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The women’s baseball movement has made many strides in the United States in recent years, but it’s not yet at the same echelon at the professional level as some other countries.

Japan has a history of professional women’s baseball, with the most recent iteration being the Japan Women’s Baseball League. The league announced in December of 2021 that it would shut down indefinitely, but professional women’s baseball in Japan is far from finished. In fact, Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) teams are putting together their own women’s teams for a new league.

The new league is set to begin competition in 2023. Of the 12 teams who compete in NPB, three of them have announced the establishment of women’s teams: the Yomiuri Giants, the Saitama Seibu Lions, and the Hanshin Tigers.

Similar to the United States, women have been playing baseball for as long as men have, even though opportunities to play the game have been scarce over the centuries. The new league started by NPB marks a historic occasion, but it is far from the first instance of professional women’s baseball in Japan.

Baseball was first introduced to women in Japan at an academy in Kyoto way back in 1902. The popularity of the game quickly spread, but in 1926, the Japanese government effectively banned women from playing baseball, believing that the sport was meant to be played by men and only men.

The Second World War drastically changed the landscape of Japan and among those many changes was the reintroduction of women’s baseball. Japan’s first professional women’s baseball league was formed in 1950, shortly after the formation of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. The women’s baseball league was eventually renamed the Industrial League and was widely popular throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Originally, the league consisted of just four teams, but more than 20 teams were competing at its peak.

The Industrial League eventually folded in the 1970s, but the women’s baseball movement was already in full swing. By the late 1990s, women’s baseball teams began to appear at the high school level. Then almost 20 years later, the second professional women’s baseball league, the Japan Women’s Baseball League, was formed. However, the league consisted of only four teams with only one owner between them. This unsustainable business model eventually led to the league folding. Now, the third professional women’s baseball league is seeking to avoid the fate of the previous two leagues by being more stable and hoping to last for a much longer time.

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“When we heard that they were deciding to close down, we began to think about how to establish a healthy and sustainable league,” said the Women’s Baseball Federation of Japan President Hiroko Yamada. “We still appreciate everything the owner did for 10 years to promote women’s baseball. But I think it is time for us to do it a different way, a better way to promote women’s baseball. I started talking to NPB teams about starting a women’s professional league that had different owners for different teams. At first, they didn’t really believe in the idea, but then the number of women wanting to play at the professional level kept increasing, and the number of men wanting to play professionally kept decreasing.”

Another factor that pushed NPB teams to help with the creation of this new league was a gender equality social movement that was taking place in Japan. In February of 2021, former prime minister and the Tokyo 2020 Olympics organizing committee President Yoshiro Mori remarked that “women talk too much” during an Olympic Committee board meeting. The sexist remark was received with an outcry from the public and Mori eventually resigned from the committee.

“I think our whole society began to talk more about gender equality after that, and I think the NPB teams also wanted to help out in the battle for gender equality,” Yamada said. “They also think that [creating a new professional women’s league from a business standpoint] is profitable because they can approach different sponsors, different markets, and different fans.”

With the formation of this new league being a win-win situation for everyone involved, it begs the question as to whether or not we will ever see something similar in the United States. If we do, it will likely take quite a bit of time.

The United States lacks the structure and opportunities that Japan has for young women baseball players — there are currently no all-women baseball teams at the high school level and no NCAA-sponsored women’s baseball teams at the collegiate level. This gap in the pipeline makes it incredibly difficult for young women to play baseball in high school, let alone make it to the professional level. But this is not to say that it will never happen or that progress isn’t being made.

Justine Siegal, the founder of Baseball For All, is currently focused on creating women’s baseball club teams at the collegiate level with the eventual goal of getting women’s baseball to be an NCAA-sponsored sport. The prospect of all-women baseball teams at the high school level might seem like an impossibility now, but it was only a few decades ago that the same could be said about Japan.

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“When we started about 20 years ago, there were only five high schools that had women’s baseball teams,” Yamada said. “Now there are 60.”

Japan however has the advantage in that baseball is at a different level of popularity there than it is in the United States. And while baseball is a popular sport in the United States, it can be overshadowed by other sports such as football and basketball.

“There’s a different cultural relationship to the game over there,” said Jessica Luther, an investigative journalist who has covered women’s sports and written about the globalization of women’s baseball. “Even on the high school level, it is a huge deal.”

Fortunately, there are plenty of steps being made in the right direction. Aside from Siegal’s work, Major League Baseball has also stepped up in recent years to increase playing opportunities for women. Two of MLB’s most notable products are MLB GRIT: Girls ID Tour and the Girls Baseball Breakthrough Series (GBBS), which has been put together along with USA Baseball. MLB GRIT serves as a workout event for players under the age of 18 to showcase their talent and receive training and instructions. GBBS is similar to MLB GRIT except that it also includes off-field development programs.

“Major League Baseball has done a lot of work with girl’s baseball over the last 10 or so years,” Luther said. “I think MLB has figured out that if you are going to grow the game there is a massively overlooked part of the game that they need to acknowledge.”

If we do ever see an all-women professional baseball league in the United States, MLB will likely need to play a big supportive role to ensure its success. This is the case with the NPB and the new professional women’s baseball league in Japan and was the case with the NBA when the WNBA was first created.

“I always want to see men’s sports share the wealth that they have created,” Luther said. “Especially because so often they have been a huge part of the reason that girls and women have been excluded from sports.”

Yamada agreed with Luther’s statement, stating that in her personal opinion, 

“...women’s sports need a lot of support from men’s sports. I learned a lot from the WNBA. They are a very successful league and I got the hint from them that if we started a professional league for women’s baseball, we have to have the NPB help out.”

When the WNBA was first formed in 1996, each team was owned by the NBA. Eventually, each WNBA team became independently owned. Since then, the league has not only survived but has thrived, demonstrating that professional women’s sports leagues, while needing help from men’s professional sports leagues, can have independent success.

The WNBA-NBA relationship also serves as precedence if we ever see the creation of a similar league for women’s baseball in the United States. Considering America’s favorite pastime is deeply rooted in the United States, it would only make sense for it to be the home of the highest level of competition for both men’s and women’s baseball.

Luther stated that anytime there is something sports-related being built outside of the United States, it will push the U.S. to build something similar. But to Yamada, that is the biggest threat to the growing league in Japan.

“I am scared for our new league if the United States ever creates its own professional women’s baseball league,” Yamada said. “The United States might not have the same environment for women’s baseball players that we have, but it is still very strong and getting stronger. If [the U.S.] ever have a similar environment, forget it. They will be the Queens of the world when it comes to women’s baseball, I’m sure of it.”


Photo credits: courtesy of Shutterstock, Hiroko Yamada, South Australian Women’s Baseball League’s Instagram