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Major League success hurts Japan baseball

TOKYO, July 28 (UPI) -- His success with the New York Yankees is the source of national pride, but Hideki Matsui's strong performance with the U.S. major league is actually leading to a decline in Japanese baseball.

Turn on the evening news on any of Japan's six major networks, and more often than not, the top sports item will be the performance of one of the dozen Japanese baseball players currently playing in the United States. Among them, Ichiro Suzuki who plays for the Seattle Mariners competes for the top spot with Matsui in terms of attracting Japanese viewers. Another favorite is Kazuo Matsui (who is no relation of the Yankees' Matsui) of the New York Mets.

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Prior to the introduction of the free-agent system several years ago, it was almost impossible for Japanese players to shift allegiances and rare indeed for them to try out their skills overseas. But the free-agent system not only allowed top players to command more pay within Japan, but it also led to an exodus of the nation's top sluggers and pitchers. The Yankees' Matsui is the ninth Japanese to head to the United States, and his success there has proved to be an inspiration to many Japanese, even those who were disinterested in baseball until then.

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Noriko Kobayashi is one such fan.

"I never watched baseball until Matsui went to New York," she said. "But he's been an inspiration...that Japanese people can really succeed just by their own ability in America."

Indeed, so popular are the two Matsuis and Ichiro these days that tourist agencies have started a cottage industry of organizing trips to Seattle and New York, guaranteeing customers the opportunity to soak in at least one game with a top Japanese player on the home ground of their new home.

U.S. businesses too have profited from the surge in popularity of major league games in Japan, from increased revenue for broadcast rights in Asia as well as strong demand for tickets by Japanese fans, to brisk sales in merchandise. In fact, Seattle has become so popular with Japanese tourists these days that there are daily direct flights to the city from Tokyo, while at Safeco Field where the Mariners play, sushi is almost as common as hot dogs as the snack food of choice.

But while baseball might be heralded as the latest tool to bolster U.S. ties with Japan, not everyone is happy about the loss of star players to the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

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"It's made Japanese baseball dull," lamented Toshiyuki Tamura, a 59-year-old office worker. A fan of the Yomiuri Giants, the most popular Japanese team based in Tokyo, Tamura said the loss of players such as Matsui known best by his nickname "Godzilla" has made Japanese baseball less exciting.

"And if I think it's become dull because of the loss of players, think of what young people are thinking," Tamura said.

Fans are actually already voting with their feet and their television sets. As networks are more eager to broadcast games from the United States, they are less willing to show games between Japanese teams, especially those that have fewer fans. So while big-name teams such as the Yomiuri Giants still can draw crowds and guarantee solid viewership, other smaller teams such as the Yakult Swallows or the Yokohama Bay Stars, are barely holding on to their core fan base.

In fact, some baseball executives are questioning the survival of the game in Japan, and have proposed that the current two-league system of professional baseball be merged into one. Since June, four of the six teams on the Pacific League, the less popular of the two groups, said they plan to merge to ensure continued support. One idea that is being bandied about is to combine the Pacific and Central Leagues into one, and have a total of ten rather than 12 teams that exist now.

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Already, the Orix Blue Wave, where Ichiro used to belong before moving to the Mariners, and the Kintetsu Buffaloes have proposed merging their two teams. That merger was approved by the team owners at a meeting on July 7, but on the same day, the owner of the Seibu Lions said he too would consider merging his team with another.

Die-hard fans of their local teams are vehemently opposing any talk of mergers or the introduction of a one-league system. But while the debate continues to dominate Japan's sports news, one thing is clear: the nation's favorite pastime is facing a crisis, and something needs to change soon.

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