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

TOKYO (AP) — He paid about $80 for the ticket. He wore a Japanese cap over a blue Los Angeles…

TOKYO (AP) — He paid about $80 for the ticket. He wore a Japanese cap over a blue Los Angeles Angels jersey. And while he admired the sensation that is Shohei Ohtani, baseball fan Hotaru Shiramizo wasn’t just talking about sports.

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

“He’s a legendary player, but he’s more than just a good player,” Shiramizu said, using his translator app to help explain a few thoughts in English. “His aspirations—his achievements—had a positive impact on all Japanese people.”

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

Today, Japanese culture and politics feel more shaky than they did decades ago. The economy is stagnating. The birth rate is one of the lowest in the world. A few months ago, the former prime minister was killed on the street. And despite​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​a “cool Japan” image abroad, the nation faces uncertainty on many fronts, with a corruption scandal surrounding the delayed pandemic Tokyo Olympics 2020, and a giant Asian competitor in neighboring China.

For many, Ohtani is the antidote.


He does things that today’s players don’t. He’s a returner who throws, hits and can play the field. Many call him the best player in the major league. If so, he’s better than the Americans—also the Latin Americans—at what they consider their game.

It is the culmination – at least for now – of the evolution of Japanese baseball, which began when the game was introduced to the country in 1872 by an American professor. And now his fame has surpassed players like Ichiro Suzuki and Hideo Noma, who was before him.

One of them could hit very well. It could be submitted in the same way. But Ohtani? He does both, and with more power — on the pitcher’s mound and at bat — than Ythira or Noma.

“I believe that the deification of Ohtani in Japan reflects its own inferiority complex vis-a-vis the home of baseball, which is the United States,” said Koichi Nakano, who teaches politics and culture at Sophia University in Tokyo.

“Baseball is very important here, but it has long been said that Japanese baseball, called yakyu, is different from the ‘real’ baseball in America. Books have been written and published on this topic,” Nakano said. “So any time there’s a Japanese ‘export’ who’s had a lot of success in the MLB, the Japanese get excited.”

The wait for Ohtani to play again in Japan is also creating a buzz around him — and a sold-out Tokyo Dome.

It has been nearly 2,000 days since Ohtani pitched his last inning for the Nippon Ham-Fighters in Japan on October 9, 2017 before leaving for California. That drought ended during Monday’s practice game when Ohtani hit a pair of three-run homers against the Hanshin Tigers.

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

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


Besides all the talent, Ohtani has an impeccable reputation. Without scandals. No tabloid stories about his public life. He is swamped with $20 million in endorsements, more than any other major league player. And he could sign the largest contract in baseball history — a $500 million figure — if he becomes a free agent after this season.

“He’s very genuine,” said Masako Yamamoto, standing in line outside the Tokyo Dome with her 12-year-old son Shutara and other family members. A billboard with Ohtani’s image pulsated in front of her.

“As a person, he is polite, very charming and good to people,” she said. “He is special. His personality is so even. He seems to create an atmosphere.”

Ohtani came out of Japan’s regulation baseball system at Hanamaki Higashi High School in the largely rural Iwate prefecture in northeastern Japan. Blue Jays pitcher Yusei Kikuchi attended the same high school a few years earlier. The military 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 lived here off and on for 60 years. last year in an interview with the Associated Press agency.

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

Ohtani is the complete opposite of Ichiro, who had the upper hand. The Japanese phrase “deru kugi wa utareru'” captures Ichiro: “A nail sticking up gets hammered.”

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

The result was front page news in Japan. This victory is believed to have given Japan the confidence to modernize, break out of centuries of isolation, and show that it can compete with the industrialized West.

Thursday night, so many years later, Japan got more baseball news headlines. Ohtani allowed one hit in the four innings he pitched and struck out five, the eventual winner in Japan’s 8-1 victory. He also doubled off the left field wall in the fourth to score two. So fans like Shiramizu got what they came for — Ohtani throwing, hitting, and not disappointing the 41,616 in attendance.

“Ohtani is the last of these idols, but he may be even greater than any before him,” said Nakano, the political scientist. He noted that only Ohtani hits and pitches both – just like the old-timers did, which gives him a unique profile. “He’s ‘Made in Japan,’ but now more real than the American players.”


Video journalist Cody Ueda contributed to this report. Follow AP Japan Sports Writer Stephen Wade on Twitter at


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