Photo/IllutrationChopsticks made from broken baseball bats are lacquered during production at the Hyozaemon factory in Fukui, Japan, Oct. 10, 2018. Each season, thousands of damaged bats are reprocessed into chopsticks as part of a conservation effort designed to replenish a species of ash tree known as aodamo. (Shiho Fukada/ © 2018 The New York Times)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

TOKYO--The bats the Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers break during the World Series are likely to be sold at team stores or by memorabilia companies, donated to charity, given away or even repurposed as wooden handles for bottle openers.

In the Japan Series (Japan’s version of the World Series), which begins Saturday in a country meticulous about recycling, cracked and splintered bats may find another use as objects indispensable to life here: chopsticks.

Each season, thousands of damaged bats are reprocessed into reusable “kattobashi,” a mash-up of the Japanese word for chopsticks and a baseball chant that translates as “get a big hit.”

The recycling is part of a conservation effort, designed to be decades long and to help preserve and replenish a species of ash tree known as aodamo, native to Japan and a region of eastern Russia.

Aodamo wood--durable, light, flexible and resistant to splintering--was once used to make most of the professional bats here. But baseball officials, sporting goods companies and conservationists say aodamo is no longer considered economically feasible to log on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, considered the sweet spot for bat production.

At one time, Japanese stars like Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui used aodamo bats. So did some Americans like Mike Piazza. But forestry officials did not systematically replant the trees as they were felled.

Now the vast majority of bats are made from maple and white ash, mostly imported. Mizuno and Zett, two leading Japanese sporting goods manufacturers, say they no longer make bats from aodamo ash. The hope is that if the reforestation project is successful over the next half century or so, aodamo will again become feasible for baseball.

Articles in The Nikkei financial newspaper and other Japanese publications first sounded alarms about the decreased availability of aodamo wood in 2000. The Nikkei article was read by officials at the Hyozaemon chopsticks company, founded in 1921, with an office in Tokyo and a factory in Obama City, Japan. (Yes, the company said it made souvenir chopsticks for a certain American president and first family.)

Hyozaemon’s chief executive, Hyogoo Uratani, 73, had played baseball in high school and was intrigued. He contacted a friend, Takeo Minatoya, 81, who had been a professional pitcher for the Taiyo Whales of Japan’s Central League and, later, a general manager and consultant for the team, now called the Yokohama BayStars.

At the time, broken bats were mostly given away or burned in barrels to keep players warm during spring training, Minatoya said. The bats-into-chopsticks idea, he said through an interpreter, allowed Japanese baseball “to start having a conscience about recycling.”

He helped persuade the 12 teams in Japan’s Central and Pacific Leagues to participate. Hyozaemon pays a licensing fee to put team logos on its chopsticks. In turn, Nippon Professional Baseball, Japan’s equivalent of Major League Baseball, makes an annual contribution of 3.5 million yen, or about $31,000, to the nonprofit Aodamo Preservation Society.

The money is used to plant aodamo seedlings on Hokkaido. Other baseball entities contribute 2.5 million yen, about $22,000, to the aodamo nonprofit, while Hyozaemon contributes an additional 100,000 yen, about $900, said Masayuki Naito, the nonprofit’s secretary general. More than 10,000 trees have been planted so far, he said.

Hyozaemon said it collects an average of 10,000 broken bats each season. They are gathered by a courier service, whose records indicate it collected approximately 2,180 bats in July, August and September from professional and industrial leagues and from collegiate teams that still use wood, unlike American universities, which use metal bats.

Only the barrel of the bat is considered thick enough to make chopsticks, while the tapered portion toward the handle can be repurposed into shoehorns and handles for forks and spoons. The cap of the bat can be made into a drinking cup.

The barrel is sawed from the handle, sliced vertically into thin blocks then sanded by craftsmen into the shape of chopsticks. Team logos are imprinted, and layers of lacquer are applied.

The barrel of one bat can yield five or six pairs of chopsticks, Hyozaemon officials said.

In 2004, Matsui, then playing for the Yankees, donated one of his bats to be made into chopsticks for his mentor Shigeo Nagashima, a former player and manager of the Yomiuri Giants, Japan’s most successful team with 22 championships. Nagashima, now 82, was recovering from a stroke at the time.

Matsui, 44, said he had also helped plant aodamo seedlings on Hokkaido when he played for the Giants before joining the Yankees in 2003.

“It’s great we’re spreading the awareness that aodamo trees are decreasing,” he said

Naito, 57, described the involvement of professional, industrial and amateur leagues in the preservation effort as “very important for the future of Japanese baseball.”

“It is an excellent material that is uniquely Japanese,” Naito said.

Takumasa Kosugi, 39, a Panasonic executive who once played for the company’s team in a high-level industrial league, said an aodamo bat “felt soft, like it wanted to catch the ball and hold it longer than other bats, so you could control it.”

But it can take 50 to 70 years for an aodamo tree to grow to a height and thickness needed to make bats. Even then, only four to six bats can be made from one tree. Lumber companies no longer feel it is cost effective to cut the trees just to make bats, Naito said.

“They can still try logging it on top of the mountains or somewhere deep in the forest, but it will cost a lot of money,” he said.

So baseball continues its preservation effort, even if some actions are mostly symbolic. Nippon Professional Baseball plans to hold tree-planting ceremonies during the 2018 Japan Series between the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks and the Hiroshima Toyo Carp, as it does yearly at all-star and championship games. Aodamo saplings will then be placed in the ground outside the stadiums.

While Nippon Professional Baseball’s financial contribution is limited, Akihiro Kagayama, its general manager of business development and special events, said the organization is committed to preserving aodamo trees.

Displaying photographs of aodamo trees planted outside stadiums in Tokyo and Nagoya, Kagayama said, “Our dream is that one day these will be forests.”

Yet replanting the aodamo trees has not come without complications. Deer effectively ate all the trees replanted on Hokkaido from 2000 to 2004, before plastic coverings were implemented as shields, Naito said. And in 2016, the preservation effort lost a formidable advocate upon the death of Yasumitsu Toyoda, 81, a Hall of Fame player who had urged sporting goods companies and players to become more financially involved because it was “a matter of doing the right thing.”

Still, preservationists hold out hope that aodamo bats will return to use one day.

“Even if it would happen, I won’t be able to see that moment because it would take more than 70 years,” Naito said. “Still, that is our wish.”

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Kantaro Suzuki in Tokyo and Tyler Kepner and David Waldstein in New York contributed reporting to this story. Doris Burke contributed research.

(Oct. 25, 2018)