Sounds of the Tokyo Dome: Giants vs. Swallows

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Baseball sounds the same everywhere: the crack of the bat and smack of the ball in the catcher’s mitt. Baseball fans are not so limited, and in Japan they provide constant accompaniment from pre-game warm-ups to the final pitch. There are blaring trumpets and Taiko drums; banners, towels, umbrellas and whining balloons, all brandished in the name of their beloved teams. Last weekend the two Tokyo clubs: the Giants (perennial favorites; think Yankees) and the Swallows (the underdog; think Mets), met in their first series of the season. Here is a sample minute: unedited, un-spliced, and basically unremarkable in terms of the game as a whole.

My favorite moment in this clip is when the stadium speakers momentarily butt in with the classic “clap, clap, clap-clap-clap” cheer. It doesn’t take, nor does it phase the fans in the midst of their own far more sophisticated tune. Cheering here is not orchestrated by the man in the booth choosing between the “Charge!” bugle and “We Will Rock You” stomp. It is much more organic, at least in the biological sense of being made by living things. The chants are not random or democratic; they are the product of a highly organized cheering section known as the oendan.
Most of the ruckus on the recording sounds distant, because the two teams’ oendan are concentrated in the left and right field bleachers. These seats are full up to an hour before the first pitch, giving time for a little rehearsal if necessary. When the Giants come to bat, the whole right-field section rises in mass. They sing non-stop for the half-inning, switching deftly from classic team songs to player-specific chants. When the last Giant goes down, they sit down, and the Swallows supporters, a blue square in an otherwise orange stadium, rise to cheer their team. Here are a couple of Swallow’s gems:

The oendan section makes a sharp contrast with the average sideline fan, who remains reserved throughout the game, even returning fly balls to the ushers. It is one of many necessary release valves in Japanese society, a place where students and salarymen can let loose. The tradition of organized oendan, which are a feature of both professional and amateur sports, goes back to the nineteenth century. They often have an established rank system and terms of membership, sometimes even assigned seats.

In the past, officials have attempted to restrain the use of banners and instruments, but the fans could not be stopped. Roused by victory, their musical antics will spill into the street and continue into the night. Once, after the Osaka Tigers defeated a visiting Tokyo team, the local oendan packed into the Tokyo bound train and derided their opponents at each stop. After three-and-a-half hours on the train, and seven hours of straight cheering, the mob alighted in Tokyo, sang their Tiger’s praise once more, and got on the next train back to Osaka.

Back at the Tokyo Dome, the Swallows were handily shut-out by the Giants, but whatever the players lacked in batting power was more than made up for by the fan’s vocal power. Outnumbered and surrounded, down by two runs and with a total of two hits in the game, the fans sang to the last out. The lived by the words of their team song:

Man blooms as a flower of the earth.

Baseball is a drama…it is life

Take the Tiger alive…catch the Whales,

Swallow the Dragon…pull in the Carp,

Knock down the Giant star.

Fly away Yakult Swallows.

 

History of Oendan from Robert Whiting’s You Gotta Have Wa, a fascinating and charming account of Japanese Baseball.

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