s office at Iwakuni High School.

Yamaguchi Prefecture has produced the nation’s first prime minister, Hirobumi Ito, and eight other prime ministers, the most of any prefecture in Japan. As Kawaguchi explains, the people of Yamaguchi Prefecture are often described as “conservative. However, in recent years, with the advance of information technology, more players than ever before have aspirations to attend strong schools outside of the prefecture, and more and more players from the prefecture’s strong junior high school hardball teams are moving on to strong private schools outside of the prefecture, such as Osaka Toin and Urawa Gakuin.

Even so, junior high school students who “play baseball and can study well” are still entering the school, even though it is not as good as it was in its heyday. However, there are more and more cases where I sense a difference in temperament between the students and those of the past.

I think it was this spring, when they were moving up to the third grade. About five experienced baseball players from local junior high schools joined the school. But only one of them joined the baseball team. The other four joined another sports club. When I said, ‘Why don’t you play, let’s play together,’ they replied, ‘I burned out on baseball in middle school.

I don’t want to believe everything they say, but from conversations among classmates, it seems that they were saying, ‘It’s hard to work hard at a tough practice for the sake of aiming for the Koshien, where you don’t know if you’ll make it or not.

For the current group, it may not be “cost-effective” or “efficient” for them to aim for the Koshien Stadium, where they are not guaranteed to compete. Still, Kawaguchi’s tone is firm.

I tell the current members of my team, ‘Don’t ask for anything in return for your efforts. It may sound Showa-esque, but I tell them to work hard even if they don’t get anything in return. I think that it is only until the age of high school students that they can work hard without compensation. It is true that it is difficult to balance studying and baseball, and when I talk to junior high school students, they always ask me, “Can you manage both? I don’t know if they will laugh at me.

I don’t know if they laugh at me, but I’m really serious about making it to the Koshien National Championships. So I make it clear that practice is tough and it is definitely difficult to balance both. It’s not so easy to balance studying and aiming for the Koshien, but it’s not that easy. However, there are members who are able to manage both by making good use of their spare time. That’s why I want them to do it.

There are still headwinds blowing in Kawaguchi, who does not lose his enthusiasm even in adversity. For a long time, Yamaguchi has been known as a “public school kingdom” because it is home not only to Iwakuni, but also to other leading public schools such as Ube Sho, which has participated in the Koshien Tournament 19 times in spring and summer, and Shimonoseki Sho, which won the 1963 Senbatsu Tournament.

However, in recent years, Hikari participated in the spring tournament last year, but since 2004, three private schools, Takagawa Gakuen, Ube Kojo, and Shimonoseki Kokusai, have shared the summer tournament berth. Last fall, when three schools from the prefecture were allowed to participate in the Chugoku Tournament, these “top three private schools” competed together for the first time. This situation also spurred Kawaguchi’s fighting spirit.

Kawaguchi said, “I have participated in the Koshien five times in the spring and five times in the summer, and people say, ‘It’s nice to have the word go-go in Japanese, because it’s a perfect ending. But it didn’t fit in my mind. When I first started coaching, the biggest obstacle was Mr. Tamakuni (Mitsuo Tamakuni, now manager of the Ube Boys) of the Ube Sho baseball team.

Now that Mr. Tamakuni has finished coaching high school baseball, that wall has changed to private schools. I will break down the wall that is in front of me now. If I no longer have that desire, I think it’s time to stop (coaching).

Running scene in winter. Not many people, but it helped to have a lively atmosphere on the ground aiming for Koshien.

In 2003, the team built a dormitory at its own expense. Although they live in the same area, the team has also accepted players from Hiroshima, a neighboring prefecture, to build up the team. Kawaguchi continues, “I still have a loan, so I’m not going to stop.

When I became coach, Iwakuni High School had not played in the Koshien Tournament for 20 years. When I became coach, Iwakuni High School had not played in the Koshien for 20 years, but to the alumni, it felt as if they had not played for half a century. Now, it has been 10 years since our last appearance, and I feel that a lot of time has passed as well.

All along, I have been coaching with the recurring thought, ‘I want to mark a new page in the history of the Iwakuni High School baseball team,’ and I want to make new history by going to Koshien again. The reality is that the strength of the team is tough; some years we only have pitchers who can only hit 120 kilometers or so. But I have been telling the players for many years, “Don’t use the environment as an excuse. If that’s the case, I don’t want to make excuses for my players, and there is nothing to be gained by going into a game expecting to lose from the start. Besides, unlike the pros or working people, I think high school baseball is a game where you can still find a way to compete.

Last summer, in the second round, the team defeated Hikari, which was participating in the Sembatsu Tournament. It was a convincing victory, as the team used a wait-and-see strategy to take on a pitcher of note whose fastest straight ball was over 140 km/h. It had been a long time since the team had made it to the top eight of the prefectural tournament. In the quarterfinals, they lost to Ube Kojo by a scoreless draw, but they took the lead into the ninth inning against a team that would go on to play in the Koshien Tournament.

Kawaguchi is very proud of the team’s success, saying , “Many junior high school students saw our summer games and thought we had a chance to make it to Iwakuni.

If the team can overcome the hardship of being short of members and return to the Koshien again, that would definitely be a milestone in the history of the baseball team. It would certainly be a revival that would go down in the history of the baseball team.

Kawaguchi is aiming for his 11th appearance in the Koshien Tournament as manager this summer.
  • Interview, text, and photographs Kota Inoue

    Born in Shimane Prefecture in 1991. After graduating from university, he spent about two and a half years as a company employee unrelated to the publishing industry before becoming a writer in October 2005. Currently, he mainly covers amateur baseball in the Chugoku region, with a focus on high school baseball in Shimane Prefecture, where he lives. He is the author of "Kando: Shimonoseki Kokusai High School Baseball Club Manager Hidetaka Sakahara and the Nine's Struggle to Win the Koshien Championship" and the writer of "From Africa to the World and to Koshien: The Steps Taken by an Outstandard High School Baseball Manager to Spread Baseball in the World" (both from Tokyo News).

  • PHOTO Jiji Press (1st photo), Kota Inoue (2-4 photos)

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