Shohei Ohtani’s Arrival Brings Hope and Nostalgia Home to Little Tokyo

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Shohei Ohtani’s powerful arms and boyish face, looking up from under a Dodger blue helmet, loom 15 stories over Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo neighborhood from the side of the Miyako Hotel.

Unveiled last week, it’s one of many tributes to baseball’s two-way supernova that have appeared across Los Angeles since he signed with the Dodgers in December. The record-breaking deal pushed Ohtani into the next stratosphere of celebrity, even among sportsmen and even in a town bursting with the rich and famous.

A player that good and that sought after tends to be claimed by most baseball fans, but none more than those with roots in his home country, Japan, where he has been called “a being above the clouds.” The Little Tokyo mural is larger than life, much like Ohtani’s monumental stature among Japanese Americans in Los Angeles.

Baseball has, for more than a century and a half, been a bridge between the United States and Japan, since an American educator from Maine introduced the sport to his students at an academy in Tokyo in 1872. And in Los Angeles, home to one of the nation’s biggest and oldest Japanese American enclaves, rooting for the Dodgers is a cherished tradition. And for a community contending with gentrification in its historic center and an aging population of cultural standard-bearers, Ohtani’s arrival was a galvanizing moment.

Now, though, as the Dodgers play their first home series of the season, an unfolding gambling scandal with Ohtani near its center has felt like a rainout.

“It’s definitely not the way I wanted to start with him coming to his new team,” said Rick Izumi, 63, a Japanese American Angeleno whose early memories include seeing Don Drysdale pitch for the Dodgers in the 1960s and his father falling asleep on the couch to Dodgers games on the radio. “It’s the talk of the family.”

Earlier this month, while the Dodgers were opening the regular season in Seoul, the team abruptly announced that Ohtani’s longtime interpreter and close friend, Ippei Mizuhara, had been fired by the club following reports from ESPN and The Los Angeles Times that payments with Ohtani’s name on them had been made to an illegal bookmaker who was under federal investigation. Initially, Mizuhara said that Ohtani had made the payments willingly to help him out of at least $4.5 million worth of gambling debt. But then Ohtani’s representatives said he had been the victim of theft, and Mizuhara disavowed his prior account.

On Monday, Ohtani made a statement saying that he had never bet on sports and that Mizuhara “has been stealing money from my account and has told lies.” Investigations, by Major League Baseball and the I.R.S., are underway, and questions remain.

Naturally, group chats among the Dodgers faithful have shifted from the disappointing first outing by the rookie Japanese pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto to other matters.

Mr. Izumi said he had been comparing theories with friends who are lawyers and asking his mother, who lives nearby, how the story has been covered on NHK, the Japanese broadcast network that is a favorite among Nisei, or older, second-generation Japanese Americans who are more likely to speak Japanese.

“I’m sure they’re following it every minute of the day,” he said.

Ohtani has been closely watched since he emerged as a high school baseball prodigy in Hokkaido, Japan. He jumped from the Japanese professional league to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2018, being named the American League rookie of the year and never looking back.

Ohtani entered free agency last November, setting off a weekslong frenzy among teams and fans before he signed a staggering $700 million, 10-year contract with the Dodgers, a glamour franchise in an A-list city with a vast, passionate and diverse fan base. (The Angels, while a Los Angeles team at least in name, play in Orange County, well outside the city proper, and lack the Dodgers’ storied history and larger fan base.)

Ohtani became the 11th Japanese player to wear a Dodgers uniform and Yamamoto the 12th. To Japanese American fans and baseball historians, Ohtani’s career marks the pinnacle of a long history. After baseball was introduced in Japan in 1872, tapping into a culture that prizes discipline and technique over raw strength and speed, its popularity exploded there.

So, by the time thousands of Americans of Japanese descent were imprisoned in remote concentration camps during World War II, baseball was already an integral part of many of their lives. In the camps, the sport was a literal pastime — and a way of performing Americanness for a government that had aimed suspicion at a group determined to prove its loyalty.

By 1964, parallel tracks of baseball in Japan and Japanese American baseball merged with the arrival of Masanori Murakami, a Japanese pitcher who played briefly for the San Francisco Giants. He had no interpreter and spoke little English at first; Japanese American farming families in Fresno, Calif., where he started on a minor league team, helped Murakami get by, said Kristen Hayashi, a curator at the Japanese American National Museum in Little Tokyo, and a Dodgers fan.

That was the beginning of a lineage of Japanese major league stars: Hideo Nomo, a pitcher for the Dodgers in the 1990s, and then Ichiro Suzuki, a beloved Seattle Mariner. Kenta Maeda and Yu Darvish are popular players today. But Ohtani, hailed for both his hitting and his pitching, is on another level.

“To go from baseball being introduced to Japan 150 years ago, to segregated leagues to now the face of baseball is a Japanese player, I mean, that’s huge,” Ms. Hayashi said. “I can’t wait to see what he does over the next 10 years.”

Dan Kwong, 69, a multidisciplinary artist, has for over 50 years played for the Little Tokyo Giants, part of a Japanese American baseball league with roots in the concentration camps, including Manzanar, where his mother was incarcerated.

He recalled seeing Nomo on the big screen at a Dodgers game in 1995 as a “mind-boggling experience.”

“To hear this stadium of people cheering madly for an Asian man in a Dodgers uniform — that was my dream,” he said. “It just blew my mind.”

Mr. Kwong said that he had felt something similar as the “Shotime” (Ohtani’s nickname) phenomenon has swept over Los Angeles — pride, excitement.

Mr. Kwong is among the Angelenos who are holding out hope that Ohtani will make a small effort to join the community that has embraced him.

They hope the star will visit the Japanese American National Museum to learn about what baseball meant to Japanese Americans who were unfairly removed from their homes, stripped, in many cases, of property and businesses because of their ethnicity. They hope he will browse gift shops that have for generations sold sturdy Japanese paper goods and ceramics and grab sushi at restaurants where chefs have built decades-long relationships with fish vendors.

Maybe, they hope, Ohtani might even make time to greet fans at the Nisei Week parade, the highlight of an annual summer festival celebrating Japanese culture, which has been taking place for more than eight decades.

The community, they say, could benefit from a high-profile booster: While on the surface, Little Tokyo is thriving, with crowds thronging its plazas on weekends, many small legacy businesses have closed in recent years, replaced by chains or white-owned businesses selling Japanese-inspired accessories and treats. Many shopkeepers are retiring without employees to replace them.

Nationally, the Japanese American population is growing at a rate much slower than other Asian American groups; the number of people who identify as Japanese alone, as opposed to multiracial, actually decreased by 3 percent between 2010 and 2020 — the results of broad demographic trends and dwindling immigration from Japan.

“I would love to see him get involved with the community, but I don’t know if that’s too much to hope for, since he’s such a big superstar,” said Kristin Fukushima, 36, who is managing director of the Little Tokyo Community Council. “I can also understand now, with the public eye and maybe even some trust broken when it comes to letting new folks into his sphere — maybe that’s not on the horizon.”

Ms. Fukushima said she, like all Dodgers fans, had been talking and thinking nonstop about the gambling situation involving Ohtani’s former interpreter. But she is optimistic that the ordeal is a hiccup at the start of Ohtani’s long career as a Dodger.

“I think he’d find a lot of really warm, welcoming, open arms,” she said. “And support.”



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