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Samurai Japan, the history of a success

19/11/2019

When Horace Wilson, a professor of English at the Kasei Academy in Tokyo, introduced baseball in Japan in 1872 he was probably not previewing that one day Japan would have topped USA in the World Rankings. That day happened on 31 December 2014.

Since then the two nations have been swapping the top dog honours at the top of the WBSC Baseball World Rankings. And Japan cemented their spot as the world No. 1 after beating Korea in the 2019 Premier12 final on Sunday while USA finished fourth.

It's been a long road to the top for Japan. Professional baseball dates back to the 1920s in Japan. The Shoriki Akk Star club hosted an American All-Star team that featured both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The success of the event accelerated the process that would lead to the first professional league (1936). The league split into two under the umbrella of Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) in 1950.

Another milestone was marked by the start of the Japan-USA College Series, to the credit of Nobuo Fujita and Rod Dedaux, just before Tokyo hosted a demonstration game during the 1964 Olympics.

Japan appeared on the international scene at the Amateur World Series, the tournament that will develop into the Baseball World Cup, in 1972. Four years later Japan earned a bronze medal. In 1980 the Amateur World Series were named unofficially the Baseball World Championship and Japan hosted the event. The national team finished third again.

Japan would earn three more bronze medals: in 1994, 2003 and 2007. The best result at that level was a silver medal, behind the hosts Korea, in the 1982 edition.

Japan participated in each edition of the Olympic Games that featured a baseball tournament. The Japanese National Team shocked America, winning the demonstration tournament at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics, before finishing second in 1988 in Seoul.

Japan failed to step on the Olympic podium at the Sydney 2000 and Beijing 2008 Games. They finished second behind Cuba at the Atlanta Games in 1996 and earned a silver medal. Japan won silver medals both at the 1992 and the 2004 Olympics.

Japan was everybody's favourite at the Athens Olympics, but Australia surprisingly won, 1-0, the semifinal. Daisuke Matsuzaka, not yet the Dice-K who would help the Boston Red Sox win a World Series title, suffered the loss against the Aussies in Athens. He came back to help Japan win back-to-back World Baseball Classic titles (2006, 2009) earning MVP honours in both tournaments.

The Premier12 2015 represents, of course, another major disappointment for Japan. As in Athens Olympics, the heavily favourite Samurai Japan lost in the semifinals. Korea came from behind to reverse Japan's lead in the eighth and went on to win the tournament. Japan settled for a bronze medal.

Japan also won twice (1973 and 1997) the now-defunct Intercontinental Cup and also finished four times second at the U-18 level, originally knows as AAA Baseball World Cup: 1982, 2004, 2013, 2015.

Japan won 17 times the Asian Baseball Championship and earned four gold medals at the Asian Games.