A Game for Children: Children’s Development Through the Pan-African Kōshien Tournament
A Japanese baseball fanatic’s passion set the ball rolling in efforts to start a pan-African high school baseball tournament modeled after Japan’s Kōshien event. We asked Tomonari Shin’ya about his plan and why baseball is growing in popularity on the mainland.
Catalyst for a wacky scheme
Last December, plans were made for a pan-African high school baseball tournament.
The Japan-Africa Baseball and Softball Foundation (J-ABS) “African 55 Kōshien Project” aims to launch a competition that includes all 55 African nations, with the aim of promoting youth development through sports. Former professional baseball player Matsui Hideki, who played in the United States and Japan in the number 55 uniform, has endorsed the project and encourages others to lend their support.
Launching a baseball tournament in every nation in Africa, where there is relatively little interest in the sport, seems like a tall order indeed. But it could happen, thanks to the concerted efforts of a baseball fanatic, J-ABS President Tomonari Shin’ya.
For 25 years, Tomonari, a former Japan International Cooperation Agency employee, helped develop baseball in Ghana, Tanzania, South Africa and other countries.
When Tomonari was playing baseball as a student at Keiō University, he dreamed of becoming Japan’s number one player. After graduating, his job took him to Ghana where in 1996 he played a match between Japanese players and a local team. Before long, he found himself the manager of the Ghana national baseball team.
Tomonari later helped establish the Tanzania Baseball and Softball Association and start a national tournament, the Tanzania Kōshien. Among many other accomplishments, Tomonari even helped start a baseball association in South Sudan – the world’s youngest country, having gained independence in 2011 – despite unrest there.
He first came up with the idea for an African Kōshien in 2011, a year before his posting to Tanzania.
“On a trip back to Ghana, I checked the state of baseball there and found that it was still active. I was involved in the sport there from 1996 to 1999. Back then I remember buying bread to feed starving players and working hard to convince their parents and elders of the merits baseball, even if there was no money in it. The players I had coached as a child were then in their twenties and had become coaches themselves.
A delighted Tomonari came up with the idea of a national tournament. He was driven by both his elation and a strong sense of worry.
“At that time, I still had concerns for the future of baseball there, after it was dropped as an Olympic sport after the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Without a professional league, the Ghana could only fund baseball as an Olympic sport. Without it, the funding dried up and we lost a major incentive to play for young people. Colleagues in Ghana feared the disappearance of baseball in their country. This has led to the idea of organizing a Ghana Kōshien to replace the Olympics and give new aspirations.
The role of baseball in youth development
At first, former players whom Tomonari had coached visited schools in and around the Ghanaian capital Accra, helping to launch teams at around 10 schools. A year later, Tomonari visited the schools to assess the results and was surprised by the gratitude expressed by the school principals.
They told him that not only did the grades of students who played baseball improve, but they also became more punctual, demonstrated leadership qualities, and became model students.
Tomonari recalls: “I did not expect such an impact. But looking back, I thought of how they formed two neat lines to practice throwing and catching, and bowed when lined up in front of the bench before and after games. Initially, even getting them to do this took time.
When Tomonari was first posted to Ghana, he learned that baseball, brought to the country by Cuba, was keeping afloat. Later, when he was transferred to Tanzania, he found no baseballs there. But he was confident he could introduce the sport based on his experience in Ghana. With the presentations of the government sports agency, he visited many schools.
It is important to note that he was still employed by JICA and that baseball promotion was not part of his role. All of his endeavors were self-funded and done in his spare time. But Tomonari felt compelled to spread the message of what a great baseball game is. In fact, the more barren the crops, the more determined he became.
His presentations on baseball in Tanzania produced visible progress. As in Ghana, children who played baseball developed enthusiasm and became more punctual. They also applied themselves more to their studies.
“People in Africa are generally loose with time. For many years, I had a hard time getting used to it. Tanzanian teachers also want to instill discipline in their students. But they do it wielding a whip. Whips are used in schools in West and East Africa, possibly a legacy of the locals’ European slavery. But when an Asian came and introduced baseball, suddenly the kids became neat and punctual. I’m sure it was a big surprise for the teachers. Due to the relatively slow pace of the game, with the time between throws, this is easy to teach. I think the coaching effectively exploited this characteristic.
Together with a team of JICA Cooperation Volunteers active in the Tanzania region, Tomonari began working to introduce baseball to the country. Less than two years after Tomonari’s posting there, Tanzania held its first national Kōshien tournament.
Due to a JICA rule limiting each overseas posting to about three years, Tomonari left Tanzania in 2015, but the Kōshien continued, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year there were 12 participating schools, a number that is expected to increase for this year’s tenth event.
Bulletproof Baseball Presentations
Tomonari’s third assignment, in South Sudan, gave him food for thought. It came at the height of that country’s bloody civil war. A local JICA rule required that staff only venture outside in armored vehicles, but Tomonari was undeterred.
Once, while driving an armored car during a municipal inspection, he discovered an impressive playground. In Ghana and Tanzania, athletes are usually forced to practice their sport on rough and rocky terrain. So he was surprised to find such fine grass in war-torn South Sudan. He learned that he belonged to the prestigious University of Juba and that he had been rehabilitated by Japanese Self-Defense Force personnel during peacekeeping operations.
That weekend, he drove in an armored car to the pitch, where he found three youths lying on a bench in the shade. They told him they were resting because of the heat. He said the boys should be more active at their age and suggested they play ball.
Tomonari fetched gloves and balls from the car – since his time in Tanzania he usually took them wherever he went.
Partly due to the lack of leisure options, the group grew larger on successive weekends. Eventually, enough young people had gathered to form a baseball team.
Tomonari was eventually able to establish a baseball association in South Sudan, as he had done in Tanzania. His reasoning is that once an association is formed, it can handle tasks such as raising needed funds and aligning support for the sport in political and business circles.
The South Sudan Baseball and Softball Association was launched shortly before the end of Tomonari’s two-year assignment, but he says he will never forget the general assembly when it was launched.
“During a photo session for the launch of the association, the president, a member of the country’s second ethnic group, the Nuer, shook hands with the secretary general, a member of the Dinka, the largest ethnic group. It was a historic moment. In a country that had suffered from fierce ethnic conflict and was even having difficulty establishing a provisional government, baseball had somehow overcome inter-ethnic differences and brought people together. I saw how baseball had the power to bring peace! he recalls enthusiastically.
“Africa suffers from relentless poverty, disease, injustice and other problems. To overcome all of this, I believe there is no alternative but to raise people who value justice, order and respect. Japanese baseball has the power to help make that happen. I also believe that if kids play baseball, they will grow up to have an affinity with Japan, which can have big implications for our country.
A Kōshien for all of Africa may seem like a pipe dream, but the seeds sown by Tomonari are beginning to bear fruit.
(Originally published in Japanese. Headline photo: Tanzanian baseball players play hard on a quintessentially African red pitch. © Tomonari Shin’ya.)