'Treasure of Japan': Shohei Ohtani glitters on the baseball diamond

Japanese baseball player Shohei Ohtani can pitch, bat, and can play in the field with equal skill. He may be the game’s best player anywhere but in Japan, he is also giving fans a huge boost of national pride.

Eugene Hoshiko/AP
A fan of Japan's Shohei Ohtani gets ready to watch a at the Tokyo Dome March 9, 2023, in Tokyo. The paper fans read in Japanese "Mr. Ohtani Great!!" Japanese baseball player Shohei Ohtani is arguably MLB's best player and his also boosting national morale.

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.

Mr. Shiromizu was part of the quilt of thousands of colorfully dressed fans outside the Tokyo Dome on a recent afternoon. They paced, they camped out, and they discussed their hopes of seeing Mr. 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,” Mr. 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, Mr. Ohtani is the antidote.

Part of an evolution 

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 Mr. Ohtani? He does both, and with more power – on the pitcher’s mound and at bat – than either Mr. Ichiro or Mr. 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,” Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. 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.

Talent and character

Atop all the talent, Mr. 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 Mr. 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.”

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

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

“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 the meals. He’d get up in the middle of night and practice his swing,” Mr. Whiting said. “The same thing with Ohtani. He was cleaning toilets in high school during his first year.”

Mr. Ohtani is the polar opposite of Mr. Ichiro, who had an edge. The Japanese phrase deru kugi wa utareru captures Mr. Ichiro: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”

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

The result was front-page news in Japan. The victory is thought to have given Japan confidence as it was modernizing, coming out of centuries of isolation, and showed it could compete against the industrially advanced West.

On Thursday, so many years later, Japan got itself more front-page baseball news. Mr. Ohtani allowed one hit in the four innings he pitched and struck out five, ending up as the winning pitcher in an 8-1 Japan victory. He also doubled off the left field wall in the fourth to score two. So fans like Mr. Shiromizu got what they came for – Ohtani pitching, hitting, and not disappointing the 41,616 who showed up.

“Ohtani is the latest of these idols, but he might be even bigger than any before him,” said Mr. Nakano, the political scientist. He noted that only Mr. Ohtani hits and pitches both – just like the old-timers used to, which gives him a unique profile. “He is ‘Made in Japan,’ but more real now than America players.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Video journalist Koji Ueda contributed to this report. 

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