Elite Underdogs: A Portrait of the University of Tokyo Baseball Team

Sports Education

The University of Tokyo is Japan’s top school, but this boast does not include its baseball team. The club is regularly trounced by rivals and has consistently placed last in the Tokyo Big 6 Baseball League for 48 seasons and counting. Players are not dismayed by the dismal record, though, and are as intent as ever on winning each game they play. We look at what keeps team members absorbed in baseball.

Why Play Baseball?

I have played amateur baseball for over 20 years, and I can boast to having a trusted teammate with 22 hits as a college player in the Tokyo Big 6 Baseball League. His biggest claim to fame is having knocked the ball into the outfield off a pitch by the great Egawa Suguru. He is far and away the best player on the team, humbly carrying his less talented teammates on the back of his pitching. His routine of running and swinging a bat to practice his form has never wavered, even since he retired from the corporate world. A former player for the University of Tokyo baseball team, he lives for the game.

The University of Tokyo is the toughest school in Japan to get into, as everybody knows, but its baseball team is renowned for losing—a single win in the Tokyo Big 6 Baseball League makes headlines. It is odd to watch players who punched their ticket by winning entry into Japan’s most prestigious school strive so hard on a doomed path. Why do these elite students dedicate themselves to baseball knowing almost certainly that they will lose? As an outsider, I could never comprehend this, so I asked some of the current members of the University of Tokyo baseball team what keeps them motivated.

The University of Tokyo baseball ground, on the Faculty of Agriculture campus in Bunkyō, Tokyo.
The University of Tokyo baseball ground, on the Faculty of Agriculture campus in Bunkyō, Tokyo.

A Chance to Play in the Tokyo Big 6

Ōto Shūhei, a senior player who previously served as captain, describes the team as providing the ideal environment to devote oneself to baseball. “I set my sights on the University of Tokyo when I was in junior high school knowing I wanted to play baseball all out without worrying about my future,” Ōto declares. “I figured that if baseball didn’t work out, I could just focus more on my studies.”

This makes sense. Studying at Tōdai, as the school is known colloquially, almost guarantees a “passport to life” for graduates. Ōto says that this creates something of an unusual situation as players can compete in the Big 6 by virtue of their academic ability rather than their skills on the field. “Anyone can make the team.”

The league features six prominent Tokyo schools: Hōsei University, Keiō University, Meiji University, Rikkyō University, the University of Tokyo, and Waseda University. Players at other schools must work hard to earn starting spots based on their ability to hit, throw, and run. Tōdai students, on the other hand, can take the field at the hallowed Jingū Stadium on the merits of passing Tōdai’s demanding entrance exam. I sense a twinge of guilt from Ōto at the implication of academic entitlement, but he insists everything balances out. “It seems unfair, but it really isn’t.”

Afterall, Tōdai prioritizes academics, not ball-playing skills. This, of course, has made it hard for the school to win. As of the end of the 2021 fall season, the club since its founding has a record of 255 wins, 59 ties, and 1,688 losses. Tōdai has wallowed at the bottom of the league for 48 consecutive seasons dating back to autumn 1997, when it finished fifth in the standings. According to Ōto, such a dismal streak is indicative of a team playing in an “ideal environment.”

“Even as lowly underdogs, players can still enjoy going head-to-head against the pitcher and other tense aspects of the game,” Ōto insists. “We play to win, of course, so it’s disappointing to come up short. But I just shake it off and turn my mind to the next game. It’s a pleasure to play at such an elite level. I enjoy the process leading up to contests, no matter the expected outcome.”

It speaks to sheer pleasure of competing against teams whose rosters include players who will go on to play in the professional leagues. Ōto, who is enrolled in the Department of Earth and Planetary Science, says this aspect is the greatest part of playing baseball for Tōdai.

When asked whether he prefers baseball or research, he responded without hesitation—baseball. “I feel somewhat constrained by my studies since they have a direct impact on my future,” says Ōto, whose focus is ecology. “In contrast, I can enjoy my baseball without any constraint. In a competitive sports arena like the Big 6, how much you study doesn’t matter. That’s why I like it.”

Third baseman and former captain of the team, Ōto Shūhei, dreams of traveling to space in the future.
Third baseman and former captain of the team, Ōto Shūhei, dreams of traveling to space in the future.

A Moving Victory

The Big 6 consists of spring and autumn seasons, in which teams face off against other clubs three times each, with the first side to win two games claiming the series. Until 2021 spring league, the last time that Tōdai won a game was back in the fall of 2017.

Inoue Keishū, who bats cleanup for Tōdai, remembers the game. “It was a moving win,” he recounts. “It was inspiring to think that a university where you have to study nonstop to get in and that has no sporting tradition could beat a more talented squad.”

The win, the first in five years, was a big deal on campus. The next year, the club saw a record 31 new members, including Inoue, who had transferred from Hitotsubashi University, which is no slouch of a school.

“I originally wanted to go to Tōdai,“ Inoue explains, “but after failing the entrance exam twice, I entered Hitotsubashi.” There he played nankyū baseball, which uses a rubber ball instead of a hard, leather one. However, he never gave up on his dream for suiting up for Tōdai. “When I saw the school win, I decided to give it one more shot. I studied for an hour a day, focusing on math, which is my weakest subject, while continuing with my regular university classes and club activities.”

As the saying goes, the third time is the charm. Inoue realized his dream of joining the Tōdai baseball team, but he had to learn that being a member of the squad meant losing regularly. Following Tōdai’s glorious series victory over Hōsei University in spring 2017, they embarked on a humiliating four-year winless streak, which finally came to an end in the 2021 fall league.

Inoue is determined to continue his playing career after graduation—at an advanced level. Using his connections, he has managed to secure a spot with Mitsubishi Motors Okazaki, an amateur baseball powerhouse. “I’ve played ball since I was in elementary school, but I’ve never been on a strong team,” he says. With Mitsubishi, though, he has his sights on winning the prestigious Inter City Baseball Tournament, one of the top amateur titles.

The club has claimed the Inter City title 12 times, and produced a number of professional players to boot.

From next spring, Inoue will at long last get the chance to enjoy baseball on a team where winning is normal. “Once I start, I’m going to throw everything I have into the game of baseball. And if it doesn’t work out? I’ll think about that when it happens.”

Inoue Keishū, fourth-year student in the Faculty of Education, heads for first base after connecting with the ball.
Inoue Keishū, a senior in the Faculty of Education, heads for first base after connecting with the ball.

A Unique Squad

Tōdai students, having cleared a major life hurdle just by making it into the prestigious university, exude a certain confidence—no matter what happens in life, they will succeed. This is in stark contrast to ”less fortunate” university student who will be tormented by uncertainly about their future throughout life.

Yet I felt a certain connection with the experience of ace player Izawa Shunsuke. He says that while about 10 students from his high school make it into the University of Tokyo each year, he felt his grades put him out of range. He had planned to enter a university in Sapporo, near his home, and play baseball there, but he changed his mind after his high school coach encouraged him to aim for Tōdai.

The school for some time has poured energy into scouting, including launching practice sessions for promising players with excellent academic records. At these events, coaches and players also provide attendees tips on passing Tōdai’s entrance exams. Inoue set his sights on entering Tōdai after taking part in one of these sessions.

“I failed in my first outing, but was able to pass the test on the second go-round after studying furiously for twelve hours a day,” Inoue explains. “I wasn’t sure at first I’d make it in, so I kept studying for other universities after the exam. It was such a relief when I learned I’d passed.”

It was refreshing to hear how hard he had studied and how happy he was at passing, a reaction contrasting those of his more self-assured senior teammates. He assured me that students at Tōdai come from all walks of life. “There are a lot of interesting and unique people here.”

Izawa Shunsuke, ace pitcher who led the team to victory against Hōsei University, halting Tōdai’s 64-game losing streak.
Izawa Shunsuke, ace pitcher who led the team to victory against Hōsei University, halting Tōdai’s 64-game losing streak.

I spoke to numerous star players, but Tōdai Baseball Club has 130 members, many of whom, naturally, do not have the chance to play. The main members can enjoy play even if they lose, but it left me wondering where the reserves find their motivation.

Tōdai Baseball Club

Founded in 1919. The club joined the baseball association of Tokyo’s “big five” universities—Waseda, Keiō, Meiji, Hōsei, and Rikkyō—to form a six-team baseball league in 1925. In the first postwar league game in 1946, the team finished second (their highest rank ever) with four consecutive wins in the first round. In autumn 1974, they lost in the first tournament against pitcher Egawa Suguru in a contest with Hōsei University. Then, in spring 1981, they caused a sensation by winning against Waseda and Keiō to reach the championship.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: Inoue Keishū, at left, and pitcher Izawa Shunsuke celebrate after beating Rikkyō University on September 26, 2021, in the fall series of the 2021 Big 6 Baseball League at Jingū Stadium. © Kyōdō. All photos courtesy the University of Tokyo Baseball Team, unless otherwise noted.)

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