International Women's Day: Ayako Rokkaku - Women's baseball a great opportunity for girls to experience the benefits of sport

International Women's Day: Ayako Rokkaku - Women's baseball a great opportunity for girls to experience the benefits of sport
The reigning Baseball5 World Cup MVP and Women's Baseball World Cup winner talks about her life in baseball and an exciting future ahead.

Japanese professional baseball star Ayako Rokkaku is encouraging as many girls to play women's baseball as the sport looks to continue its impressive growth after the pandemic, especially with the return of the WBSC Women's Baseball World Cup this year.

The four-time Women's Baseball World Champion and Baseball5 silver medallist is a leading exponent of the game and as a current women's baseball professional and Baseball5 player in Japan she is encouraging everyone to get involved, especially young girls, to experience the team camaraderie, health benefits and fun of playing sport as well as the chance to represent your country.

"Baseball and softball can be enjoyed by boys and girls alike," Rokkaku said. "If you started playing baseball because you love it, I hope you will continue to play the sport you love. If you become a female baseball player, regardless of age or country, we are all friends, and I hope we can enjoy women's baseball together and do our best to develop it."

At 31 years of age, Ayako Rokkaku is a certified WBSC Baseball5 instructor, one of four WBSC Prevention of the Manipulation of Competition Ambassadors and a WBSC Athlete Representative. She also is an athlete in her prime. She helped Japan reach the final of the inaugural Baseball5 World Cup and shared MVP honours with Cuba's Briandy Molina. She is also on the roster of the Saitama Seibu Lions Ladies' Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) team.

In Japan, a country which has won the last six editions of the WBSC Women's Baseball World Cup, women's baseball is growing again after the pandemic, especially at the youth level. Miyoshi City in the Hiroshima Prefecture was also recently announced as the host of the WBSC Women's Baseball World Cup Group B. "In the past few years, more and more high schools launched girls' baseball teams," Rokkaku said. "In addition to that, playing in the Koshien and Tokyo Dome gives [women's baseball] more opportunities to be featured in the media."

The professional Women's Baseball League in Japan was put on hold during the pandemic but has returned with three NPB teams creating women's squads. "The Hanshin Tigers, the Yomiuri Giants, and our Seibu Lions have established women's teams and have created a place for women's baseball players to aim for," Rokkaku said. "The ultimate goal would be for all NPB teams to have a women's baseball team."

"I would like to convey the fun of women's baseball from here. I believe it will motivate female players," she added. "I hope that we can become the place they aspire to be, and for that reason, we must keep a good performance."

Japan, the most successful women's baseball programme with six World Cups, had a Women's Baseball Pro League from 2009 to 2021 while the number of women's baseball teams in the country has increased to 102. Women's baseball is very successful at the high school level with over 50 teams, while more than 10 universities have a women's baseball programme.

Baseball has been a part of Ayako's life since childhood after she followed in the footsteps of her brother. "It looked fun, and I started playing with him and was fascinated. It was so much fun that I got hooked and kept playing until now.

"I was the only girl on the baseball team until junior high school but as I became older, I began to see the difference in size and physical strength between the boys and me, and I wanted to try playing baseball with only girls. I left my hometown and entered the world of girls' baseball when I was a high school student."

"I was blessed with outstanding teammates, so I didn't have a lot of concerns. But just by playing together with girls, I didn't have to worry about many things, like changing clothes.

"I have come to enjoy not only playing baseball, but also training camps and road trips, and all aspects of baseball. I found the world of women's baseball a lot of fun. I fell in love with baseball more and more, and I still do."

Women are eligible to play in WBSC Baseball World Cups and one of the closest to make a team was Genevieve Beacom, the first-ever woman to appear in a professional baseball game in Australia who was later invited by Baseball Australia as one of 44 players to a National Junior Camp ahead of the WBSC U-18 Baseball World Cup last year.

Meanwhile, girls have also featured in the WBSC U-12 Baseball World Cup both on and off the field.

The WBSC introduced the WBSC Women's Baseball World Cup for the first time in 2004 starting with five teams. This year, a total of 12 teams will feature across two groups - Group A being played in Canada and Group B in Japan - in what is the ninth edition.

Rokkaku represented Japan in four WBSC Women's Baseball World Cups from 2010 to 2016. "My first participation in the Baseball World Cups was in Venezuela in 2010, which left a strong impression on me. Venezuela is a great baseball country, and people love baseball, whether it's men's or women's games. The stadium was packed, and I was playing third, but the crowd was cheering, and vuvuzelas [straightened trumpets] were so loud that I couldn't hear the shortstop.

"When I was near the stands, the fans all reached out their hands and asked me for autographs. They were so excited to see a women's baseball game like that. I had never played in front of such a large audience before, so it was enjoyable and left a great impression on me. It was a memorable event that made me think that it would be great if many female baseball players could play in an environment like this in the future."

Rokkaku also spoke about the importance of the urban discipline Baseball5, especially the mixed gender rule where a minimum of two boys and two girls must be on the field of play at any time. "Baseball is Japan's national sport and has a history that dates back to the early twentieth century. It is also a game that is considered difficult to perform. Baseball5 can help introduce young people to baseball and softball. I am a baseball player and a Baseball5 player, and I feel that there is a similarity between Baseball5 and baseball, and I think that practising Baseball5 has the potential to lead to baseball and other sports."