“Whether your head is shaved doesn’t matter” says team captain.

In American youth athletics, baseball is often seen as a comparatively laid-back sport to play, but that’s not the case at all in Japan. As the first team sport to gain popularity in Japan’s group-oriented society, being part of a baseball team is serious business. It even gets its own Japanese-language name, yakyu/野球 (literally “field ball”), which serves as a linguistic reminder that more discipline is required than in more recent Western sports imports like soccer, basketball, and football, which keep their English-language names even when being spoken of in Japanese.

For high school baseball players, the sport is often more about commitment and responsibility than fun and enjoyment. At the annual Koshien national high school baseball tournament, the most heavily featured images by sports media are not the smiles of the winning team, but the tearful faces of the losers, throats choked with regret as they struggle to voice an apology to their teammates, fans, and everyone else whose support they failed to repay with a championship.

Another example of the rigidity of high school baseball in Japan is that despite being a sport where players are required to wear a cap or helmet at all times, many teams force all players to shave their heads (or at least get extremely short buzz cuts). But for 2020, Ehime Prefecture’s Saibi High School is shaking things up by removing its shaved-head rule and letting players grow their hair long if they want to.

▼ Saibi High School’s baseball team captain Hibiki Yamada


It should be noted that Saibi, located in Ehime’s capital city of Matsuyama, is not some recently opened new-age alternate learning institute. The school was founded over a century ago and only went co-ed in 2002. Nor is Saibi an arts-and-education-only sort of place, as its baseball team is one of the best in the prefecture and finished second in the national tournament in 2004.

This year, though, the baseball team abolished its shaved-head requirement. With a lot of people forgoing haircuts during the coronavirus pandemic, this might seem like a practical/medical decision. It’d be pretty easy for players to shave their heads at home, however, and the school has made no mention of the rule change being temporary, so the new policy seems to indicate a fundamental change in philosophy by the school.

▼ Yamada knocking a homer into the left-field stands


Having had shaved heads prior to the change, it’s not like everyone on the team has shoulder-length hair all of a sudden, and some are apparently voluntarily choosing to continue with the smoothly shaven look. The majority of Saibi’s players, though, now have what would be called, at least, short hair, and not shaved heads.

With the coronavirus situation leading to the cancellation of this year’s national high school baseball tournament, Saibi is instead competing in a regional one. On August 5, the team won its third-round game, and now moves on to the quarterfinals. Many of Saibi’s players have said that they’re playing extra hard, since they don’t want people to think they’ve grown soft as their hair has grown longer, and team captain Hibiki Yamada declared, “We will win the tournament and prove that whether your head is shaved doesn’t matter.”

Should Yamada and his teammates make good on that promise, it’ll be another reason for high school baseball in Japan to reexamine how teams are managed, and also maybe for Japan as a whole to think about whether or not it attaches too much importance to someone’s choice of hairstyle.

Source: Mainichi Shimbun via Ceron
Top image: Pakutaso
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