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It's corporate. It's baseball. And it's in trouble.
TOKYO — On a recent afternoon, Yasuhiko Maehara, a general manager at Nissan Motor Co., excused his staff from work and accompanied them to the Tokyo Dome to watch a baseball game. For a company that lost $2.4 billion last year and cut 20,000 jobs, this might have appeared to be wasteful mismanagement.
But this wasn’t just any game.
Nissan’s company team had advanced to the semifinals of the Inner-City Baseball Tournament, an 80-year tradition in which teams made up of players from Japan’s largest corporations battle for athletic supremacy. And there was a special poignancy this year: After 50 years of competition this was to be the final tournament for Nissan, which won the inner-city crown twice and the national corporate championship in 2003.
After the company’s massive financial losses, Nissan officials announced in February that it will eliminate its two baseball teams, along with its table tennis and track and field teams, by the end of the year.
“We are very, very sad,” said Maehara, who works in Nissan's human resources department. “I have been with Nissan for 30 years and I have come here every year to watch this tournament. Sometimes we won and sometimes we lost, but each time I was here.”
Corporate baseball here is akin to the minor leagues in the United States, a place for talented young players to hone their skills in hopes of impressing a professional scout and getting a call up to Japan’s major leagues. Players have nominal jobs at the companies but are really hired for their on-field talent.
The elimination of the teams might make sense considering Nissan’s off-field performance. In the wake of job losses, spending millions of dollars to support athletic teams might send a troubling message to employees, their families — and stockholders.
Yet corporate teams also have played a role in Japan’s traditional lifetime employment system, building company spirit and camaraderie. Employees wear company colors and logos and sing company fight songs, and the new hires, both men and women, often perform as cheerleaders.
The scene at the Tokyo Dome over the past two weeks showed how much pride companies take in their teams. Thousands of fans, sweating in their business suits, waited for up to an hour in lines snaking around the stadium. Brass bands played fight songs, along with some curious choices such as the Popeye theme and “Anchors Aweigh,” the U.S. Navy’s fight song.
Spectators clapped rhythmically on hand-held fans in company colors, while the cheerleaders performed, sometimes wearing traditional Japanese yukatas and other times banging on taiko drums. Hitachi’s cheer squad did a chicken dance, hands tucked into their armpits and elbows flapping, each time its team scored a run. Mitsubshi’s employees ran through the aisles carrying a giant cardboard car.