In addition to being a starting pitcher for the Toronto Blue Jays, Yusei Kikuchi is an accomplished karaoke crooner who is proud of his spirited version of the fight song of his former team in Japan, the Seibu Lions. Asked if he knew the words of a more popular song, “Eikan ha Kimi ni Kagayaku,” or “The Crown Will Shine on You,” during on an off day between starts, the competitor in him took over.
Standing in full uniform at the visitor’s dugout in Minnesota, he smiled broadly and began singing in Japanese (loosely translated):
As cherry blossoms are to spring, “The Crown Will Shine on You” is the melody of summer in Japan. It was composed by Yuji Koseki in 1948 for the wildly popular National High School Baseball Championship. And on Sunday, as they have for the last 75 years, players from the 49 prefectural champions will march into Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya to open the single-elimination summer tournament, lifting their knees high and marching to Koseki’s song.
“It’s the sound of summer,” Kikuchi said. “For sure, the sound of summer baseball. You don’t just hear it if you’re fortunate enough to advance to Koshien Stadium for the national tournament, it’s played throughout the prefectural rounds as you’re trying to advance to the national stage as a way to motivate you to play your best.”
Kikuchi marched into Koshien Stadium as a sophomore and senior. Kenta Maeda, a starting pitcher for the Minnesota Twins, marched in as a sophomore.
“It’s a melody that stays in your head,” Maeda said. “I think every Japanese person thinks of the summer baseball tournament when they hear it. For me, it reminds me of my high school years and making it there that one summer, for sure.”
Koseki was born in 1909 in Fukushima, a small city 180 miles north of Tokyo. He joined Nippon Columbia, the licensee for the American label Columbia Records, as a composer in 1930. Despite having minimal interest in sports, he dabbled in team fight songs because the marching element appealed to him.
He probably did not imagine that his career would become intertwined with Japan’s most popular sporting event.
The annual event, which was created in 1915 as the National Middle School Championship Baseball Tournament, was halted for four years during World War II. Play resumed in 1946, and under Allied occupation Japan underwent many social and economic reforms. Among them was a revision of its education system that created a new, three-year curriculum called high school.
For the annual summer baseball extravaganza at Koshien, this meant an official name change, denoting it as the National High School Baseball Championship, beginning with the 30th edition in 1948. To celebrate the change, organizers sponsored a national competition for a theme song. Koseki, who was 38 at the time, won.
In his autobiography, Koseki wrote that he drew inspiration from the end of the war — continuation of the tournament meant a continuation of peace. The soothing sounds of batted balls and youthful exuberance would replace the tension of blaring air raid sirens that had become commonplace.
He wanted an uplifting, forward-thinking song. He explained his process.
“For inspiration, I went to Koshien when it was completely empty and stood atop the mound,” Koseki wrote. “As I imagined what it would be like to be thrust into the emotions of fierce competition, the melody of the song sprung naturally into my mind. Standing on that mound was absolutely the right way to grasp it.”
Koseki’s influence at Koshien Stadium goes beyond the tournament as well, because he also composed “Rokko Oroshi,” a fight song for the stadium’s home team, the Hanshin Tigers.
Koseki was commissioned to compose the song when a professional league formed in 1936. Originally titled “Song of the Osaka Tigers,” the march has thrived as the longest continuing team fight song in Nippon Professional Baseball and is as synonymous with the Tigers as the team’s black-and-gold pinstriped uniform.
The song has even developed a cultish following akin to Harry Caray’s rendition of “Take Me Out To The Ball Game,” which still has the Wrigley Field faithful clamoring for celebrity renditions during the seventh inning stretch 25 years after Caray’s passing.
Countless musicians and celebrities have recorded versions of “Rokko Oroshi,” but perhaps the most famous came from one of Hanshin’s players. Tom O’Malley, a former Mets infielder, spent four years with Hanshin, hitting over .300 each season, but his most lasting impression came off the field.
He recorded a version of “Rokko Oroshi” in Japanese and English in 1994. True to Caray, it appealed to the masses for being endearingly off-key. The original recording sold more than 100,000 copies and a remastered digital version was released in 2014, 18 years after O’Malley’s career in Japan ended.
Koseki was inducted posthumously into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame last month for his musical contributions to both professional and amateur baseball. Twenty years earlier, he had received a far more surprising endorsement from Sadaharu Oh, who is Japan’s home run king and played for the rival Yomiuri Giants. Before the 2003 Japan Series, Oh, then managing the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks, was asked about the song he would once again be forced to hear as an opponent.
“‘Rokko Oroshi’ actually has quite a nice rhythm and is a likable song,” Oh told reporters. “Even though it’s the opposition’s fight song, the truth is it inspires all of us. The fight songs Mr. Koseki composed have a way of uplifting all those who play sports.”