The Japanese Sensei Bringing Baseball to Brazil

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Yukihiro Shimura always arrives first. He quietly puts on his baseball uniform. He rakes the dirt field meditatively. He picks up the coconut husks and dog poop. And, finally, when he finishes, he bows to Rio de Janeiro’s only baseball field.

Then his misfit team — including a geologist, graphic designer, English teacher, film student, voice actor and motorcycle delivery man — starts to form. Most are in their 20s and 30s, and some are still learning the basics of throwing, catching and swinging a bat.

It was not what Mr. Shimura envisioned when he signed up for this gig. “In my mind, the age range would be 15 to 18,” he said. “I should have asked.”

For the past two decades, Mr. Shimura, 53, was one of Japan’s top high-school baseball coaches. Now he is more than 10,000 miles from home, on a two-year mission from the Japanese government to spread the gospel of baseball.

The challenge is that Japan sent him to the land of soccer.

Despite being the largest nation in Latin America — the region that has fueled baseball’s growth in recent decades — Brazil is baffled by the sport. Brazilians say that compared with their national pastime, baseball has too many rules, too much equipment and too much standing around.

As a result, although many Brazilians wear New York Yankees caps, they often have no idea that the insignia represents the storied baseball team in the Bronx. And as Major League Baseball kicks off another season in the United States on Thursday, many Brazilians actually think of baseball as largely a Japanese sport.

That is because most people who play baseball here are part of the world’s largest Japanese diaspora, according to the Japanese government, estimated at roughly two million Japanese immigrants to Brazil and their descendants, a community that began with economic migration in the early 20th century. It is also because Mr. Shimura is the latest in a long line of Japanese coaches who have come to Brazil to teach baseball.

The coaches are hired by a Japanese government program that sends Japanese experts and money around the world to aid infrastructure and environmental projects as well as to teach cultural exports, like Japanese cooking, language and kendo.

There are nine baseball coaches in Brazil in the current cohort. As usual, nearly all of them are in São Paulo, home to the largest Japanese community outside Japan.

“I was actually surprised that the level of baseball in Brazil is quite high,” Mr. Shimura said, noting that Brazil’s national baseball team finished a surprising second in the Pan American Games last year. “But that is only in São Paulo.”

Mr. Shimura was not assigned there. Instead, he is the program’s second Japanese coach in Brazil’s mecca of samba and soccer: Rio.

Mr. Shimura’s life has revolved around baseball. He said he latched onto the sport as a child as an escape from the taunting he endured for sharing his birth name with one of Japan’s most famous slapstick comedians, Ken Shimura. (He later changed his name.)

Then it turned out he was very good at the sport — an outfielder who could field, hit and run — and he enrolled in an elite baseball school to pursue dreams of playing in Japan’s major leagues.

But he never made it past the semipro circuit. In that league, each team is owned by a large Japanese corporation, and players split their time between baseball and work. Mr. Shimura played for Kawai Musical Instruments, building pianos in the morning and practicing in the afternoon.

After seven years, he moved to coaching, eventually at a high school where he led teams to Japan’s prestigious national baseball tournament. But he said he has never had a challenge like what he faces in Rio.

When he decided to go abroad, leaving his wife and adult children for two years, he hoped to give back while having an adventure. He had dreams of developing talented young players in a baseball hotbed like the Dominican Republic.

Instead, he found himself instructing adults who had first picked up a baseball, in some cases, just weeks before. The team in Rio competes periodically against five other teams in the Rio suburbs, where there are more baseball diamonds and where Mr. Shimura also coaches on weekends.

“To be honest, I was like: ‘Ouch. Why did I do this?’” he recalled in his sparse, meticulously organized Rio rental unit, complete with a hot plate. (He receives a stipend from the Japanese government to cover his living expenses.) “But then there was a turning point. I said, I’m not going to focus on what’s missing here. I’m going to focus on what can be built.”

So Mr. Shimura started with the basics. At a recent practice, using a mix of Japanese, basic Portuguese and pantomime, he demonstrated stances on how to field ground balls and throw to a base.

As he scurried and hopped around the field, it was clear he had more energy than the players. And he was constantly talking, offering loud, positive encouragement, even though the players weren’t exactly sure what he was saying.

“You have to decipher,” said Aluisio Carvalho, 23, a teacher wearing a Toronto Blue Jays hat. “Even if you don’t understand a word he said, when he demonstrates the movement, you at least have a notion of what to do.”

The players have begun using some Japanese words — shoto for shortstop and fasto for first base, for instance — and even now sometimes bow on the field, mirroring their coach.

Mr. Shimura has also tried to impart some hallmarks of Japanese baseball. He spent time trying to explain why teamwork is important, drawing diagrams of plays. He showed his students how to maintain the field and equipment. And he demonstrated how to give respect to umpires and competitors. “I want to teach more than just baseball,” he said.

The Brazilians said they were attracted to baseball by American movies or Japanese anime — one said his introduction to the sport was a Woody Woodpecker cartoon — and then they fell in love with the novelty and pace of the game once they tried it. “You can be skinny and play, and you can be fat,” said Luan David, 18, who is studying to be a sommelier.

The players said they were inspired by Mr. Shimura’s nonstop energy and positivity. “He’s much more of a motivational coach than a strictly professional one,’’ said Rafael Dantas, 29, an information technology worker and pitcher. “More emotional than regimented. And for the level we’re playing at, that’s worth a lot more.”

“He’s a real teacher,” he added. “A true sensei.”

Mr. Dantas is one of the longest-tenured players, first introduced to baseball at a Japanese cultural event in Rio eight years ago. He and other more experienced players make up the core of the team — the “Cariocas” — which plays at a dirt baseball diamond along Rio’s picturesque lagoon and in view of its famous mountain ranges. The location draws plenty of curiosity from passers-by who have never seen live baseball. That is partly why Mr. Shimura is coaching so many novices.

Marcio Ramos, 44, a motorcycle delivery man, was at his fifth practice. He had wandered up to ask questions weeks earlier — the most he knew about baseball was from watching the Brad Pitt film “Moneyball” — and now he had learned how to hit from Mr. Shimura. “He speaks the universal language of sport,” Mr. Ramos said. “You basically translate what he wants without understanding what he says.”

A few minutes later, Mr. Ramos hit a ball over the fence for the first time. Mr. Shimura screamed in delight. “Muscle!” Mr. Shimura said, running up to squeeze Mr. Ramos’s biceps.

“I try to be happy with the little things that can be achieved,” Mr. Shimura said. “When they improve little by little, that’s where I find my joy.”



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