Ohtani Brings Koreans, Japanese Together at MLB Opener in Seoul

Seoul — As a South Korean baseball fan, Shin Jae-woong had many reasons to watch the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres open the Major League Baseball season this week in Seoul.

These are the first ever regular season MLB games in baseball-loving South Korea. And the games feature multiple Korean stars, including Padres infielder Kim Ha-seong.

But the main draw is obvious for Shin and his two young sons, who traveled from the southeastern city of Gwangju. They came to see Japanese superstar Shohei Ohtani.

“I think Ohtani is out of this world. He’s like another level of player,” said Shin as he watched the Dodgers practice ahead of the series opener on Wednesday.

Ohtani, the do-it-all Japanese megastar – who in December signed a record 10-year, $700 million contract with the Dodgers – draws massive crowds wherever he goes these days.

Perhaps surprisingly, Ohtani also has throngs of fans in South Korea, which shares a fierce sports rivalry and complicated history with Japan.

“He has a good personality. He’s tall. He’s good-looking,” said Eo Soo-young, a 38-year-old Seoul resident. “And that other stuff, that’s an old story.”

This week, it’s all about positive vibes, as South Korea and Japan come together around an American game, which has also become a showcase for improved ties among the three countries.

“It’s almost become a trilateral event,” said Philip Goldberg, the U.S. ambassador to Seoul, who attended the Wednesday game with several senior South Korean and Japanese officials. “In this atmosphere of better relations…it brings even more luster.”

Japan-South Korea ties have long been strained, often over issues related to atrocities committed by Japan during its brutal 1910-45 occupation of Korea. When South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol took office in 2022, he instead chose to focus on the future, expanding security cooperation and holding several meetings with his counterpart, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

Nonetheless, Japan remains a sensitive issue in South Korea, where many left-leaning politicians accuse Yoon of being too friendly with Japan.

According to Japanese media reports, planning was under way for Kishida to attend Wednesday’s MLB opener in Seoul, perhaps alongside Yoon. Kishida’s visit was called off because it may have been too controversial ahead of next month’s general election in South Korea, the reports suggested.

“Even though the two governments have been able to kind of smooth things over, this historical issue hasn’t been resolved, I think. And that leaves open the possibility of the relationship deteriorating in the future,” said Benjamin Engel, a professor at Seoul National University.

For now, ties are warming, even at the people-to-people level. Recent polls suggest a majority of young Koreans want to improve relations with Japan. And South Korean interest in Japanese cultural productions, such as anime, and commercial products like beer, has surged.

In an interview with VOA, Ambassador Goldberg said he was optimistic that trilateral ties will also remain strong.

“It just makes so much sense. It’s in the interests of the three countries,” he told VOA in an interview. “There are going to be moments where we have to manage and go through different periods. But I think there’s a logic to all of this that will keep it going.”

And Ohtani – whom Koreans refer to as the “baseball genius” – can’t hurt, at least if you ask many Korean baseball fans.

Many were impressed that during his pre-game comments to the media, Ohtani had nothing but warm words for South Korea. That is a contrast to Ichiro Suzuki, another Japanese baseball legend, who stirred resentment among many Koreans by taunting, and sometimes even insulting, their country.

“(Ohtani) just respects Korea…that’s why other people respect him too,” said Seoul resident Ryoo Sung-kyu. “It’s give and take, I think.”

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