The Oendan: The Japanese Baseball Fan Club

“What I was amazed, bewildered, and never, never surprised at was the love that the Japanese people have for the game of baseball. It’s mindboggling. It’s not to be understood . . . in a normal way. It’s abnormal.”

When Bobby Valentine made the above remark about Japanese baseball fans at an event at New York’s Japan Society in January, I knew exactly what he meant.  My first experience with Japanese baseball was in 2004, when I went to Tokyo as a member of the television crew that broadcast four Yankees games. I’d heard that the crowds in Japan were crazy, but I didn’t see much evidence of that during New York’s exhibition games with the Yomiuri Giants and the Hanshin Tigers. There were pockets of fans cheering for then Yankee and former Giants star Hideki Matsui, but overall everyone seemed somewhat subdued.

It wasn’t until 2008, when I had the opportunity to see eight baseball games in Japan, that I saw Japanese fans in action. The Japanese baseball fan club, known as oendan, is probably one of the most fascinating things about Japanese baseball. Obviously, fans are all over the stadium, but the oendan – an organized, fee-based group that consists of brass bands, drummers, flag wavers, and cheer chanters – has its own section in the bleachers. Even the away team’s oendan has a designated section.

Clad in happi coats and armed with noisemakers, members of a team’s oendan follow the game and wave flags and yell specific cheers for each player. In a way, life in an oendan is much like life as a salaryman: Set up with rules that are carried out in an orderly fashion. Only with more yelling and singing. The fans sing their team’s fight song during the Japanese version of the 7th inning stretch. They used to release the balloons that they spent the previous inning blowing up, but that practice ended last season due to H1N1 concerns.

Not only did the oendan prompt Bobby V. to discuss it at a lecture, it inspired Robert Whiting to devote a chapter to the phenomenon in his book You Gotta Have Wa.

The Japanese are known for being a reserved group of polite workaholics. However, once one of them is seated in the bleachers with the rest of the oendan, Whiting writes, “he quickly sheds his traditional restraint. Spurred on by energetic cheerleaders, and the pounding rhythm of taiko drums, horns, whistles, and other noisemakers, he becomes a veritable wildman, yelling and screaming nonstop for nine solid innings.”

I work Yankees games, so I know crazy fans, but Japanese fans are different. The oendan provides organized fanaticism, cheering on the good guys without insulting the other team. Watching the fans is almost as much fun as watching the games. As Bobby V. says of the oendan, “It’s wonderful; it’s what I call one of the great national resources that Japan has.”

For whom is this great national resource cheering? I’ll have a rundown of Japanese teams in next month’s column.

Last month I promised I’d talk about Japanese stadium food – which is amazing – but ran out of room this month. If you’d like to read about baseball fare in Japan, please check out my article in The Japanese Food Report.

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  1. jim miyoshi

    March 16, 2010 at 2:40 pm

    My wife and I went and sat in a couple of the cheering sections. It was a lot of fun yelling and chanting for each player.

    Some of the fans were a little plastered but in a fun way.

    I recommend for anyone to go join them for a few innings.

  2. Susan Hamaker

    March 16, 2010 at 5:20 pm

    I didn't know you and Mei sat in the cheering sections! I didn't last year, but I did the year before in Nagoya and Sendai. Very cool experience.
    Thanks for reading! Hope you and Mei are well.

  3. Angel Arnold

    April 21, 2010 at 4:30 am

    I am stationed in Germany….Team Mom for a baseball team (Red Sox)…I have seen on tv Japanese baseball games and saw that the fans had bats? that they clapped together to make noise? I THINK they were bats…I know a person usually held 2 and they clapped them together to make noise. I want ot buy some for our team….PLEASE tell me 1- what they are called and 2-WHERE can I buy some…I LOVED them but dont know what they ae called so I can buy the parents some!
    ANY assistance would be greatly appreciated
    THANK YOU in advance

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