Monday, March 4, 2024

Analysis | Baseball Win Is a Triumph for Japan’s Soft Power

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The past 30 years in Japan is often painted as a period of stagnation, decline and waning international influence. Sport is one major exception as demonstrated by Shohei Ohtani’s domination of the game that the US invented in the World Baseball Classic. 

It also serves as a morale booster for Prime Minister Fumio Kishida who is preparing to host the Group of Seven summit in May.

On Wednesday morning in Tokyo, the same day the capital’s cherry blossoms reached full bloom, Samurai Japan defeated Team USA in a game in Miami that in the words of one writer “will be talked about 100 years from now.” It was the country’s third time to win the tournament, but perhaps the first in which they’ve faced a US team that takes the competition as seriously as Japan itself does, sending some of pro baseball’s very best. 

Like blue jeans and whiskey, baseball may become one of the imported inventions where the island nation has surpassed the creators. Just a quarter-century ago, it delighted in simply having someone who was able to compete in Major League Baseball, when Hideo Nomo became the first player to permanently relocate to the US. In Ohtani, the country now boasts a two-way player who at least one analyst has called the best to ever play the game. 

And it’s not just the Great American Pastime: While Japan’s economy has slumbered, its standing has improved in multiple sports. It boasts some of the best in the world from golf to figure skating, and took home more than five times as many Olympic gold medals in Tokyo as it did in Sydney 23 years ago. The women’s football team, known as Nadeshiko Japan, won the World Cup in 2011. In rugby, the Brave Blossoms have emerged as a top 10 nation in recent years, claiming the scalps of traditional powers South Africa and Ireland in successive World Cups, as well as hosting the 2019 event. 

The J-League, the country’s professional football league, was born 30 years ago this year as the reality of the economic bubble bursting began to bite. Japan is home to several of Europe’s most exciting players, while the national team (Samurai Blue — these nicknames keep coming) has qualified for seven World Cups in a row, and now routinely reaches the knockout stages. Contrast that with China, which a decade on has failed to meet the first of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s goals to qualify for a World Cup, much less his final two: hosting and eventually winning it. That these successes have come as foreigners, mostly from Mongolia, have dominated Japan’s national sport of sumo is an irony. 

Soft-power triumphs are increasingly important in a world where sports are a powerful diplomatic tool — the reason the likes of Qatar and Saudi Arabia are seeking to buy influence, or “sportswash” away human rights concerns, through ownership of some of the world’s largest teams. 

And while Japan is no sportswasher, it needs soft-power success. A quarter century ago, its economy dwarfed China’s. While it now can’t compete on that front, through sporting success, media and international aid, it can punch above its economic weight. The charismatic, expressive Ohtani is a wonderful ambassador for both country and sport alike; the nation’s easygoing fans, whether cleaning up stadiums or grinding imaginary pepper mills, have endeared themselves to millions. 

That’s the type of power that’s been crucial to what has been the most successful week of Kishida’s premiership so far: It saw him restoring cordial ties with South Korea and deepen relations with India. Kishida, who on Thursday is hosting the country’s baseball heroes at his offices, will hope a little of Ohtani’s charisma rubs off on him, too, as G7 leaders meet in the prime minister’s home constituency of Hiroshima next month.

He’ll benefit also from being pictured shaking hands with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy — whom he invited to participate in the G7 summit — just as China’s Xi was rubbing shoulders with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. The US ambassador to Japan explicitly outlined the contrast, saying Kishida sought a “brighter future for people everywhere,” while Xi was “trying to turn out the lights on freedom.”

It’s another example of how Tokyo’s role internationally is expanding. The sporting success advertises the new reality of a country unfairly categorized as never-changing. An increasingly diverse population is evident among the new generation of stars — tennis star Naomi Osaka, whose father is Haitian; Rui Hachimura of the Los Angeles Lakers, whose father hails from Benin; or WCB breakout Lars Nootbaar, whose mother is Japanese, but who was raised in California and doesn’t speak the language. Around one in 50 births these days are to couples in which one parent is not Japanese(1).

This success hasn’t come for free. The country’s sports budget has doubled in the past 15 years — with an explicit goal of keeping the population fitter and healthier for longer, seen as an imperative in a rapidly aging society where medical spending has also ballooned. But despite those challenges, Ohtani and other national heroes display a self-belief that is at odds with a narrative of terminal decline, summed up in a pre-final speech in which the Los Angeles Angels star urged teammates to discard their admiration for their more famous rivals and come out on top of them instead. Off the field and on, it’s precisely the type of attitude the country needs. 

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(1) As these figures don’t count pairings in which one parent has changed nationality, the true number of haafu, or mixed-race children, is even higher.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Gearoid Reidy is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Japan and the Koreas. He previously led the breaking news team in North Asia, and was the Tokyo deputy bureau chief.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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