During a telephone conversation in September, an 80-year-old Japanese friend told me that she was feeling drowsy due to lack of sleep. She’d been rising early, she said, to watch live broadcasts of American baseball.

More specifically, she’d been waking up for Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels who, until the final days of the season, was a contender to lead the American League in home runs. When the 27-year-old Ohtani finished the season in third place with 46 four-baggers, she was clearly disappointed.

“He would have hit more, but the opponents keep walking him,” she complained. “It’s not fair.”

“You should read Robert Whiting’s ‘The Chrysanthemum and the Bat,’” I told her. “The same thing happened here in 1965, when Daryl Spencer was playing for the Hankyu Braves.” (It wasn’t until 1974 that Clarence Jones of the Kintetsu Buffaloes finally became the first American to win a home run championship in Japan.)

For millions of Japanese, including those who don’t regularly follow baseball, Ohtani’s shining performance this season not only stirred national pride but was also seen as a welcome distraction from the pandemic and other inauspicious events.

What sets Ohtani apart from Hideo Nomo, Hideki Matsui, Ichiro Suzuki and other past Japanese stars of American baseball is his uniqueness as a nitōryū (two-sword) player, better known in English as a two-way player who excels as both a pitcher and a power hitter. Such a skill set has been a rarity since the days of Babe Ruth, who led the Boston Red Sox to a World Series championship in 1918.

During the 2021 season, hardly a month went by without Ohtani setting another new record. At Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game in Denver last July, he made history when he started the game as pitcher, and also led off as designated hitter. He was also credited with the win.

It occurred to Shukan Gendai (Oct. 2-9) that perhaps some credit is due to Ohtani’s home prefecture of Iwate, a rural part of the country that’s been referred to by some as the “Tibet of Japan.”

“There’s nothing here in this town, just rice paddies and farms. No amusements either,” Shoji Asari, Ohtani’s former little league instructor, tells the reporter. “From the time Shohei was small, he showed no interest in anything but baseball. I was convinced he was headed for the pros, but I could never have imagined that someday he’d become a star in the U.S. major leagues.”

A worker at the travel desk inside Mizusawa-Esashi Station in the Iwate city of Oshu tells Gendai that Ohtani’s home district has become something of a venerated spot, visited by adoring fans, particularly women.

“The other day, I saw a lady in her 70s making the rounds to see his family’s home, his elementary and middle schools and so on,” the worker says.

In recent years Iwate has produced several other outstanding players, including pitchers Yusei Kikuchi of the Seattle Mariners and Roki Sasaki of the Chiba Lotte Marines.

“Iwate has more space for outdoor play than the cities,” says retired Yomiuri Giants coach Yoshinobu Hizawa, who also hails from the prefecture. “Walking on its sand dunes promotes muscular development, and climbing its mountains builds lower body strength. Eyesight is sharpened by viewing its wide vistas. And the Sanriku region produces healthy seafood, vegetables and rice needed for nurturing strong, flexible bodies.”

Spotting Ohtani’s mother, Kayoko, outside her home, the Gendai reporter politely asks, “What is it about Iwate that managed to produce a star player like your son?”

“I’ve no idea,” she replies with a smile. A badminton player in her youth, she herself hails from Yokohama.

Actually, Iwate is considered something of a backwater when it comes to baseball, even among the six prefectures that make up the Tohoku region it is a part of. For an international star to emerge from there, the caliber of which is seen maybe once in a century, is truly something to celebrate.

As Ohtani looks back on his memorable season, former MLB pitcher Makoto “Mac” Suzuki predicts in Friday (Oct. 22-29) that when the votes are cast next month, Ohtani has a strong chance of being named the American League’s Most Valuable Player for 2021.

And next season? Sportswriter Nachi Tomonari believes there’s a strong possibility he’ll blast past the 50-home run and 10-wins barriers.

Babe Ruth, playing for the Boston Red Sox in the war-shortened 1918 season, hit 11 home runs — tying him for the major league home run title — while winning 13 games against 7 losses. So for a player to be even mentioned in the same breath as the Babe, baseball savants have been applying the two-digit criteria — that is, at least 10 wins as pitcher (Ohtani won 9, against 2 losses) and hitting at least 10 home runs.

If there’s a drawback to this success story, it’s that Ohtani seems to be selling himself short. In 2017, the last season he played in Japan, he earned ¥270 million. But considering his contributions as both a winning pitcher and a power hitter, he easily warranted twice that amount.

In 2021, Ohtani was paid the equivalent of just ¥320 million. If Angels’ management insists he abide by the terms of his contract for next year, ¥580 million, Jitsuwa Bunka Taboo (December) claims he’ll be so grossly underpaid for a star of his caliber that he may as well be considered “slave labor.”

“Put a fair value on his contributions as a pitcher, hitter and spin-off sales,” says the magazine, “and he’s easily worth 10 times what he has been getting.”

Shukan Jitsuwa (Nov. 4) speculates that, unless the Angels do a better job of meeting his expectations, Ohtani may be moving across town to play for the Dodgers from 2023.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.