Japan's cubicle sluggers

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.

The play on the field was good, but not great. For the most part, the teams played “small ball,” content to eek out runs through sacrifice bunts and steals, rather than three-run homers. Still, some of the players were clearly ringers; several attended the National Martial Arts University, which generally is not a prerequisite for entering a car or technology company.

In the semi-final round, Nissan faced vaunted Toyota, its rival on and off the field. Toyota won the national corporate title last year, but Nissan hung tough through six innings, thanks to a strong effort from starting pitcher Yusuke Ishida. But in the seventh, Toyota got a lead-off homer and that was all it needed, as Nissan managed only one hit during the game. Toyota won 1-0 to advance to the final.

In Japan, traditions are being shed, and the Nissan team’s demise seemed symbolic. A day before the semi-final game, Japanese voters sent the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party to purgatory, overwhelmingly handing power to the change-promising Democratic Party of Japan.

In the business world, companies are turning more frequently to temporary workers, making it easier to downsize or add staff when necessary. And employees, too, are looking for more flexibility from the rigid lifetime system, so perhaps it was fitting when Yukihiro Hayashi, a 24-year-old Nissan pitcher, said after the game that he will transfer to an Osaka gas company to continue his baseball career. But tradition does not die easily. After the final out, the Nissan fans, about 5,000 of them, gave the players a standing ovation. Then, the manager of Nissan’s Oppama plant, which provided several of the players, took a microphone and shouted a final farewell, as some cheerleaders began to cry.

“This is the last game,” he said. “Now it’s over. Thank you very much!”

As he left the stadium with his staff, Maehara grew wistful: “There is a reason so many people stayed after the game. It was our pride. We will miss the team.”