Tokyo Swallows! Hai! Hai!

Okay, the first thing you need to know is that “Hai!” means “Yes!” in Japanese. The exclamation point is very important because it’s not “Hai.” It’s “Hai! Hai!” so you say it with enthusiasm.

“Hai!” is a fun word–it’s playful and strong and full of vigor.  Maybe you know “Hai!” from the Flaming Lips’ great song, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots,” a song about a young Japanese girl who saves Tokyo from robots programmed to destroy the city. The tune starts with Wayne Coyne’s scratchy, tentative vocals: “Her name is Yoshimi/She’s a black belt in Karate,” and then almost before he can finish the last word of the line, “karate,” in the middle soundscape you hear a small but strong female Japanese voice shout, “Hai! Hai!” I’ve listened to that song hundreds of times and I still find those Hais thrilling. My kids have been singing along to “Yoshimi” since they were wee ones and they, too, still love to shout out the “Hai! Hai!” parts of the song.

It makes sense that the Flaming Lips would tap into this–they are the rock and roll embodiment of the Japanese “Hai!”

If you visit Japan, an excellent place to find the “Hai!” of this great country is at the professional baseball games, as we did last week.

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My friend, David Cooper, told me that Japanese baseball games were something to see–a real insight into the culture so last Sunday afternoon as we were walking around Tokyo, Sujata said, “Let’s go to a baseball game tonight.” A short time later, we had tickets in hand for a twilight game between the Swallows and the Tigers.

We arrived to the stadium about a half hour before first pitch and as we approached the gates I heard a marching band. It sounded like any given Big Ten university campus on a Saturday afternoon before a big gridiron matchup. I could help but wonder aloud, “A marching band at a baseball game?”

The marching band was still playing and I could tell that there were actually two marching bands–one for the home and the other for the away team, I presumed. I looked onto the field and I noticed something else rather strange: cheerleaders. “Are we in the right place?” I slyly asked Sujata. She checked the tickets with mock seriousness and announced that, yes, we were in the right place. This, too, I have to say, is one of the great things about visiting Japan: you never really know what you are going to get, but if you just stick with it, whatever it is, it turns out to be pretty cool.

Our seats were on the first base line about halfway between first base and the right field wall. Pretty good seats for the equivalent of 20 USD. We had been walking around all day–my legs were tired and I really wanted to try an Ebisu–the premium beer of Sapporo–so I looked around for the beerman–you know him: the grizzled staple of all MLB professional baseball games who trudges up and down the stairs with pre-poured Coors, PBR or Budweiser and who sloshes half of the beer in your lap as you turn over your money and he hands you the beer. That guy.

Here, though, in the Tokyo Stadium, I couldn’t find the beer guy. The closest thing I saw to any beer delivery service were lithe, twenty-something girls in brightly-colored uniforms toting large backpacks and . . .  I couldn’t believe my eyes . . . they were carrying kegs on their back and pouring the beer from the keg to a cup as the customers ordered. They gracefully handed out the fresh pours with smiles and “Konnichiwas!” and they ran up and down the steps with the energy of marathon runners.

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I was thinking that this was probably Yoshimi’s early training to destroy the evil robots.

Sujata and I noticed all this at the same time and in unison we cried out, “HAI! HAI!” We both waved our hands like first-graders who know the answer to the question the teacher just asked and, within seconds, there was a lovely beer girl pouring us an Ebisu.

We couldn’t have been happier.

The Japanese have many things over the United States. The food is better, more tasteful and healthier. The country is more environmentally conscious than we are, the people are immaculate dressers, have cool haircuts and are gracious, kind and funny.

Now, add the beer girls at the baseball games to that list.

I felt like I had already gotten my money’s worth. And then the game began.

With all the excitement about the suds I sort of lost track of what was happening on the field and in the stands. Sujata told me that when she purchased the tickets, the attendant asked if we wanted seats on the home or away side. Kind of a strange question for a professional baseball game, right? She, rightly, chose the home side and until I started focusing on the larger surroundings I didn’t realize that we were sitting in a sea of white and blue and green shirts–the colors of the Swallows, it turned out. I let my gaze cross the field and there across the third base line and throughout left and into center field was a sea of yellow and white–the colors of the Tigers. Atticus, upon realizing that we were sitting on the Swallows side, looked down at his shirt and duly noted to all of us that his shirt had a very large tiger on it. He knows enough about how American sports fans can be sometimes be crazy and violent so he became a bit frightened and asked if he could buy a Swallows shirt to cover up his Tiger. We went back and forth on this for a bit (I said don’t worry, but he was having none of it). He finally snuck out in search of a Swallows shirt, returned sans shirt but clutching a bag of french fries and seemed to forget about his oppositional shirt fairly quickly.

By that time, there was so much going on in the stands and on the field that it was easy to forget any perceived danger from aggressive fans.

Between innings, the cheerleaders for the Swallows and then the Tigers ran out onto the field and danced to Japanese pop songs. The Swallows mascot hammed it up with the cheerleaders, as mascots are wont to do.

When they were finished, fans of the Swallows started singing a whole panoply of fight songs that, from what I could tell, were paeans to their home team.

The game itself was pretty much like any other baseball game, although the Japanese pitchers really take their time between pitches so the innings go on forever. I timed it once and the Swallows pitcher took a full 90 seconds between pitches. We stayed at the game for two hours and that was only the end of the fourth inning!

It was the fight songs, though, that were the most interesting and exciting parts of our first live experience with Japanese professional baseball. I don’t know whether or not the Japanese have a good sense of rhythm, but judging from the display they put on at the Swallows/Tigers game, I’d say they do indeed. All of the fight songs began with a kind of rhythmic build up. The band would lay out the tune and the fans picked up with the band, clapping their hands. Many people came to the game with two smallish baseball bats that I quickly realized were made of a hard plastic. They would whack the bats together, so the clapping hands, the music from the band, the singing and the whacking bats–all that occasioned a wonderfully organized cacophony.

As the Swallows band and fans were belting out their fight songs, the Tigers’ side patiently waited and when the Swallows were finished, the Tigers’ band and fans started up with their own fight songs. It went on and on like this for the entire time that we were in the stadium and I’m sure that as the game went into the late innings, the singing, playing and clapping got even more robust.

There is much to be learned about Japanese culture in all of this. First of all, as I noted earlier, you see the graciousness and orderliness of the culture here at these games. I did not hear one fan yell in anger or taunt the opposing team nor did I notice the home team heckling their own players. There were many opportunities for some of the bad behavior you might see at any given MLB game–the Swallows really sucked that night and the Tigers’ starting pitcher beaned one of the Swallows best players in the head and nothing happened. The benches didn’t flinch, the fans actually went quiet and, this I couldn’t believe, the trainers took the player into the dugout for 5-10 minutes, looked him over, pronounced him okay to return to the game. He ended up striking out, so maybe they should have left him in the dugout.

We’re on the supersonic fast train to Kyoto right now–I’m hoping we can catch one more baseball game before we leave Japan.

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