Japanese Sensei brings baseball to Brazil

Yukihiro Shimura always comes first. He calmly wears his baseball uniform. He thoughtfully rakes the dirt field. He collects coconut husks and dog poop. And finally, when he finishes, he bows before the only baseball field in Rio de Janeiro.

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

This was not what Mr. Shimura imagined when he signed up for this concert. “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, has been one of Japan’s top high school baseball coaches. He is now more than 10,000 miles from home, on a two-year mission by the Japanese government to spread the gospel of baseball.

The challenge is for Japan to send him to the land of football.

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 to their national pastime, baseball has too many rules, too much equipment and too many people around.

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

That’s because most of the people who play baseball here are part of the world’s largest Japanese diaspora, estimated by the Japanese government to be about two million Japanese immigrants to Brazil and their descendants, a community that began with economic migration all over the world. beginning of the 20th century. Also because Mr. Shimura is the latest in a long line of Japanese coaches to 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 support infrastructure and environmental projects, as well as to teach cultural exports, such as Japanese cuisine, language and kendo.

There are nine baseball coaches in Brazil in the current group. As usual, almost everyone is in Sao Paulo, home to the largest Japanese community outside Japan.

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

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

Mr. Shimura’s life revolves around baseball. He said he took up the sport as a child as an escape from the taunts 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 his dream of playing in Japan’s major leagues.

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

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

When he decided to go abroad, leaving his wife and adult children behind for two years, he hoped to reciprocate by having an adventure. He dreamed of developing talented young players in a baseball hotbed like the Dominican Republic.

Instead, he found himself giving instructions to adults who had picked up a baseball for the first time, in some cases, only a few weeks earlier. The Rio team periodically competes against five other teams in Rio’s suburbs, where there are more baseball diamonds and where Mr. Shimura also coaches on weekends.

“To be honest, I thought, ‘Ouch. Why did I do this? ‘” he recalled in his sparse, meticulously organized rental unit in Rio, complete with stove. (She receives a stipend from the Japanese government to cover her living expenses.) “But then there was a turning point. I said I won’t focus on what’s missing here. I will focus on what can be built.”

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

As he ran and jumped around the field, it was clear he had more energy than the players. And he talked constantly, offering strong, positive encouragement, even if 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 shows the movement, at least you have an idea of ​​what to do.”

Players began using some Japanese words – shoto for shortstop and pomp for first base, for example – and even now sometimes bow on the field, mirroring their coach.

Mr. Shimura also tried to convey some characteristics of Japanese baseball. He spent time trying to explain why teamwork is important by drawing diagrams of the plays. He showed his students how to maintain the camp and equipment. And he demonstrated how to show respect to the referees and competitors. “I want to teach more than just baseball,” he said.

Brazilians said they were drawn to baseball by American films 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.

Players said they were inspired by Mr. Shimura’s ongoing energy and positivity. “He’s much more of a motivational coach than a strictly professional one,” said Rafael Dantas, 29, a computer scientist and pitcher. “More emotional than regimented. And for the level we play at, it’s worth much more.”

“He is a real teacher,” she added. “A true sensei.”

Mr. Dantas is one of the longest-serving players, first introduced to baseball at a Japanese cultural event in Rio eight years ago. He and other more experienced players form the core of the team – the “Cariocas” – which plays on a baseball field along Rio’s picturesque lagoon and within sight of its famous mountain ranges. The location attracts a lot of curiosity from passers-by who have never seen baseball live. This is partly why Mr. Shimura is training so many beginners.

Marcio Ramos, 44, a motorcycle delivery man, was in his fifth training session. He had come over to ask questions weeks before – the most he knew about baseball was from watching the Brad Pitt movie “Moneyball” – and now he had learned how to hit from Mr. Shimura. “He speaks the universal language of sport,” Ramos said. “You basically translate what he wants without understanding what he says.”

A few minutes later, Mr. Ramos hit the ball over the fence for the first time. Mr. Shimura screamed with joy. “Muscle!” Mr. Shimura said, rushing to squeeze Mr. Ramos’ biceps.

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