Baseball may be America’s pastime, but it’s Japan’s obsession. Like many other imports from the West, the Japanese have taken baseball and made it a source of national pride. In addition to supplying the Major Leagues with stars such as Hideo Nomo, Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui, Japan has won the inaugural two World Baseball Classics.
On the field, Japanese baseball is largely identical to its North American counterpart. Games last 9 innings, each team has 3 outs per at bat, and batters whiff on three strikes and walk on four balls. And just like the MLB, Japan’s top pro circuit—known as Nippon Professional Baseball, or NPB—is split into two leagues. The Central League and Pacific League are composed of six teams each, with the winners facing off in the best-of-seven championship known as the Japan Series.
Stadium: Tokyo Dome, Tokyo
With a deep-pocketed owner (the Yomiuri media group) and a home base in Japan’s largest city, the Yomiuri Giants are like the Japanese version of the New York Yankees. And their history is nearly as illustrious, with 21 championships to their credit.
Tokyo Yakult Swallows
Stadium: Meiji Jingu Stadium, Tokyo
Tokyo’s “other” team plays in the shadow of its more celebrated cross-town rival, but with a devoted fan base and an intimate stadium—built in 1926, Meiji Jingu is one of the oldest ballparks in the country—the Swallows are the more approachable of the city’s teams.
Stadium: Hanshin Koshien Stadium, Hyogo
Despite winning their only Japan Series title in 1985, the Tigers are considered by many to be Japan’s emblematic team. Their supporters are the most rabid in all of Japanese sports, and Koshien Stadium is hallowed ground to baseball fans no matter what their affiliation.
Stadium: Nagoya Dome, Nagoya
Founded in 1935, the Nagoya-based Dragons represent central Japan as one of the country’s oldest teams. The second of their two Japan Series titles, in 2007,came in dramatic fashion: in the deciding fifth game, two Dragons pitchers teamed up to toss a perfect game.
Stadium: Yokohama Stadium, Yokohama
A source of enduring civic pride in Japan’s second city, the BayStars have fallen on hard times since winning their last Japan Series title in 1998. Their most famous alum is relief pitcher Kazuhiro Sasaki, who saved 129 games for the Seattle Mariners from 2000 to 2003.
Hiroshima Toyo Carp
Stadium: Mazda Stadium, Hiroshima
Although the Carp have won three Japan Series championships since their founding in 1950, the team’s last league title came way back in 1991—and they’ve rarely been competitive since. One bright spot: Mazda Stadium is one of only three venues in the NPB with a natural grass surface.
Saitama Seibu Lions
Stadium: Seibu Dome, Saitama
The winners of a whopping 13 Japan Series championships, the Lions are one of the most storied franchises in all of Japanese sports. Star players such as infielder Kazuo Matsui and pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka have gone on to make waves in the MLB.
Stadium: Kyocera Dome, Osaka, and Hotto Motto Field Kobe, Kobe
The Buffaloes were formed in 2005 following the merger of professional teams from Kobe and Osaka who combined for a total of four Japan Series victories—but none since 1996. Their Buffaloes’ most famous alum is Ichiro Suzuki, who almost singlehandedly carried the team (then known as the Orix BlueWave) to a pair of Japan Series appearances.
Fukuoka Softbank Daiei Hawks
Stadium: Fukuoka Dome, Fukuoka
Despite winning three Japan Series titles from 1999 to 2003, the Hawks were bought by telecoms giant Softbank in 2005 because of shaky finances. A perennial contender for the Pacific League pennant, the team plays home games under Japan’s only retractable roof.
Nippon Ham Fighters
Stadium: Sapporo Dome, Sapporo
The only team based in Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, the Fighters have called Sapporo home since 2004, when they relocated from Tokyo. The Fighters made the playoffs in their first season up north—a welcome change from their years of mediocrity in Tokyo, where the franchise shared the Tokyo Dome with the mega-popular Giants.
Chiba Lotte Marines
Stadium: QVC Marine Field, Chiba
Based just outside of Tokyo in the commuter city of Chiba, the Marines have been one of the Pacific League’s bright spots in recent years, winning the Japan Series in 2005 and 2010. The former championship came with U.S. manager Bobby Valentine at the helm.
Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles
Stadium: Kleenex Stadium Miyagi, Sendai
When the Eagles began play on opening day in 2005, they became the NPB’s first entirely new team in more than 50 years. Rakuten was founded by Internet mogul Hiroshi Mikitani, who hired veteran U.S. coach Marty Kuehnert to be team’s first GM.