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Japanese baseball players a hit in Hingham

Members of the team from Osaka, Japan, came together for a photo with their exhibition opponents from Hingham High after the teams played.

Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

Members of the team from Osaka, Japan, came together for a photo with their exhibition opponents from Hingham High after the teams played.

In the darkness of the JFK Library’s auditorium, the Hingham Harbormen, the reigning Division 2 baseball state champions, shifted uneasily in their seats. Nearby, jet-lagged students from Osaka, Japan, here on a weeklong exchange program with their baseball hosts, sat separately, erect and motionless.

On the screen was a biography about John F. Kennedy that included World War II and the Japanese attacks.

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It was an awkward moment, but thankfully the past does not dictate the future. The following day was Baseball Camelot. The students held a joint practice at Hingham High School. Something magical happened on the diamond between the 33 visiting ballplayers from Tennoji High School and their American counterparts. In the course of two hours, the two teams became one, cheering for one another and laughing out loud.

Naoki Fujiwara, the Tennoji third baseman, said his fears quickly evaporated.

“I was scared at first how big they were,” he said. “But once we started talking and playing baseball, they were very friendly and I wasn’t scared at all.”

Kei Saito, the shortstop and captain of the Tennoji team, agreed.

“We were just having a lot of fun, there was no language needed,” he said. “There was a great energy from them and the energy from us was like a synergy.”

‘It was great. They were respectful and intent on learning, so it was a great experience.’

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Rick Swanson, the Hingham assistant principal and junior varsity baseball coach, said he had goose bumps at the practice.

“That was a watershed moment,” he said. “I had the image of Ray Kinsella looking out over that field and saying, ‘It’s perfect.’ ”

The exchange was conceived by Swanson in February 2013 after he screened the documentary “Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball” and held a webinar with the filmmakers.

The visitors stayed with host families and shadowed their counterparts in school for a week last month. The sightseeing itinerary included a tour of Fenway Park, where the young Japanese players bowed to the Green Monster and received a ball autographed by Osaka native Koji Uehara from the Red Sox. They also attended a Celtics game, toured Harvard University, and hiked the Freedom Trail.

The Osaka kids spoke some English, the Hingham kids spoke no Japanese, and there was only one interpreter.

But it hardly mattered, because everyone spoke baseball.

Seeds of cooperation

Hideshi Masa, the Tennoji manager, was thrilled with the experience.

“I think both teams felt the happiness,” he said. “If you missed the ball, you felt sorry and wanted to encourage them to do better. We could all feel what they were feeling.’’

At the end of the joint practice, Masa impulsively ran over and bear-hugged Hingham’s Matt Nash after he made a good hustle play.

The Hingham players were surprised. They thought the visitors would be more reserved.

“It’s very natural for me when the kids make a good play, I hug them,” said Masa.

The charismatic manager said the film at the library did not offend him; it was a teaching moment.

“This must never be repeated,” he said. “It is a tragedy. What I’m trying to teach kids is to make a peaceful, harmonious society.”

Baseball in America is more free-wheeling than in Japan, where it is more disciplined, said Masa.

“I feel like American kids are more dynamic,” he said. “In Japan, nobody wants to make a mistake.”

The Japanese practice all year long, sometimes both before and after school. They play nine-inning games instead of seven.

There are also some cultural differences.

“They didn’t know what sunflower seeds were,” said Hingham sophomore Geoffrey Bearden. “So then we introduced them to sunflower seeds.”

At school, the Hingham students and their guests planted seeds of kale and peas together during “Green Week” and were also taught how to carve baseball bats in shop class.

“It was great,” said shop teacher Paul Pawlowski. “They were respectful and intent on learning, so it was a great experience.”

Some of the host families in Hingham had nothing to do with the school’s baseball team. Alex Clark, 17, persuaded her parents to host Tennoji center fielder Kaito Nakamura, 17, for a week.

“I always wanted a sibling,” she said. “I’m sleeping in the basement, he’s sleeping in my room. It’s amazing, better than I ever thought. The Japanese are so polite, so kind, so excited with everything we want to show them.”

Host mother Jean Beane, whose son Bobby Beane Jr., is an 11th-grader, said it was an amazing experience having Riku Yokote, the Tennoji catcher, stay with her family.

“My biggest surprise was his room was equally as messy as my son’s room,” she said, laughing.

The Japanese guests steered clear of sushi but loved the gourmet cheeseburgers at one of their sponsors, Wahlburgers.

But Fenway was clearly the biggest hit.

“I felt like I was in front of the baseball god,” said Masa. “I was very serene.”

Game day

On the last full day, an exhibition game was played between the teams. It was highly anticipated by the Tennoji players but downplayed by the Hingham coaches.

“It’s definitely first scrimmage mood for us, despite how everyone else might want to take it,” said Hingham head coach Frank Niles. “But it’s a good thing, we need the at-bats.”

Most of the approximately 250 fans in attendance were rooting for the visitors. The smell of onions and sausages, grilled by The Sausage Guy, wafted over the third base line.

Tennoji won, 3-1, on two long home runs by right fielder Jyunpei Miyata.

After the last out, there was a cultural love-a-thon on the field. It was like David Ortiz hugging Koji Uehara 33 times simultaneously.

Tennoji players bowed to their opponents, the fans, and the field, and sang their school song. In an impromptu moment, the Japanese kids swapped hats with their American friends. One Tennoji player hugged a group of girls who had written — incorrectly, it turns out — a sign of support in Japanese. The hosts also delivered hot dogs to the victors, who quickly wolfed them down. If only peace with North Korea could be so easy.

Members of the Tennoji team bowed to their opponents before the teams’ scrimmage.

Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

Members of the Tennoji team bowed to their opponents before the teams’ scrimmage.

Outfielder Masato Yamaguchi was asked where he’d rather play baseball, in the United States or Japan. There was silence as he thought.

“It’s a very difficult question,” he said. “To have fun, America would be the place.”

Bearden said he felt sad that the guests were going back to Osaka.

“Next week’s going to be weird without them,” he said. “We’ve become friends, and it’s fun to see them around the school. It’s going to kind of stink when they leave.”

A mural depicting Japanese baseball was painted by Hingham students Ali Weaver and Emma McKeon-White inside the school — a constant reminder of their new friends, still connected by social media.

But Hingham second baseman Kyle Lussier, who has a mini-Fenway in his backyard, said he missed the after-school Wiffleball games with his Osaka buddies.

Lussier, who last year witnessed the Boston Marathon bombings, told Swanson, “This was and forever will be the best week of my life.”

There was even praise from the Japanese guests for things most high school kids diss.

“I was surprised,” said Swanson, grinning broadly. “They even seemed to like the school lunch.”

Riku Yokote led Tennoji players as they high-fived their Hingham counterparts after the scrimmage.

Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

Riku Yokote led Tennoji players as they high-fived their Hingham counterparts after the scrimmage.

Stan Grossfeld can be reached at grossfeld@globe.com.
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