Looking to the Future, Japan Would Say Goodbye to Its Baseball Past

TOKYO — Over a span of nearly 100 years, Meiji Jingu Stadium in central Tokyo has been the scene of numerous important events. Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig played there on a barnstorming tour, the novelist Haruki Murakami was inspired by a trip to the stadium to write his first novel and just last year Munetaka Murakami of the Yakult Swallows hit a record-breaking home run into the stadium’s stands.

An ambitious redevelopment plan, however, would have the stadium razed and replaced with a modern facility. The plan has come under intense scrutiny from disparate groups that include fans of baseball history, followers of the country’s rugby history and conservationists who are concerned about how the various projects would affect the Jingu Gaien district, a historic green space that features century-old trees provided by the industrialist Shibusawa Eiichi, known by some as the father of Japanese capitalism.

“This is like building skyscrapers in the middle of Central Park in New York,” Mikiko Ishikawa, an emeritus professor at the University of Tokyo, told The Associated Press of the redevelopment plan. “Tokyo would lose its soul.”

On a barnstorming tour of Japan in 1934, Babe Ruth hit five home runs at Meiji Jingu.Credit…The New York Times

Part of that soul lies in Meiji Jingu, Japan’s second-oldest baseball stadium to Hanshin Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya. The ballparks are Nippon Professional Baseball’s answers to Major League Baseball’s Fenway Park in Boston and Wrigley Field in Chicago.

In the redevelopment plan, Meiji Jingu Stadium and a neighboring venue, the Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium, which opened in 1947 and was used as a soccer venue during the 1964 Summer Olympics, would be demolished in phases. The new versions of the two stadiums would swap locations.

The goal of the project is to modernize the various facilities involved, which are far out of date, and to create a better environment for moving between the stadiums. Open spaces would be created and enlarged and the hope is that it would be a hub for tourism and for people to enjoy the various sporting events that would be held there. The entire project, which includes skyscrapers and a hotel, is scheduled to be completed by 2036.

At that point it will have been just over 100 years since a lineup of M.L.B. stars played five games at Meiji Jingu during a tour of Japan in 1934. Ruth put on a show by hitting 13 home runs, five of them in Meiji Jingu. The ripples of that tour are still felt, as the Japanese team compiled to take on the Americans went on to form the Yomiuri Giants, a team that would dominate N.P.B.

Forty-four years later, Haruki Murakami was in the stadium’s bleachers having a beer when he was so inspired by “the satisfying crack when the bat met the ball” that he purchased a pen and paper on his way home and immediately began writing the novel “Hear the Wind Sing.”

The group Save Jingu Gaien includes, from left, Wakako Hara, Natsuka Kusumoto, Rochelle Kopp, Takeshi Kubota, Mao Kawaguchi, Jun Fukumori.Credit…Joshua Mellin for The New York Times

In 2022, it was Munetaka Murakami (no relation to Haruki) who took a turn making history, slugging his 56th homer of the year at the park and breaking Sadaharu Oh’s single-season record for a Japanese-born player.

Beyond the stadium’s history, the plans have raised concerns because the relocations would have the new baseball stadium run adjacent to a notable avenue of century-old ginkgo trees that are celebrated with an annual fall festival.

The New Jingu Gaien planning website promises to “preserve the four rows of ginkgo trees and pass on to future generations the beautiful scenery with a good view of the Meiji Memorial Picture Gallery.”

But the Japanese ICOMOS National Committee, which consists of a panel of experts involved in cultural heritage preservation, says the plan does not properly address the tree line nor offer scientific data about the issue.

Rochelle Kopp, a management consultant who works with Japanese businesses, has organized a petition to rethink the Meiji Jingu development, and has partnered with other activists who are concerned about how the plans will affect the trees.

The area around the stadium is known for its green space, much of which would be affected by the redevelopment plan.Credit…Joshua Mellin for The New York Times
Protests have erupted, many of which are focusing on the potential destruction of trees in the area.Credit…Stephen Wade/Associated Press

“The roots have branches out as far as the top of the tree, which means they’re branching out pretty far,” Kopp said of the trees. “Tree experts have said, if you put this wall on the stadium, which is going to have piling going 40 meters into the ground, that is going to, for sure, damage the rest of the tree.”

In response to the criticisms, the developers have adjusted the plan for fewer trees to be felled, but activists have said that the trees’ complex roots systems could still be compromised and that the amount of sunlight the trees receive will be affected by the new surrounding buildings.

There are other concerns about the plans as well.

Robert Whiting, an American author and journalist who has lived in Japan for most of the last 50 years and has written several books on Japanese culture, first visited Meiji Jingu Stadium in the 1960s, he wrote, “when there were no seats in the outfield, just a grassy slope where you could sit and watch the game, spread out a blanket, drink beer and look at the sky between innings.”

Whiting has organized his own petition against the development because of concerns about the loss of heritage, the potential damage to the current trees and the overall environmental impact of the project.

Even at a preseason game, Swallows fans came out to Meiji Jingu in force.Credit…Joshua Mellin for The New York Times

“It’s going to make for a less pleasant experience for fans,” he said.

While the issues surrounding the redevelopment project are complex, some detractors are simply focused on losing the experience of seeing games in a venue with so much history.

Lilli Friedman, a Temple University student on a study abroad program, grew up a Yankees fan in New York. She said she has become a passionate fan of Japanese baseball and that she “loves the history and being outside” at Meiji Jingu Stadium, which evokes the “same feeling as when I used to go to the old Yankee Stadium.”

“Coming from a Yankees fan standpoint, I don’t know anyone that didn’t prefer the old Yankee Stadium to the new one,” Friedman said. “I think there’s something to be said for even if it’s not the flashiest, newest stadium, keeping an environment that people really connect to, and have memories of, has a really special history especially because it’s such an endangered species now.”

If the project continues as planned, the baseball stadium will switch places with a rugby stadium. The process is expected to be completed by 2036.Credit…Joshua Mellin for The New York Times
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