Naoyuki Yanagihara’s life mainly revolves around Shohei Ohtani.
If he posts on his Instagram page, Yanagihara writes about it. Wherever Ohtani travels for baseball, Yanagihara follows. During spring training, if Ohtani isn’t at the Tempe, Ariz., facility, he waits for his car to arrive.
Yanagihara, who writes for Sports Nippon, a Japanese daily devoted exclusively to sports, has been covering Ohtani since 2013, his rookie year with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters.
Yanagihara does not live in the US. His home is in Tokyo, where he lives with his wife and 9-month-old baby for half the year, spending the other half living in hotels in the US.
“Every day I make a phone call, a video call to my wife,” he said. “Around 7 or 8 pm, so it’s morning in Japan. I always struggle with jet lag.”
This is the life of a Japanese sports journalist, assigned to cover the country’s biggest star playing Major League Baseball. He’s one of dozens who, since Ohtani signed with the Angels in December 2017, has been to almost every game and every day of spring training Ohtani is in.
And he’s probably one of dozens who, depending on what happens this season with the Angels, could follow Ohtani to another city should he sign elsewhere in free agency or be moved before the end of the season.
“He has completely changed my life,” she said. “I have to follow it almost every day, every year.”
Ohtani is more popular to the Japanese media and culture than Hideo Nomo, who spent nearly seven of his 12 MLB seasons with the Dodgers. And Ohtani is even bigger than Ichiro Suzuki, who spent most of his 18-plus major league seasons with the Seattle Mariners.
Ohtani isn’t just the biggest baseball star the country has ever had: His global reach already makes that point.
“He’s a Japanese idol, an icon,” Yanagihara said.
“It’s very important for us to also take videos and take photos (of him) because he’s so handsome, cool and he’s like a pop star,” added Taro Abe, who has been on Ohtani’s beat for the past two years. another Japanese newspaper, the Chunichi Shimbun.
Does that make it the Beyoncé of Japan? Abe and another writer, Natsuko Aoike, who writes for Tokyo Sports, a Japanese tabloid, made skeptical faces at the question.
Perhaps Ohtani, in Japan, is even more popular than that.
In Japan, covering baseball players is different than it is in the United States. Media members are allowed everywhere except the clubhouse. Relationships with players are built outside the stadiums. If a journalist needs to communicate with a player, he will wait for him, for example, in the lobby leading to the player’s parking lot. Meeting a player may involve the writers going to dinner with that player or their families.
Writers who secure that kind of foundation become specialty writers in the same way that a baseball writer in the US might be considered a team member, except the specialty is player knowledge.
Yanagihara is that kind of writer. And his job requires him to write a lot about Ohtani. Last year, he provided most of the coverage for 53 newspaper front pages. Japanese sports writing is usually short and to the point, so a story can be as short as a few sentences.
On the day Ohtani won the cycle in June 2019, Yanagihara wrote stories the equivalent of three newspaper pages.
“I wrote until 9 am the next morning,” he said. “He was very crazy. And then I had to go to the stadium at 12 at night, I had little time to sleep. Only three hours.
This year, due to Ohtani’s participation in the World Baseball Classic with Japan, Yanagihara returned to Tokyo for a little longer than usual. He, too, flew to Miami for the semifinals and then will return to Tempe for the remainder of spring training, when Ohtani and Samurai Japan finish up in the WBC. Wherever Ohtani goes is where Yanagihara will be.
“Of course it’s hard work for me,” Yanagihara said of being a baseball journalist. “I always miss my family. But it’s my dream job.”
During the season, the group of Japanese writers and photographers take photos and videos of Ohtani doing everything from his pre-game routine to simply walking around or joking around with his other teammates.
That happens during spring training, too, though there are also news camera operators who come up the hill overlooking the Tempe facility to record your car pulling into the parking lot.
“What they told me is that as a reporter covering baseball, you have to wait for them to come in and then wait until they come out,” Aoike explained of the cameras on the hill. Aoike is a columnist mainly for Tokyo Sports, but also freelances for other Japanese outlets, covering Ohtani.
“So you have to try to get images of that to make sure that he gets to that healthy day. You never know, right? There might be some problems on the way or maybe I’m late.”
It is also a sign of respect and professionalism in Japanese culture to be in a stadium or facility for as long as a player.
The scene is typical of all the great Japanese stars who have passed through the MLB since Nomo in 1995.
“There’s a lot of media coming in, they didn’t know what the media rules were (here),” Grace McNamee said of her experience working public relations for the Dodgers when Nomo arrived. She currently works as a communications manager in the Angels’ public relations department, helping navigate the Japanese media that comes to cover Ohtani.
“And it was an educational process for all of us,” McNamee continued. “I had to create the media list to send to the various teams and to Major League Baseball. I translated some of the documents (from English to Japanese), such as the clubhouse rules.”
The biggest difference between then and now with Ohtani, McNamee explained, is the method of communication. For example, all interview requests during Nomo’s time were by fax or snail mail, sometimes phone calls. Now, he can send a simple text in a group chat to help convey information about schedules or interview times.
Much of the Japanese media covering Ohtani, such as Abe and Aoike, have covered several other Japanese baseball stars before him. Aoike has lived in the US since 2007, covering Hideki Matsui as a reporter for Nippon TV. Since Matsui, he also covered Suzuki when he was with the Yankees and Kenta Maeda, who spent four years with the Dodgers.
“Kenta was kind of a preparation for Shohei,” Aoike said. “When Shohei happened, suddenly it was all about Shohei and they asked me to go (to the stadium) every day.”
Aoike, since moving to the US, has returned to Japan to visit his family once or twice a year, mostly in January, when the off-season is usually slower. However, his life is so entrenched here now that even though his family is back in Japan, he feels more at home in the US and his goal is to cover for Ohtani.
His mother, who has since died, had pancreatic cancer in 2018, Ohtani’s first year with the Angels. When Aoike would visit her at the hospital, she would see others there watching him on TV.
“I didn’t know how much Shohei meant to other people,” Aoike explained. “I have friends who aren’t baseball fans who watch it. It’s a feeling that Shohei gives to people who don’t make me do it, but I want to tell the story to the people of Japan.”
Although there is the difference. Why Japan’s writers, photographers and videographers sacrifice so much of their lives just to cover for Ohtani.
“Before (Ohtani), it was just a job where I tried to do my best, now I want to tell the stories so that some people feel good (reading about him) that day,” Aoike said.