Osaka Toin High School players celebrate after winning the final of the 90th National Invitational High School Baseball Tournament at Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya, Hyogo prefecture, on April 4, 2018. There won't be a similar celebration this year because the wildly popular tournament has been canceled on account of Covid-19. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun

It was enough to bring (nearly) grown men to tears.

The Japan High School Baseball Federation, after previously announcing it was reducing the event to a spectator-free format to reduce the spread of the Covid-19 virus, has completely called off the 92nd annual spring invitational tournament at Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya.

As the newspaper Yomiuri put it, the decision “greatly disappointed the players, who had hoped to be able to step on to the hallowed ground at Koshien.”

“It’s tough but we must move on,” one top high-school team’s manager told the players – who, Yomiuri reported, “listened with tears in their eyes.”

Indeed, Japanese – not just the players but grown-up fans by the millions – take high-school baseball very, very seriously.

At least the powers that be haven’t canceled the 2020 Tokyo Olympics – not yet. The boss of that show, Yoshiro Mori, got totally bent out of shape this week when an executive board member of his committee told The Wall Street Journal that, in the event the Games can’t be held this year, the smart thing would be to postpone for a year or two.

Donald Trump can get away with expressing that sentiment, but good Japanese aren’t supposed to acknowledge the possibility of the Olympics’ not happening on schedule. Indeed, the first event has just been scheduled: softball against Australia at 9am on July 22.

It’s not only fans of high-school baseball who are already disappointed. Holding the latest Grand Sumo tournament without an audience has somehow changed the experience for one fan here in Japan, even though he was at home watching on TV.

“I am watching it every day as usual,” he told me. “It definitely is weird without an audience, especially when a bout ends in a major upset.” In normal times with live watchers in the arena they “scream and yell,” he noted, and “sometimes throw zabuton [seating cushions] like frisbees.”

What to do?

Since it seems likely there may be more and more cancellations before authorities determine the coast is clear, virally speaking, it’s time to start thinking about alternative uses of sports fans’ spare time.

Go out drinking and dining (in that order) with the guys? That has always been a favorite activity of Japanese salarymen. But it’s not happening so much now, as people are afraid of getting infected, to the point where the restaurant business has started putting out calls for help.

My son, a former Ginza bartender, is friends with several Japanese restaurateurs. He has already heard from a couple of them variations on the plea, “Support your favorite restaurant.”

Could TV take up the slack left by canceled games? The problem there is that many sports fans are at least technically couch potatoes and presumably have their fill already of home dramas (soap operas) and samurai dramas and wide shows (variety shows that also want to be your news source).

Despairing of quickly finding a substitute for spectator sports I was going to suggest, admittedly a bit flippantly, that navel gazing might be all that’s left for the bereaved sports fans.

But I looked the term up to learn about its origins and discovered that Omphalopsychian monks at Mount Athos in Greece two millennia ago “pretended or fancied that they experienced celestial joys when gazing on their umbilical region, in converse with the deity.”

Second-century Roman statues of navel gazers in the Louvre. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Nah, that’s not what the market is looking for.

But of course the English term navel-gazing has acquired a separate meaning that doesn’t refer to formal, religion-based meditation: “excessive absorption on self-analysis.”

While individualism is generally agreed to be less attractive in East Asian culture than in the West, Japan does already have a large youth subculture populated by otaku, or nerds, who stay home in their rooms, alone, playing video games.

Still, I have to conclude that the loner lifestyle probably isn’t the answer for sports fans, who tend to enjoy company. Let’s hope we get this pandemic under control soon so folks can play, and watch, ball again.

Bradley K Martin has focused on Asia and the Pacific as a journalist since 1977 and has worked as bureau chief for The Baltimore Sun, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and Asia Times. At Bloomberg News he was chief North Korea watcher. He is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, a history, and of the speculative novel Nuclear Blues, set in a near-future North Korea after denuclearization and peace talks have failed.

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