At one of the heights of Ohtani–mania, the phenomenon that hit just before starting pitcher Shohei Ohtani was to participate in the MLB’s annual Home Run Derby, ESPN media personality (and seminal purveyor of hot takes) Stephen A. Smith suggested that Shohei Ohtani wasn’t marketable because he needed an English interpreter.
The pushback was swift and immediate. ESPN reporters such as Clinton Yates and Joon Lee were quick to point out that speaking English had no effect on baseball skill, or that the concern of marketability was just one more way in many of dismissing non–white, non–English–speaking people. ESPN reporter Marly Rivera emphasized that the global nature of baseball is why she loved the sport. Stephen A. Smith issued two apologies and spoke with ESPN baseball reporter Jeff Passan on Smith’s show. The saga promptly ended.
After the dust had settled from ESPN’s Ohtani gaffe, Detroit Tigers broadcaster Jack Morris did a mock–Asian accent just before Ohtani was at bat. “Be very, very careful,” he said, with the exaggerated liquid phoneme common to Japanese. Morris was suspended indefinitely for his comments.
These incidents were not the only ways that Ohtani’s Japaneseness has cropped up in the coverage of him, but they were the most broadly criticized. Angels commentators often attach Japanese taglines to Ohtani’s homers—former Angels commentator Victor Rojas brought “Big Fly, Ohtani–san!” to United States television. Much of the pushback against Smith likely came from a line of baseball fans who were already tired of his large paycheck for making intentionally incendiary takes. At least on Reddit, Smith’s comments received much more attention and unilateral condemnation than those of Morris.
ESPN was quick to capitalize on Smith’s controversy. Jimmy Traina aptly noted that, “People at First Take knew what he was going to say. The segment was planned. The segment was teased. The segment was promoted.” And while Jeff Passan’s appearance on the show was applauded as Ohtani’s defense, he similarly promoted his appearance on Twitter beforehand. ESPN was the biggest winner; they got their clicks and views.
However, even coverage that is not as blatantly offensive (or that which doesn’t come from a widely despised mouthpiece) often centers around an exotified view of Ohtani’s Japaneseness.
In many ways, the perception of Ohtani is antithetical to stereotypical portrayals of East Asian men. His build certainly helps: he is 6–foot–4 and 210 pounds. A quick search on Twitter of the keywords “Ohtani” and “hot” paints a picture of what fans think of him. On the other hand, he’s more familiarly ascribed a sort of childishness and innocence, as another search on Twitter with the keywords “Ohtani” and “pure” shows. In comparison, Japanese Formula 1 driver, Yuki Tsunoda, is often compared with small animals or Kirby despite being raucous and swearing his way onto team radio with impressive regularity, perhaps because of his 5–foot–2 frame. No matter what the build or attitude, the odds of being infantilized or designated innocent are high for East Asian men.
General media coverage surrounding Ohtani treats his Japaneseness with an interesting dichotomy. On one hand, a lot of media handle Ohtani with a gaze that has been seen before by many Asian Americans, from COVID–19 responses to sports coverage, treating modern–day East Asian culture as uniquely bizarre or ascribed to historical figures such as Confucius.
A long feature piece on Ohtani by Rustin Dodd at The Athletic opens up with a haiku to say, “Japanese baseball, then, came to be influenced by bushidō, the moral code of honor developed by the samurai warrior class … A century later, as Ohtani came of age in Iwate, the old influences remained …” Ohtani is also described as a “baseballing monk,” a “happy warrior,” a “purist” with “adherence to tradition.”
The articles treat Japan as a place that is quirky and different, obsessed with diagnosing or ascribing one baseball player’s existence to broader cultural patterns—still rooted in the old ways, or bizarrely obsessed with comics, as if Marvel isn't a fad in the United States. It’s an issue that is exacerbated the more popular you are: these same articles are not being written about Yusei Kikuchi, who attended the same high school as Ohtani, but they are about Shohei Ohtani.
At the same time, Ohtani is portrayed as embodying a Western, specifically American ideal. As Dodd talks about Masaoka Shiki, a poet from Ohtani's hometown of Iwate, he mentions that Shiki "pulled from Western influences." Dodd continues his article to say that Ohtani is everything, all at once—pitcher and hitter, thinker and naturally talented—and connects this to a quote by filmmaker Ema Ryan Yamazaki: “He’s kind of like an American version of a Japanese player.”
Ohtani is Japanese, but a commonly pushed selling point is what he can mean as an American. His Japaneseness is a familiar kind of malleable—emphasized difference when it could be interesting or amusing or quirky, but somehow also representing everything that is good about America. The so–called Japanese work ethic is spartan or intense, but when reframed into being a “grunt worker,” it is cast as American.
Passan’s comments on First Take, as much as they were widely heralded as a dramatic takedown of Stephen A. Smith to defend Shohei Ohtani, were milquetoast at best. Overlooking Passan’s engagement in ESPN’s revenue generation from a self–created racism controversy, his statement on Ohtani relied on what Ohtani meant for America.
“He left behind everything he knows to go and pursue the American Dream,” Passan says. He continues, “We should look at Shohei Ohtani as a bastion of what this country and this sports world is about … and he has found [his greatness] here in America.”
It’s difficult to view Passan's chosen praise as flattering, especially after decades of discourse about how Asian Americans are often portrayed as the 'good minority' as well as the immediate weaponization of anti–Asian racism in order to target Black men. Which is to say, despite constant reiteration that home runs are universal and baseball is best for being a global sport, well–received defenses of Ohtani are primarily focused on the value Ohtani brings to America and reiterate American exceptionalism. Morris and Smith’s comments are more blatantly racist, but the broader media picture of Ohtani—including even defenses of Ohtani—still center around tired tropes and well–trodden discourse.
If there’s anything to be taken away from the Smith debacle, it’s that the profitability of racist comments often comes in the fallout. Even on the very surface, the Passan appearance as Ohtani’s white knight garnered views and engagement, but at the same time, his appearance showed that discussing Ohtani’s Japaneseness has value the same way that Asians are often spoken about in the broader political landscape: as an American token.