• Baseball

Japanese H.S. Baseball Player who Helped Nation Bond at Koshien Returns Home as Coach

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Shoto Abe stands on the ground earlier this month at Ishinomaki High School in Miyagi Prefecture. He will start the new school year in April as a full-fledged teacher. His goal, he says, is to help the students strive to reach their goals.

SENDAI — In the spring one year after the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Tohoku region, the voice of a player from a high school in the area rang around Koshien Stadium. His team was on a mission that went beyond winning a baseball championship.

“This goes out to everywhere in Japan,” he declared, “Inspiration, courage, smiles. Let’s show the boundless strength of Japan, the bond we share.”

Shoto Abe, a 17-year-old player on the Ishinomaki Technical High School team in Miyagi Prefecture, was at the 84th National High School Baseball Invitational Tournament in March 2012. He could barely keep his legs from shaking as he delivered that message during the players’ oath prior to the start of the tournament.

Abe has since returned to his hometown, where he now conveys his determination to overcome adversity to a new generation of players as a coach at Ishinomaki High School.

On the day of what would become the Great East Japan Earthquake, first-year Abe and the rest of the team were practicing when the ground began to violently shake. The massive tsunami that followed swept away all of the team’s equipment and left the ground covered in mud.

Needless to say, baseball became less of a priority. But just as the team had given up all hope, bats, balls and other equipment started arriving from high schools around the country. Teachers, former players and friends came out to help scrape the mud off the practice ground.

Within one month, a small space had been cleared, enough to allow the team to resume practice. Abe said he will never forget how it felt just to be able to play catch in those days.

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
Abe gives the players’ oath at the opening ceremony of the National High School Baseball Invitational Tournament at Koshien Stadium in March 2012.

In the fall of his second year, he was named captain of the team. It did well in the Miyagi prefectural tournament, leading to the school being chosen for the following spring’s national invitational tournament by filling the special “21st century slot,” which is reserved for schools undergoing difficult circumstances.

Adding to the attention already showered on a school from the disaster area appearing in the tournament, Abe was selected at random to give the players’ oath. Seeking advice from his teammates on what to say, they bandied about words like “smile,” “gratitude” and “bond.”

On the field, however, there was no sympathy and Ishinomaki Technical lost its opening game. Even so, the players from Kagoshima Prefecture’s Kamimura Gakuen paid tribute after the game by taking off their caps and gloves, putting them on the ground and shaking their opponents’ hands with both hands. As the players came off the field, it was to a shower of calls of “Thank you” from the crowd.

It was as if enduring all the hardship had been rewarded. As the faces of the teachers, parents and others whose efforts kept the baseball team going came to mind, Abe thought, “I want to be an adult like them.”

Abe went on to Nippon Sport Science University, where he studied health and physical education and obtained his teaching license. Upon graduation, he returned to Ishinomaki, where he worked as a substitute teacher at Ishinomaki High School and coached the baseball team.

“No matter how hard things get, face up to it and fight on,” he would say to inspire the team members, while engaged in a struggle of his own — he had failed to pass the exam to become a certified teacher. Last fall, he finally passed the test on his fifth try.

This winter, Ishinomaki was hit with snowfall, a rarity for the coastal city. As the snow was cleared off the practice ground, Abe recalled those days 10 years ago when mud had to be removed. “If you never give up making an effort, there will surely be people who support you,” Abe said, wanting to convey to the students what he had learned from his experience of the disaster.

From April, he will realize his dream of being a full-fledged teacher.

As in the past, Abe awaits a message he will receive on March 11, the anniversary of the disaster. The sender will be the captain of the Kamimura Gakuen team that he faced at Koshien. Now working at a company in Kyushu, the annual message reads, “Let’s get the same members together someday and play a game.”

As for Abe, he won’t lose next time.

■ Crowd comes together as one

As Abe stepped forward to give the players’ oath at the opening ceremony for the 84th National High School Baseball Invitational Tournament, he was greeted with generous applause from the crowd of 18,000. In the stands down the first-base line, supporters of one of the teams getting ready to play in the first game formed human figures of the kanji and hiragana characters for “kizuna” (bond) and “kokoro hitotsu” (one heart).