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Shohei Ohtani and Japan: It’s much more than just baseball


TOKYO (AP) — He had paid about $80 for his ticket. He wore a Japanese cap over a blue Los Angeles Angels jersey. And while raving about the thrill that Shohei Ohtani is, baseball fan Hotaru Shiromizo talked about much more than just sports.

Shiromizu, 23, was part of the quilt of thousands of colorfully dressed fans outside the Tokyo Dome on Thursday afternoon. They paced, they camped, and they discussed their hopes of seeing Ohtani pitch—and hit—against China in Japan’s opening game in the World Baseball Classic.

“He’s a legendary player, but he’s more than just a good player,” said Shiromizu, using his translator app to clarify a few thoughts in English. “His aspirations – his achievements – have had a positive influence on all Japanese.”

He added, “All children want to be like Ohtani.”

Today, Japanese culture and politics feel more tenuous than a few decades ago. The economy is stagnant. The birth rate is among the lowest in the world. A few months ago, a former prime minister was murdered in the street. And despite its “Cool Japan” image abroad, the country faces uncertainty on many fronts, a corruption scandal surrounding the 2020 Tokyo Olympics delayed by a pandemic, and a giant Asian rival in neighboring China.

For many, Ohtani is the antidote.


He does things that modern players don’t do. He’s a throwback thrower who can hit and play in the field. Many call him the best player in the major leagues. If that’s the case, then he’s better than Americans – including Latin Americans – at what they consider their own game.

He is the culmination – at least until now – of an evolution in Japanese baseball that began when the game was introduced to the country in 1872 by an American professor. And his fame now exceeds that of players like Ichiro Suzuki and Hideo Nomo, who came before him.

One of them could hit very well. One could pitch in the same way. But Ohtani? He does both, and with more power – on the mound and at bat – than either Ichiro or Nomo.

“I suppose Japan’s idolization of Ohtani reflects its own inferiority complex to baseball’s homeland, the US,” said Koichi Nakano, who teaches politics and culture in Tokyo at Sophia University.

“Baseball is so important here, but it has long been said that Japanese baseball, called yakyu, is different from ‘real’ baseball in America. Books have been written and published on this subject,” Nakano said. “So whenever there’s a Japanese ‘export’ that’s been hugely successful in MLB, the Japanese are enthralled.”

Waiting to see Ohtani play again in Japan is also fueling excitement around him – and selling out at the Tokyo Dome.

It had been nearly 2,000 days since Ohtani played his last inning in Japan on October 9, 2017 for the Nippon Ham-Fighters before heading to California. That performance drought ended on Monday in an exhibition game when Ohtani hit a pair of three-run homers off the Hanshin Tigers.

Keiichiro Shiotsuka, a businessman waiting outside the stadium, called Ohtani “a treasure of Japan.”

“I don’t know if a player like him will ever exist in the future, so I’m glad he’s playing in Japan now,” he said.


On top of all the talent, Ohtani has an excellent reputation. No scandals. No tabloid stories about his social life. He is overflowing with $20 million in endorsements, more than any other major player. And he could sign the biggest contract in baseball history — the $500 million number has kicked around — if he becomes a free agent after this season.

“He’s very authentic,” said Masako Yamamoto, who lined up outside the Tokyo Dome with her 12-year-old son Shutaro and other family members. Opposite her was a pulsating billboard flashing Ohtani’s image.

“As a human being, he’s polite and very charming and good with people,” she said. ‘He’s special. His personality is so even. He seems to create the atmosphere.”

Ohtani came from Japan’s regulation baseball system at Hanamaki Higashi High School in northeastern Japan’s largely rural Iwate Prefecture. Blue Jays pitcher Yusei Kikuchi attended the same high school a few years earlier. The military-like system has its critics, but Ohtani makes it look good.

“Ohtani grew up in this Japanese martial arts-inspired training system where you join a baseball team and play year-round,” said Robert Whiting, who has written several books on Japanese baseball and has lived here off and on for 60 years. in an interview last year with The Associated Press.

“Ichiro was probably the best player on the team in his freshman year of high school, but he couldn’t play. He had to do laundry and cook dinner. He would get up in the middle of the night and practice his swing,” Whiting said. ‘Same with Ohtani. He cleaned toilets in high school during his freshman year.

Ohtani is the opposite of Ichiro, who had an edge. The Japanese expression “deru kugi wa utareru'” renders Ichiro: “The nail that sticks up is knocked down.”

In explaining how baseball took root in Japan, Whiting and others have pointed to the importance of an 1896 game in Yokohama between Japanese and Americans. Japan won 29-4 and many of the players came from Samurai families.

The result was front-page news in Japan. The victory is believed to have given Japan confidence as it modernized, emerging from centuries of isolation and showing it could compete with the industrially advanced West.

“Ohtani is the latest of these idols, but he is perhaps even greater than all before him,” said Nakano, the political scientist. He noted that only Ohtani both punches and throws – just like the old-timers used to do, which gives him a unique profile. “It’s ‘Made in Japan’, but now more real than American players.”


Video journalist Koji Ueda contributed to this report. Follow Japan-based AP sportswriter Stephen Wade on Twitter


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Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.