Hernández: How Japanese culture shaped Shohei Ohtani's marriage announcement

Before Shohei Ohtani became Japan’s most popular athlete, that designation belonged to figure skater Yuzuru Hanyu.

Like Ohtani, Hanyu is 29.

Like Ohtani, Hanyu was born and raised in the Tohoku region, the northern part of Japan’s main island.

Last year, the retired Hanyu announced on social media that he was married. Three months later, he returned to the same platform with another announcement.

He was divorced.

The two-time Olympic gold medalist said his family was harassed and became the unwanted subjects of media inquiries and reports. The identity of his wife, which Hanyu had kept secret, was divulged by a weekly tabloid magazine.

“When I thought about my future,” Hanyu wrote in Japanese, “I wanted my spouse to be happy, to have limitless happiness, so I made the decision to divorce.”

Hanyu’s story helps make sense of the bizarre manner in which Ohtani revealed his own nuptials this week.

Announcing a marriage on Instagram and holding a news conference on the subject but refusing to share the spouse’s name might strike Americans as peculiar. However, by the standards of Japanese culture — especially Japanese celebrity culture — nothing about this was abnormal.

To begin with, a person’s work and personal lives are more clearly delineated in Japan than in the United States. Romantic partners are rarely invited to work-related social functions, for example. Plus-ones aren’t a standard feature of wedding invitations.

Athletes typically keep their relationships private until they are married, which is why news of their unions often feel as if they come out of nowhere. Ohtani’s marriage was described by the Japanese media as a “shock wedding,” even though Ohtani said he got engaged last year.

Some Japanese baseball players married well-known sportscasters, including Ichiro Suzuki, Yusei Kikuchi and Kenta Maeda. Yu Darvish married a world champion Greco-Roman wrestler. Their wives already had public profiles before they were married and continued to maintain them after. But in cases in which a player married an ippanjin — or civilian — the spouses remained anonymous. Hideki Matsui was one of the most popular Japanese players of all time, and not much is known about his ippanjin wife to this day.

Ohtani said he wed a “normal” Japanese woman, so the expectation is that she will attempt to stay in the shadows.

The marriage was announced in a message Ohtani posted in Japanese on his Instagram account. In the post’s comments section, another message was posted, this one in English. The contents of the two messages were similar but not the same.

In the Japanese version, Ohtani said he would speak to reporters the next day and asked journalists to refrain from contacting his or his wife’s families. Ultimately, this was what Ohtani wanted to communicate. In exchange for sharing some details about his relationship, he was asking for privacy.

Ohtani indirectly repeated his request when he addressed the media at the Dodgers’ spring training complex. Asked why he made the announcement, he said jokingly in Japanese, “If I didn’t [and you found out], you’d make a fuss.” The implication was that because he was addressing the situation, the Japanese media shouldn’t make a fuss.

If Ohtani was any other player, the media would likely oblige him. But Ohtani isn’t any other player. There is no American equivalent to him. He has become to Japan what Diego Maradona was to Argentina or what Julio César Chávez was to Mexico, an athlete who projects the virtues of his culture to the world. Japanese parents want their boys to grow up to be like him. Women dreamed of marrying him. (There were reports of women skipping work because they were devastated to learn he was taken.)

Ohtani isn’t just famous. He’s famous in a country in which the spotlight on celebrities is particularly intense. Japan has fewer television stations and fewer entertainment options than the United States. When an athlete or entertainer becomes well known, they become ubiquitous. Virtually everyone knows who they are.

The dynamic has resulted in Ohtani’s marriage being treated as if it’s a royal wedding, with Japanese television stations interrupting on-air programs to relay the news. There will be an appetite for information about Ohtani’s relationship, particularly about the identity of his wife, and the country’s notoriously aggressive tabloid magazines are certain to do everything in their power to satisfy that hunger.

Last year, Ohtani conducted an interview as part of an advertising campaign in which he described his vision for his home life.

“Including marriage and children — how do I say this? — I’d like to live in peace,” Ohtani said. “I think having a peaceful soul is better than anything. I’d like my private life to be like that.”

Hanyu was deprived of such an experience.

Hanyu’s cautionary tale should make the Japanese public sympathetic to Ohtani’s request for privacy, but that alone won’t ensure it. Ohtani had to know this, which is why additional measures were taken. The way he announced his marriage might not have made sense to American audiences, but they did to anyone familiar with his culture.

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top