Imperial Valley Press

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


TOKYO – He’d paid about $80 for his ticket. He wore a Japan cap above a blue Los Angeles Angels jersey. And as he enthused about the sensation that is Shohei Ohtani, baseball fan Hotaru Shiromizo was talking about far more than 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 out, 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,” Shiromizu said, using his translator app to help clarify a few thoughts in English. “His aspiration­s – his achievemen­ts – have had a positive influence on all Japanese people.”

He added: “All the kids want to be like Ohtani.”

These days, Japanese culture and politics feel more tenuous than a few decades ago. The economy is stagnant. The birthrate is among the world’s lowest. A former prime minister was assassinat­ed a few months ago on the street. And despite the “Cool Japan” image abroad, the nation faces uncertaint­y on many fronts, a corruption scandal surroundin­g the pandemic-delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and a giant Asian rival in neighborin­g China.

For many, Ohtani is the antidote.


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

He’s the culminatio­n – so far, at least – 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 has now surpassed that of players like Ichiro Suzuki and Hideo Nomo, who came before him.

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

“I suppose the idolizatio­n of Ohtani in Japan reflects its own inferiorit­y complex vis a vis the fatherland of baseball that is the U.S.,” said Koichi Nakano, who teaches politics and culture in Tokyo at Sophia University.

“Baseball is so major 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 the topic,” Nakano said. “So each time where there is a Japanese ‘ export’ that was hugely successful in MLB, the Japanese are enthralled.”

The wait to see Ohtani play again in Japan is also driving the buzz around him – and the sellouts at the Tokyo Dome.

It had been almost 2,000 days since Ohtani played his last inning in Japan on Oct. 9, 2017, for the Nippon Ham-Fighters before leaving for California. That appearance drought ended in a practice game on Monday 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 such a player like him will ever exist in the future, so I’m happy he’s now playing in Japan,” he said.


Atop all the talent, Ohtani has a sterling reputation. No scandals. No tabloid stories about his social life. He’s overflowin­g with $20 million in endorsemen­ts, more than any other major leaguer. And he could

sign the largest contract in baseball history – the number $500 million has been kicked around – when he becomes a free agent after this season.

“He is very authentic,” said Masako Yamamoto, standing in a ticket line outside the Tokyo Dome with her 12-year-old son Shutaro and other family members. Facing her was a pulsating billboard with Ohtani’s image flashing.

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

 ?? AP PHOTO/EUGENE HOSHIKO ?? Fans of Japan’s Shohei Ohtani cheer prior to the Pool B game between Japan and China at the World Baseball Classic (WBC) at the Tokyo Dome on Thursday in Tokyo.
AP PHOTO/EUGENE HOSHIKO Fans of Japan’s Shohei Ohtani cheer prior to the Pool B game between Japan and China at the World Baseball Classic (WBC) at the Tokyo Dome on Thursday in Tokyo.

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