United States and Japanese Flags

Taking A Swing at Tokyo: LA Dodgers Host Japanese Heritage Night at Dodger Stadium

Japan Asia

The LA Dodgers plan to host Japanese Heritage Night at Dodger Stadium on July 2, 2024, amid the team’s renewed push to capture the attention of Japanese fans in America and abroad. The initiative illustrates baseball’s continued role as an important cultural conduit between the United States and Japan.

On July 2, 2024, the LA Dodgers will host Japanese Heritage Night, as they take on the Arizona Diamondbacks in a divisional matchup at Dodger Stadium. The event celebrates Japanese culture and will feature a variety of local Japanese-American celebrity guests. Attendees will also have the opportunity to purchase a special ticket package that includes a newly debuted heritage themed Dodgers baseball jersey, which incorporates elements of the Japanese flag and Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai’s iconic “Great Wave” woodblock print.

The Dodgers’ interest in celebrating Japanese culture is understandable considering the team’s most recent off-season additions. In December 2023, the Dodgers signed Shohei Ohtani to a record breaking 10-year, $700 million contract and Yoshinobu Yamamoto to a 12-year, $325 million contract. Ohtani and Yamamoto are two of the best Japanese ball players in the world and were former stars in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB). Since his American baseball debut in 2018, Ohtani has earned two Major League Baseball (MLB) most valuable player (MVP) awards. His unique status as an elite pitcher and hitter has also drawn comparisons to the all-time great Babe Ruth. Despite having not played in America prior to 2024, Yamato’s three consecutive NPB MVPs made him one of the most coveted free agents of this off-season; that is, aside from Shohei himself.

Like Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson in America, Ohtani and Yamamoto are already household names in their home country. Baseball was introduced to Japan in 1872 by American educator Horace Wilson. The game quickly gained traction among high school and university students, eventually leading to the creation of the first Japanese professional baseball league in 1936 and the current NPB in 1950. Today, 3.8 million people play and 17 million people watch baseball in Japan, making it the country’s most popular sport.

Baseball’s popularity in Japan has vaulted Japanese NPB ball players into national stardom, especially those who have gone on to find success in America’s MLB. Since signing with the Dodgers, Shohei and Yoshinobu have dominated Japanese news channels, with Ohtani’s introductory press conference being carried by five different Japanese networks. In the two-month stretch following Shohei’s free agent decision, the Dodgers were searched twice as often on Google in Japan as they were in the United States. Additionally, The Japan Times reported that Dodgers team merchandise sales in Japan increased by more than 8,350% in the 24 hours after Ohtani announced his decision to join with the team.

With both Ohtani and Yamamoto now residing in LA, many have already taken to calling the Dodgers ‘Japan’s favorite team’, a moniker that Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman seems intent on actualizing. In his December 2023 remarks, Friedman revealed that Japanese players’ global appeal was crucial to the Dodgers’ decision to invest more than $1 billion in Ohtani and Yamamoto, who he hoped would lead “baseball fans in Japan [to] convert to Dodger blue.” This mirrors similar comments Friedman made in his interview with ESPN, where he asserted that “the passion for the game of baseball there [Japan] is as strong or stronger than any other country in the world…so in an ideal world, in the next five to 10 years, we're going to have kids growing up as Dodger fans.”

Japanese Heritage Night is just the most recent in a series of concrete steps taken by Friedman to fulfill his promise to court Japanese fandom. Dodger Stadium, the team’s home arena, has undergone significant renovations since the signings of Ohtani and Yamamoto. Japanese signage adorns the stadium’s concourse and fans can now partake in tours given in Japanese. To the delight of Japanese and American fans, the stadium’s concessions stands also now sell Japanese classics like sushi, chicken katsu, and takoyaki, right alongside hot dogs and burgers. Dodgers fans in Japan can even engage with their team in their home country, where Dodgers-branded wine has recently become available for purchase.

It’s not only the Dodgers who have worked to capitalize on Ohtani and Yamamoto’s popularity. Since the two players joined the team, a significant number of Japanese companies have signed sponsorship deals with the Dodgers in an effort to better engage with their own baseball loving diaspora. At least nine Japanese firms across all industries have signed partnership deals with the Dodgers since December, including the Kinoshita Group, THK, All Nippon Airways, STARLUX Airlines, Daiso, Kosé Corporation, Kowa, Toyo Tires, and Yakult.

The economic and cultural exchange prompted by Shohei and Yamamoto's signing with the LA Dodgers is an unmistakable indicator that baseball is both America and Japan’s game. The sport is an important conduit for mutually beneficial and authentic exchange between the two countries, connections that will only continue to grow as the United States and Japan draw ever closer in the decades to come.

Jack Borrow is a participant in the Summer 2024 Young Professionals Program at the East West Center in Washington. He is a recent graduate of Boston College, where he obtained a B.A. in Political Science and Asian Studies.