Japan is a land of monopolies and duopolies. Those of you who don't care much for Topps' exclusive licensing agreement with the MLB should probably stay away from Japan - BBM is the only company making major baseball card sets here. Calbee cards are wonderful, but they're food issues, wonderful remnants of a prior time. Other competitors have some major limitations when it comes to sets; Epoch and the others tend to make retired-only sets, team issues (BayStars Season Summary, for example), or player tribute sets.
In 2003, a Panini-style (team logo-less) unlicensed set featuring 60 top NPB stars was issued by the JPBPA (Japan Professional Baseball Players Association). The cards use action or posed images but use artistic drawings instead of photos. They remind me somewhat of Diamond Kings or Playoff's art set (Playoff Portraits) that was also issued in 2003.
NPB Card Guy mentions that these cards were sold in boxes packaged with little pins. There are two sets - the "base" version you see below, and a parallel of sorts with a different card design and different images. However, the same players and same card numbers were used. Based on Engel's description in my guide, four cards must have come per package, with one of those being the "Special" cards. I'd like to complete the special card set too, because the images are unique to that set.
BBM and Calbee don't really use art. In fact, their card designs seem to focus on very digital layouts with photos cropped onto shiny backgrounds. I don't recall seeing any other set issued in the modern age (1991-present) that used art - drawings or paintings - instead of photos. That's what really makes this set stand out. Art was heavily used for menko sets in the 1940s and 1950s but doesn't really show up anymore. Are there any sets I'm forgetting? There's a possibility of team sets with art.
The set has several stars, including some players who went on to the MLB. Here are all 60 cards in the set: