The Ultimate Guide To Japanese Baseball Cards
Baseball cards have a long history, almost as long as their better-known equivalents in the United States. Japan has its own unique card sets.
However, it also has local equivalents of familiar American products. Often, they are cheaper despite their unique flavor. Now Topps has opened an office in Tokyo and has begun to release its own series of Japanese cards.
So, there has never been a better time to get into this unique hobby nice. To help you out, we present the ultimate guide to Japanese baseball cards.
The Nippon Professional League leads the way
The highest level of Japanese baseball is currently known as the Nippon Professional League. However, from 1939 until 1949, it was called the Japanese Baseball League. It is divided into two: a Central Division and a Pacific Division. Each one contains six teams today. The winner of each division matches up in the best of seven Japan Series, which determines the champion.
Below the top level are two minor league ranks: the Eastern League and the Western League. But far more important is baseball at the high school level. The National High School Baseball Championship and spring invitational tournament pull massive crowds and TV ratings.
They are culturally comparable to our NCAA tournaments. And the big stars go directly to the Nippon Professional League.
The game is very similar to the MLB version. However, there are differences. For example, a Nippon Professional League can end in a tie. Another difference is that there is a more profound sense of loyalty between players and teams.
Therefore, trades are far less common. It is similar to the work culture in Japan, where individuals have traditionally spent their entire careers at one company.
The ultimate guide to Japanese baseball cards: Another side of Japanese culture
Japanese baseball is known as an outlier in a usually reserved culture. So, if you go to games, you may be surprised to encounter a loud and boisterous crowd, quite different from other social settings in the country.
The most hardcore fans perform the oendan style of support. It is a localized version of the participation we expect from European soccer fans. Many supporters dress in traditional festival regalia. The crowd leaders will pound taiko drums and play carefully orchestrated pieces on brass instruments. They will have different songs and lyrics to greet every player on the team.
In addition, the cheering and singing continue throughout the game, regardless of the score. It is an awe-inspiring display. There are separate sections for home and away fans, another element soccer fans will be familiar with. But that is where the similarity to European soccer ends.
There are no Japanese baseball hooligans, and fights between fans are few and far between. Instead, the relationship between rival fans tends to be quite friendly.
The Japanese people take great pride in their most prominent stars and their success in the MLB. Local news catches viewers up on the exploits of the best players. For example, when I visited Anaheim recently, I saw large groups of Japanese fans in Shoei Ohtani shirts waiting for their hero outside the stadium after the game.
Japanese MLB players
As Japanese players have become more important in the MLB, cards from the Nippon Japanese League have attained greater visibility in the United States. The first player from the Land of the Rising Son to grace the pros was Masanori Murakami.
The pitcher made his debut for the San Francisco Giants on September 1, 1964. Over his two years in the Bay, he pitched so well that the Giants did not want Murakami to return to Japan despite contractual obligations.
Perhaps because of the legal issues that cut promising MLB career of Murakami short, no Japanese players appeared in “the show” for 30 years. But a wave of excellent players arrived in the 1990s. It started with 1995 National League Rookie of the Year Hideo Nomo, who pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets, among other teams.
Several other players followed Nomo. But the most outstanding was Ichiro Suzuki, an outfielder who made his debut for the Seattle Mariners in 2001. Suzuki was a 10-time All-Star (in addition to being a 7-time All-Star in Japan). The 2001 AL MVP was also a two-time batting champion. In short, Ichiro was an absolute superstar and a likely future Hall of Famer when he hits the ballot in 2024.
Other stars have included Dodgers ace Kenta Maeda, Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, and All-Star Hideki Matsui. One of the best pitchers in the National League today, Yu Darvish, is of Japanese extraction as well. However, today one star from the Nippon Japanese League stands head and shoulders above the rest.
The Shohei Ohtani effect
Shohei Ohtani is one of the most hyped players in the history of baseball. It is easy to see why. He is tremendously charismatic and good-looking. And he is a phenomenal baseball player, able to pitch and hit at the absolute highest level. It is a unique combination of capabilities not seen since the heady days of Babe Ruth.
In 2021, Ohtani announced that he would pitch and play as a designated hitter daily. What followed was one of the greatest seasons in baseball history.
Shohei hit 46 home runs with a .965 OPS. Impressive enough. But add that to a 9-2 pitching record with a 3.18 ERA, and you have history. Obviously, Shohei won the AL MVP. In 2022, he is having a comparable season and is in a two-person race with Aaron Judge for MVP honors.
Ohtani’s American rookie cards are doing good business. Look at this chart with recent comps for some of his PSA 10 Japanese baseball cards for sale:
|2018 Topps Update||$112.50|
|2018 Topps Update Auto||$5,375|
|2018 Bowman Chrome Auto||$12,100|
|2018 Bowman Chrome Blue Refractor Auto||$3,500|
How good is the Nippon Professional League compared to the MLB?
The MLB has always been considered the best baseball league in the world. However, the differences in quality between that league and others can be overstated. One clear example is the Negro Leagues. Until recently, they were considered inferior to the MLB. However, considering the remarkably successful integration of players in the 1950s, that has been reconsidered.
You could make a similar case for the Nippon Professional League. Several Japanese players have become stars or even superstars in the MLB.
Overall, the quality of the NPL is probably lower simply because the selection of players is smaller. The league has about 90%, local players. Since Japan has a third of the population of the US, and the MLB also draws players from all over the world (including the best Japanese players), it stands to reason that The Nippon Professional League is not quite up to par.
However, top-level Japanese players do not have a notably difficult time acclimating to “the show.” Therefore, most scouts and managers consider the NPL a step above AAA but below the MLB in terms of overall quality.
American interest in Japanese baseball cards
Japanese baseball cards are a niche market in the United States but have fans. At first, there was a disconnect between the hobbies in the two countries. However, in the 1960s, that started to change.
The 1964 Morinaga Stand-Ups, 1965 Fujiya Gum, and 1967 Kabaya-Leaf series all saw releases in the US. Gary Engel, the number one expert on Japanese cards, explained, “It’s like a T206 or 1952 Topps for Japanese American collectors, but not for Japanese collectors. The reason for that is they’re rarely ever seen in Japan. There are more Kabaya-Leaf cards in the United States than there are in Japan right now by a factor of 10.”
Indeed, some of the most prominent collectors of Japanese cards live in the United States. The top recognized guide for Japanese cards is the one published by Engel, an American collector. Many of the best card shops carry them as well.
Topps has realized the potential there, especially with the current popularity of Shohei Ohtani. So in 2021, the card giant issued its first series of NPB cards. Topps even opened an office in Tokyo for the first time. So while Japan will be the primary market for this release, we guarantee it will be readily available in the US.
David Leiner, Topps’ Global General Manager, Sports, and Entertainment, said, “we have been actively pursuing the NPB league as a way to better serve baseball and sports fans in Japan and beyond. We feel the licensing agreement will deliver fans an exciting range of collectible products and enhance how fans collect their favorite teams and players.”
Vintage Japanese baseball cards
As we have noted, Japanese cards have been around forever. However, vintage cards Japanese baseball cards are a niche market in the United States because they do not feature any MLB players.
The Japanese Baseball League was formed in 1936. In 1937, the country began its long war in China, the first campaigns of World War 2. In an effort to save on materials, the government banned the production of baseball cards. So cards for players in the early years of professional baseball are tough to find.
Indeed, Rob Fitts, one of the most prominent Japanese card collectors out there, who has three dozen Japanese card sets on the PSA Set Registry, says the thrill of the hunt motivates him to pursue these cards.
“The beauty of collecting vintage Japanese cards is you just can’t go out and buy them. One of the things that’s always bothered me about collecting American cards is if you have the money, you can buy the card, with a few exceptions. With Japanese cards, you can’t do that. You can look for cards for years and not find them for any amount of money.”
Baseball Menko Discs (1900-1936)
Japan has always done things differently, and you can see that right from the start. For example, some of the earliest baseball cards in the country came in the form of Menko discs. That is a veteran Japanese game invented way back in the 17th Century.
In their earliest versions, the discs were made of various materials, including wood and clay. They featured the most important cultural symbols of the time, including samurais and ninjas.
It’s a combination of cards and a skill game involving an attempt to flip the other player’s Menko discs by throwing your card at them or creating a gust of wind with your hands. If you flipped your opponent’s disc, you took it. Whoever owned more discs at the end of the game was the winner.
The first baseball Menko appeared in 1897. In their earliest versions, they featured anonymous players. However, over time, the discs featured famous Japanese baseball stars.
In 1945, the United States occupied Japan after World War 2. General Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, was the de facto governor of Japan. He banned using Menko discs featuring traditional Japanese icons; thus, the baseball variety reigned supreme.
Menko’s come in three shapes:
- Diecut: most notably the 1947 Diecut Menko.” Those have a width of fewer than 2 inches and are just under three inches high.
- Round: these are about two inches in diameter and tend to feature cartoon-like images of the players.
- Rectangular: these are the most common size, especially in modern times. They are usually about 2-plus inches in length and half an inch or so in width.
Baseball Karuta Cards (1920-1970)
Karuta is a card game first introduced in Japan by Portuguese traders in the 16th Century. The game is of massive importance in local culture. How important? Nintendo opened its doors as a Karuta cards company.
It is a complex game involving fast reflexes and strenuous memory exercises. Some of the most popular sets show baseball players in various poses. The color schemes are remarkable as well.
Baseball Bromides (1920-1960)
Bromide is a category of glossy celebrity pictures highly popular in Japan. These are classy and unique designs, well worth seeking out. The genre is named after the paper often used for these pictures. However, bromide refers to the genre, and many of the most popular appear on different paper types.
Japanese celebrities’ popularity was measured for decades by their bromides’ comparable sales. However, the genre is also popular in Korea, where K-Pop stars release bromides regularly.
Japanese Menko baseball cards (1958-1970)
These cards proved the most popular ones of the 1960s quickly. They featured only the biggest stars and were usually sold one per smoking product. They were pretty colorful and often featured somewhat absurdist designs. Unfortunately, the way the cards were inserted into the packages means many are damaged and uneven.
Baseball Candy Cards (1960-1980)
After the American occupation of Japan, we can see the good of Uncle Sam’s influence on the next generations of cards. As a result, these cards look more familiar to American collectors and have a good bit in common with the Topps releases of the time.
But unfortunately, it was also a time of poverty in Japan, so their cards were printed on flimsy paper. Therefore, many of them have not lasted very well over the years.
Baseball Takara Cards (1978-1988)
Takara was a Japanese company that produced a playable game from 1978 to 1998. When you bought a game, you would receive:
- 30 player cards
- 1 team logo card
- A pair of dice
- A baseball diamond playing field board
The players represented are real Nippon Japanese League players. They have stats to express their capabilities. It is not dissimilar to the Panini Adrenalyn XL card game. And much like that soccer game, Takara cards include some true rookie cards.
However, like most Japanese games, Takara baseball is highly complicated. Far more than Adrenalyn XL. So complicated, in fact, that the company made a simplified version for kids.
The Hideo Nomo and Ichiro Suzuki rookie cards are among the most valuable (and coolest) to appear in that game.
Special mention: The 1967 Kabaya Leaf Set
This set is a landmark in Japanese collecting because it marks the first complete and intentional attempt to create an American-style set. The Kabaya company was a brand new one and was quite ambitious. They tried to market the set in the US as well as Japan.
If you look at the design, it comes in two different but familiar fonts. One is quite similar to the design of the 1959 Topps release. Meanwhile, the other half looks a lot like 1963 Topps cards.
However, the plan did not pan out. Kabaya went out of business, leaving the 1967 set as the only one ever produced. Nevertheless, its unique position as a historic one-time crossover set has made it a coveted collector’s item. In addition, it had a very appealing combination of Japanese exoticism and American familiarity, ensuring its popularity in the long run.
The best Japanese baseball players to invest in
As we mentioned, until the last ten years or so, Japanese players were generally considered inferior to their American counterparts. But today, it is clear that the best players in Japan are good enough to be superstars in the MLB. Ichiro Suzuki and Shohei Ohtani have left no doubt in that regard.
So here is a list of some of the best Japanese players to collect. Obviously, I left out Shohei and Suzuki because they are very well known here. So, instead, we have gone with some names that are “big in Japan” but not as well known across the Pacific Ocean.
Sadaharu Oh – 1st Base
The first-baseman slugger played for the Yomiuri Giants in their most vital years. Signed as a pitcher, he may have had the chops to be the first Ohtani. But he focused on hitting instead. The slugger led the league in home runs 15 times, on his way to a ridiculous career tally of 868.
But, much like Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron, he could also hit for contact. The Giants star had a career average of .301 and won the batting title 5 times.
How good was he in comparison with the greatest MLB players? The short answer is that we will never know. But one expert broke down the numbers and figured he would have hit 527 home runs. That would place him in the same tier as Harmon Killebrew and Mike Schmidt. So quickly a Hall-of-Famer.
Graded versions of his rookie cards are rare and quite valuable. Here are some examples of recent sales (September 2022):
|1959 Menko Doyusha Hand Cut #8631 (PSA 3)||$1,174|
|1959 Menko JCM 31C Type 1 Marukamki Cartoon (SGC 2.5)||$3,000|
|1959 Menko Marusho JCM39 Bat Right (raw)||$400|
|1959 Menko JCM 33E Yamakatsu Upper Left Glove #134545 Sadaharu Oh (SGC 1)||$482|
Katsuya Nomura – catcher
Easily the most outstanding offensive catcher in Japanese Nippon Professional Baseball history. Katsuya was Pacific League MVP five times while starring for the Nankai Hawks and even won the triple crown in 1965. In addition, his slugging capabilities were exceptional, seeing him lead the entire league in homers nine times for 657 career dingers.
But Nomura isn’t just a legend from his playing days. His managerial career was just as impressive. As mentioned previously, there is much more loyalty in Japanese baseball. So it’s no surprise that Katsuya managed the Hawks. He has the fifth most wins of any manager in NPL history, and his teams have won 3 Japan Series titles.
His cards are significantly undervalued, and it’s hard to get graded copies. So, he seems like an excellent investment at this time:
Shigeo Nagashima – 3rd base
At his peak, Nagashima was probably the best professional player in Japanese history. In addition, Shigeo was considered the best defensive player ever seen in the NPL. Shigeo’s daring leaps and circus catches are still remembered today. However, he only won two Golden Glove awards because the award did not exist early in his career.
In local folklore, Nagashima is best known for his performance in a historical game. On June 25, 1959, Emperor Hirohito attended a baseball game for the first time. Nagashima hit the game-winner. Meanwhile, our friend Sadaharu Oh also hit one.
Masaichi Kaneda – pitcher
Likely the greatest pitcher in Japanese baseball history, Kaneda is the only NPL pitcher to notch up 400 wins. However, remember that this ace was not a native Japanese citizen. Born in Korea, he became a naturalized citizen in 1959.
At his peak, the southpaw was so dominant that he was nicknamed “the emperor.” Not surprising, considering he led the league in strikeouts 10 times. According to legend, his fastball reached 110 mph.
However, no speed gun was available then, which seems pretty darn unlikely. Nevertheless, Kaneda finished his career with an incredible 2.34 ERA and a 400-298 record.
For whatever reason, there aren’t too many sold Kaneda cards on eBay. So, here are a few that are currently available for sale:
|1958 Doyusha Team Name Back Solid Color Front Menko JCM30a (PSA 4)||$114|
|1958 Green Pitching Grip Back Menko JCM68 Masaichi Kaneda (Blue Ink) #_MAKA||$47.40|
|1959 Team Name Back Solid Color and Bordered Front Menko JCM30b||$46|
Rōki Sasaki – pitcher
We gave you a bunch of vintage guys because they are suitable investments. More on that later. But what we all really want is a beautiful prospect to get behind, right? Well, Sasaki fits the bill beautifully.
At 20 years old, this kid is setting the NPL ablaze. He pitched a perfect game in April and struck out 19 hitters, which tied the league record. Sasaki often pitches above 100 mph. But he is no one-trick pony, as he also throws a mean forkball and slider. The upside with this youngster is absolutely tremendous.
Bottomline of Japanese baseball cards
Japanese baseball cards are incredibly cool, and many vintage cards are beyond rare. There are interest in some of them in the American market, especially graded cards. Indeed, grading some of these raw vintage cards seems a pretty substantial play profit-wise.
Still, some significant obstacles remain. Most Americans cannot read the language and do not know the players. That will remain an issue limiting their popularity. However, the opening of a Topps office in Tokyo and the rise of Shohei Ohtani will likely create a more coherent market in Japan. There is a good chance that will rub off on collectors here.