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TOKYO (Reuters) – From the prime minister to people in the street, Japan on Friday celebrated Shohei Ohtani winning one of U.S. baseball’s top awards with joy, banners and newspaper extras filled with pride at the achievement of one of their own.
Ohtani, 27, with the Los Angeles Angels, won the Most Valuable Player (MVP) award for Major League Baseball’s American League, becoming only the second Japanese player after Ichiro Suzuki, then with the Seattle Mariners, did so in 2001.
“I’m proud. He worked hard and showed Japanese presence,” said Minoru Tanaka, 68 and a part-time worker.
Others were even more enthusiastic.
“I’m simply happy, I think it’s amazing,” said office worker Chihiro Nakamura, 36. “I want to keep cheering him on.”
Newspapers handed out extras and the iconic Tokyo Tower was set to be illuminated in the Angels’ colours with a congratulatory message at exactly 17:17, or 5:17 p.m., to match Ohtani’s jersey number.
City hall workers in Ohtani’s hometown of Oshu, in rural northeastern Japan, gathered in Angels jerseys, cheering and clapping. Later, banners proclaiming the win were hung from city hall.
Even Prime Minister Fumio Kishida joined, telling reporters: “It’s an extraordinary accomplishment and as a Japanese citizen, I feel very proud.”
Ohtani’s popularity stems from both his athletic ability and his character, which combines quiet strength and the humbleness Japan respects most in its heroes, said Hirotaka Matsuoka, a sports marketing professor at Tokyo’s Waseda University.
“Ohtani is earnest and humble, so even if he doesn’t say anything he’s appealing – and he appeals to men, women, young and old,” he added.
Though Suzuki was popular, Ohtani goes one better, said Robert Whiting, the author of several books on Japanese baseball.
“He gives Japan a certain status in MLB it has never had before …,” he said in remarks made to Reuters before the award announcement. “Some people are calling him the best baseball player they’ve ever seen.”
Shares in sporting goods firm Asics rose, while Zett Corp, a little-known sports company whose share price soared in July when Ohtani appeared in the All-Star game, fell after an initial spike just after the news came out.
Though baseball has lost ground to soccer in Japan in recent years, Ohtani’s MVP is likely to inspire more to play the game – and more to watch, giving Japanese professional baseball a boost, Matsuoka said.
“After all, who knows when you might be able to see the next Ohtani in a game right here?” he said.