Baseball terminology throws a curveball in the Japanese workplace

Baseball is one of Japan's most beloved sports and as such, many figures of speech derive from it, especially in a business environment.

Workers find themselves "at bat" when they're asked to face challenges, and sometimes they need to be ready for a "curveball" when things don't go to plan.

They might even be asked to "pitch a curveball" by a boss who wants to hear a different approach to a problem.

An office worker in Osaka says she has been told to "pitch a curveball" at work.

"I hear a lot of baseball terms at my workplace," says an Osaka salesperson in his 20s. "I have been told to be 'at bat' to meet more clients and that I should get more contracts as the team's 'top hitter.' When my sales were just around quota, I was told to 'hit a game-winning homerun' to meet targets."

NHK asked people in Osaka about how and why sporting terminology gets used.

"I get kind of excited when I use baseball terms," one man explains. "I think it can convey more passion than ordinary words."

A baseball fan says sporting terminology conveys more passion.

From the sport's heyday

Enomoto Takeshi, an associate professor at Osaka University and an expert on the relationship between society and language, says the use of baseball expressions can be traced back to the late 1950s to the early 1970s when the sport was the most popular form of entertainment in Japan.

Professor Enomoto Takeshi is an expert on the relationship between society and language.

"During that period, TVs became common in homes. As people started watching baseball games at home, they became familiar with phrases that were used in live commentary," says Enomoto.

"At bars and in the workplace, people talked about baseball and in the business world, those terms entered everyday conversations."

Enomoto also points out that company employees who were working hard to achieve as much success as possible during a high-growth period correlated their experiences to that of baseball players who were striving for their team's victory.

"You can say those office workers projected themselves onto baseball. In that sense, they were bringing the elements of sports, such as passion, and win-or-lose, to their own workplaces by using the terms."

New generation, new words

Fast forward to 2024 though, and baseball terminology is not as common, especially among the younger generation.

One office worker in his 50s says he has had to pull back on baseball terms. "Even if I say something like 'ace' and ‘number four' to someone younger, they will probably ask, 'What are you talking about?'"

An office worker in his 50s say he does not use baseball expressions in conversations with his juniors.

Experts say the generational use of language comes about as society grows more diverse.

"I think we are now in an age where it is difficult to have common terminology because not everyone likes and watches one single sport. Some people may watch baseball, while some enjoy soccer," says career consultant Kanazawa Mifuyu.

"The language you use is an expression of who you are and what kind of life you have lived," says Professor Enomoto.

"Nowadays, people are exposed to information and words in various ways, and I believe that there are different words that resonate with each individual," he says.