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WBC competition is no mere exhibition for Japan

Days before the start of the World Baseball Classic, the players representing Japan spoke to a gathering of about 1,000 in a hotel ballroom in the port city of Fukuoka.

The players were on stage in full uniform. They stood in two rows, most of them with their hands solemnly clasped in front of them.

When Manager Hiroki Kokubo addressed the audience, he promised Japan would win the tournament. He asked the fans for their continued support, removed his cap and bowed. The players bowed, too.

The atmosphere was tense, so much so that after Kokubo and his players marched out of the room in a single file, the event’s emcee exhaled and cracked, “It’s hard to breathe, isn’t it?”

The emcee sighed again.

“Everyone, let’s roll our shoulders and try to relax,” he said with a forced smile. “Didn’t your shoulders tighten up?”

All this for a tournament that is viewed in the United States as a glorified exhibition, if not something that should be ignored.

So, really, it’s little wonder why Japan’s success in the WBC is unmatched. No other country places as much importance on the tournament.

The Japanese were champions in 2006 and in 2009. They will take on Team USA at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday, marking their fourth semifinal appearance in four WBCs.

This is more than a baseball tournament for the Japanese.The sport has become a vehicle for them to self-affirm and advertise the virtues of their culture, evidenced by the moniker by which the team is known: Samurai Japan. (Similarly, the Japanese women’s national soccer team, which won the 2011 World Cup, is called “Nadeshiko Japan,” nadeshiko being a term used to describe the ideal Japanese woman.)

While the country’s most recent generations have produced players who would be considered well-built by any standards, the Japanese have long conceded their athletes can’t physically match up with the best in the world. They have prided themselves in making up for their shortcomings with what they consider Japanese characteristics, in particular, superior craftsmanship, work ethic and what outfielder Norichika Aoki called “the spirit of self-sacrifice.”

Aoki, who is entering his sixth major league season, pointed to how Japanese and American teams respond differently to leadoff doubles.

“In the majors, it’s also considered a good thing to move the runner over, but they basically tell you to drive him in,” Aoki told Sports Nippon. “The thinking is super-aggressive, like hit a double and get yourself on second base, too. In Japan, you think of creating a one-out, man-on-third situation.”

That is particularly important to this team. Aoki is the team’s only major league player. The team also has to deal with the absence of pitcher-outfielder Shohei Otani, the most valuable player of Japan’s Pacific League. Otani, who had a 1.88 earned-run average as a starting pitcher and hit 22 home runs, was forced to withdraw because of an ankle injury.

Preparations for the WBC started in November, when most major leaguers were on vacation. Samurai Japan gathered for a training camp that included two exhibition games against Mexico and two against the Netherlands.

J Sports, a satellite television station, was granted behind-the-scenes access for the contests and the footage illustrated the degree of seriousness with which Samurai Japan approached practice.

Kokubo implored his team play fundamentally sound baseball.

“If you fail to do it in these four games, there’s no way you’ll be able to do it in real games,” Kokubo said.

The unveiling of lineups had a ceremonial feel, with players gathered around a room, caps in hand, with Kokubo reading of who would bat where.

“First, short, Sakamoto.”

“Yes.”

“Second, center, Akiyama.”

“Yes.”

Japan dropped the opening game to Mexico, resulting in a level of self-reproach that would seem strange almost anywhere else.

“Pitiful,” first baseman Sho Nakata said.

Nakata, who batted cleanup, was 0 for 4 with a walk.

“I’m upset I was unable to respond to expectations,” he said.

A quick reminder: This was an exhibition game in November.

Nakata showed up early to the stadium the next day for additional work in the batting cages.

Aoki also made certain he would be ready to play. Major league veterans typically play only a couple of innings at the start of spring training, but Aoki showed up to the Houston Astros camp asking Manager A.J. Hinch to play him as much as possible. Aoki played seven innings and made four plate appearances in the Astros’ exhibition opener.

The Japanese are 6-0 in this WBC. Their baserunning is sharp, their fielding is clean and their relays are efficient.

Then again, it’s not as if the players think they have much of a choice.

The pressure back home is intense. Nearly 30% of television sets in the country showed Samurai Japan’s games in the first two rounds of the tournament.

The other semifinalists want to win. Japan has to.

dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez

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