Out of Japan: When you've baseball hysteria, who needs tranquillisers?

TOKYO - There are times, not too frequent, when the Japanese drop their chilly reserve and let their hair down: young, scantily clad women do it in discos, while fatigued and fortified salarymen do it in karaoke bars.

Then there is baseball, for decades the most popular sport in Japan, sending the average nine-to- fiver into a raving frenzy with a yearning for victory for his home team that borders on bloodlust.

Not that there is any violence or crowd trouble in Japanese baseball stadiums. But there is an almost unsustainable level of hysteria from in the stands, seemingly unconnected with the events on the field.

Last weekend I went to Tokyo Dome, an enormous multi-purpose stadium with an inflatable airbag roof that houses trade fairs, rock concerts and mass discos when it is not being used for baseball. The Yomiuri Giants were playing the Chunichi Dragons in the second of a three-game series, but it could have been the meeting of two warring tribes.

A contributing factor was the acquisition by the Giants of Hiromitsu Ochiai, formerly the star home- run-hitter of the Dragons: this is the first year that players have been allowed to transfer to other teams as 'free agents'.

Men and women who spend most of the week bowing to their bosses and listening quietly to the most inane instructions were being magically possessed with shamanistic trances, shaking their bodies and uttering strange cries and homages to their gods on the field with complete lack of self-consciousness. Tears and laughter, joy and sorrow, everything was on show.

Hanshin Tigers fans from the rough-and-ready city of Osaka have jumped naked into a river in the city centre after their team has won. Hiroshi Kume, the nation's most highly respected television newscaster, shaved half his head when his team, the Hiroshima Carp, had a losing streak. Baseball is Japan's answer to tranquillisers.

Standing at the pinnacle of Japanese baseball are the Yomiuri Giants, the richest, strongest, most popular of all the league teams, a sports machine that has been steamrollering its opponents since it won the very first league competition in 1936. In Japan you are either a fan of the Giants - Kyojin in Japanese - or you are anchi-Kyojin (anti-Giants).

The Giants are owned by the Yomiuri newspaper, which sells 14 million copies a day - the highest circulation in the world - and also owns a television station. Giants fans are as fanatical as members of 'born again' religions, and before big games many sleep outside the Yomiuri headquarters to be first in line to buy tickets.

The Dragons were doing their best not to be intimidated by the Giants supporters' firepower: one fan defiantly waved a flag for the 'Drunken Dragons Club'. But the Giants' crowd was bigger, and because Tokyo Dome is their home turf, they had control of the public address system and the huge video screen beside the scoreboard - both were unashamedly used to co- ordinate the Giants' cheering.

Fortified with beer, hot dogs and hamburgers, which sell as well as the dried squid, noodles and cups of sake, the crowd got stuck in to some pre-game chanting. Then their heroes took to the field.

Thousands of plastic bats were banged in unison like war drums. When a Dragons fielder dropped a catch, the hooting was like a 20- mile traffic jam on the motorway after a bank holiday. Yakult Swallows fans are famous for opening umbrellas when an opposing pitcher makes a mistake to tell him it is time to hit the showers. There is little concern for preserving face on the baseball field.

For a while the Dragons had the temerity to lead, but then Ochiai came out and hit a home run for the Giants: the crowd went wild. The video screen flashed a cartoon of muscled biceps with the caption 'Guts'. The speakers announced that the team's sponsors were donating money to charity, because it was 'home run week'. The person who caught Ochiai's ball in the crowd was told he or she would be given a whole ham by one sponsoring company if they presented the ball at Gate 25. (Only home run balls can be kept: if a player hits a foul ball into the crowd, ushers converge on the site to take the ball back, and it is always produced promptly without argument. American baseball fans find this hard to believe.)

Ochiai is more than a player - he is becoming a legend. His stroppy wife has made herself into a star by perversely revealing how badly she has treated her husband, making him work harder at his game: her book Diary of a bad wife is a bestseller. In a nation where wifely obedience is so highly valued, her bucking of the trend is further evidence of the emotional leeway that baseball enjoys. But by the time the Giants won, 5-4, the catharsis had burnt itself out, and the hoarse, sweating, exhausted fans headed tamely for the station. From the stadium, two remote-controlled propellor-driven blimps with flashing lights lifted off and circled the field, advertising a brand of aspirin. Monday morning in the office loomed large.

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