When Naomi Osaka faced the media in Japan as a Grand Slam champion for the first time on Sept. 13, Shun Nakasone was right there beside her.
This week, Nakasone has essentially been the tennis star’s mouthpiece in his role as the interpreter for the Toray Pan Pacific Open. The tournament is Osaka’s first since her victory over Serena Williams in the U.S. Open final on Sept. 9 in New York.
Osaka isn’t fluent in Japanese, so when she needs to get her point across during the tournament, it’s through Nakasone. The arrangement is nothing new to either of them.
“This is my fourth year (at the tournament) and Naomi was in the tournament back then as well, as a 17-year old,” Nakasone told The Japan Times. “Back then, she wasn’t as refined as a player and she was still a teenager. She wasn’t really eager to speak.
“But here she is now. She’s ranked in the Top 10. Thinking of those times, I would say I saw her at Toray Pan Pacific Open every year since 2015, so I’ve kind of seen her grow up as well. I’ve seen her mature as a person and as a player of course. She’s playing great tennis now. She’s a Grand Slam champion, after all.”
Nakasone says working with the tennis star this week is the same as it’s always been.
“Naomi is always herself,” Nakasone said. “She never changes. She’s willing to say whatever she feels like talking about. So I just follow her.”
Nakasone got his start at NHK in 1993. There, he would help translate material from AP for use on the network’s programs. When NHK began to cover American sports, such as MLB and others, there was a lot more information to translate into Japanese.
In 2004, Nakasone began working with the Chiba Lotte Marines as the interpreter for manager Bobby Valentine. As a child, he’d dreamed of becoming a pro ballplayer, but didn’t last long in the sport, so he jumped at the chance.
“I always looked up to those great baseball players here in Japan,” Nakasone said. “I never thought I would ever be able to be part of it, in any position. But all of the sudden I got the opportunity. I was really lucky.
“It was really different. Your job actually starts a few days before spring training starts (Feb. 1) and you’re with a team for the entire season. You’re with this group of 50 guys all the time. They all talked about baseball, they all thought about baseball, we lived in baseball. It was just all about baseball and I learned about baseball and behind the scenes of professional baseball. It was fun overall.”
Nakasone has been an interpreter for athletes and officials from various sports. The hardest aspect, he says, are unfamiliar terms that may be specific to a certain sport.
“It could be hard if I’m not really familiar with the terminology and I need to look it up in the dictionary,” he said. “Nowadays we can google it, so it’s much easier. Learning the terminology and phrases particular to every sport is probably the hardest part. But it’s always fun to watch sports.”
He also makes sure to look into athletes’s background when possible, to be prepared for some of the questions that may arise.
There’s no telling what may come up this week, with media and fans in Japan hungry for every last detail about Osaka. Nakasone has had a front-row seat for the media crush lately, and had to think back to his Lotte days in order to recall a similar situation.
“As a team, when we won the championship with Lotte (in 2005), of course there was a lot of hype and you have more people in the stadiums in baseball,” he said. “Back then, right after we won the championship, wherever we went, there were people mobbing Bobby. It kind of reminds me of that.”
Those years with Lotte are probably why Nakasone says he doesn’t feel any particularly pressure to interpret Osaka’s thoughts for hundreds of media members and thousands of fans at home eager to digest her every word.
“I think I got used to it because of the job with the Lotte Marines,” Nakasone said. “I got to speak in front of 20,000 people. So compared to that. . .”