How Japanese media cover the Shohei Ohtani gambling scandal

Japanese citizens recognize that baseball players betting on baseball – even if the bets are not made on the bettor’s team – is taboo. Most support banning almost all types of sports gambling. There is a cultural aversion to gambling, although illegal betting has a long and vibrant history in the island nation.

Thus, the sports betting scandal involving national hero Shohei Ohtani and his former interpreter, Ippei Mizuhara, shook the Japanese people. According to journalists whose mission for years has been to cover all aspects of Ohtani, their readers demand daily, detailed updates of the two-way star’s activities on the court, while eagerly awaiting (and often dreading ) the next development in this confusing gaming saga. so far this has generated more questions than answers.

Ohtani denied Mizuhara’s initial claim that Ohtani paid at least $4.5 million of his gambling debts to an illegal bookmaking operation based in Orange County. In a statement he read to a gathering of about 70 reporters at Dodger Stadium last week, Ohtani said: “I have never bet on baseball or any other sport, nor have I ever asked anyone ‘one to do it in my name and I have never gone through a bookmaker. bet on sports.

He also denied paying Mizuhara’s debts, accusing his interpreter and friend since 2013 of stealing the money and lying to him. “I’m very saddened and shocked that someone I trust would do this,” Ohtani said five days after Mizuhara was fired by the Dodgers.

While federal authorities and MLB conduct investigations, Ohtani continues to play for the Dodgers, drawing enthusiastic applause with every at-bat. In Japan, he is treated with even more deference – and esteem.

“Shohei was in the news every day, even before the game story,” said Natsuko Aoike, who is based in Los Angeles to cover Ohtani for Tokyo Sports, a Japanese daily newspaper. “I almost feel like in Los Angeles you only get a glimpse of how Japan covers Shohei Ohtani. It’s actually a lot more if you go to Japan. This is a major, very important story. I would say that this is equivalent to a presidential election.

Japanese media are reluctant to criticize Ohtani and even more reluctant to speculate on the worst-case scenario for the Dodgers designated hitter and pitcher who signed a $700 million contract in the offseason, by far the largest in history of the MLB.

“A player considered perfect suddenly found himself immersed in a scandal,” said Taro Abe, who covers Ohtani for the Chunichi Shimbun daily, now in its fourth year. “Unlike in the United States, there are virtually no reports questioning Ohtani.

“Ohtani is seen as a victim who was deceived by Mizuhara and few question Ohtani’s responsibility.”

Shohei Ohtani of the Dodgers, with interpreter Ippei Mizuhara, right, speaks to the media February 9, the first day of spring training at Camelback Ranch in Phoenix.

(Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

Experts in U.S. gambling law are questioning how Mizuhara was able to access Ohtani’s bank account without his knowledge. In Japan, experts have pointed out that an associate as close to Ohtani as Mizuhara could have won his trust in financial matters.

“There have been reports (in Japan) about how professional athletes, not just MLB players, manage their own assets,” said Naoyuki Yanagihara, a journalist who covers Ohtani for Sports Nippon, a sports daily. influential since 1948.

Japanese baseball fans remember at least two bouts of play that resulted in players being banned for life from the game. Few — if any — want to believe Ohtani is on a similar path.

Pitcher Kyosuke Takagi of the Yomiuri Giants – a venerable franchise comparable in Japan to the Dodgers or the New York Yankees – admitted in 2016 to betting on baseball games and lying during the team’s investigation.

“I betrayed all the people who have supported me since I started playing baseball in elementary school,” Takagi said a day after telling the club he bet on baseball in 2014 . “I am truly sorry for my actions.”

Three other Giants players bet on baseball months earlier and were suspended indefinitely. Although none of the four bet on the games they were involved in, Takagi’s confession led to the resignations of three Giants executives.

This episode occurred decades after the infamous “Black Mist Scandal,” when, between 1969 and 1971, several Japanese players were punished for accepting money from organized crime figures known as “Black Mist Scandal.” yakuza launch games. Sanctions ranged from six players being banned from baseball for life to severe warnings for others.

Today, gambling remains illegal in Japan, with the exception of the following public races: horse racing, bicycle racing, boat racing, automobile racing and the lottery. Casinos are non-existent.

In the United States, 38 states have legalized sports gambling. Online gaming is widespread, with sports gaming generating a record $10.92 billion in revenue for 2023, according to the American Gaming Assn’s annual report.

“Unlike in the United States, the environment (in Japan) is not one where play is open,” Abe said. “Compared to the United States, the sports that can be bet on are extremely limited and illegal betting by athletes is becoming huge scandals. There is a negative perception of gambling, and it is very different from the United States, where you can easily gamble.”

Even the pinball-like arcade game Pachinko – which has proliferated since the 1920s thanks to a loophole in Japanese gambling laws – is in decline, with the number of Pachinko parlors falling from almost 19,000 in the 1990s to just over 8,000 today.

Yet gambling is recognized by the Japanese government as a potential source of untapped revenue, just as it is in the United States. A Japanese law was passed in 2018 allowing poker and other games in an effort to boost revenue and tourism. Additionally, a controversial plan to build Japan’s first gambling complex in Osaka by 2029 has been officially approved.

Members of the Japanese media watch the Angels' Shohei Ohtani throw in the outfield during practice in 2019.

Members of the Japanese media watch Shohei Ohtani throw in the outfield before an Angels game on May 30, 2019.

(Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Yet in Japan, Ohtani is a symbol not only of baseball prowess, but also of “kanpeki na hito“- a perfect person – because of his perceived humility, dedication to his craft, and polite attitude.

“There is almost no criticism of Ohtani,” Abe said of Japanese media. “Especially after Ohtani spoke publicly and offered an explanation, I think there are fewer people who believe he paid Mizuhara’s debts. Most people believe what he says. On the question of how Mizuhara accessed the bank account, many experts give their opinion, but they do not doubt Ohtani.

When Japanese journalists want to include a question about Ohtani’s role in the scandal in an article, they often cite the reporting of an American reporter or columnist.

“Dylan Hernández (who speaks fluent Japanese) of the Los Angeles Times is famous in Japan,” Abe said. “Next to him, the ESPN reporter (Tisha Thompson) who wrote about the illegal gambling problem had her stories picked up in Japan and was interviewed. It is extremely common in Japanese sports reporting to publish articles based on translations of American articles, and this is not limited to this scandal.”

Mizuhara, on the other hand, has become a convenient villain. A day after saying Ohtani knew of Mizuhara’s gambling addiction and knowingly paid his debts, Mizuhara told ESPN that Ohtani had no knowledge of his gambling debts and that Ohtani had no not transferred money to pay them.

Aoike, for her part, prefers to remember Mizuhara as an excellent translator who never gave any suspicion that he might have a gaming addiction.

“I was always impressed by how Ippei was able, when translating, to capture the nuances of Shohei,” said Aoike, who grew up in Japan and speaks the language. “I sometimes understood a little more what Shohei meant by listening to Ippei. They were so in sync.

Japanese journalists who cover Ohtani – and other Japanese MLB players – rarely ask about the players’ private lives. They were as surprised as anyone by the Ohtani-Mizuhara scandal.

“Because we have to work with him every day and we don’t want to be banned for doing the wrong thing, we want to work according to Shohei’s wishes,” said Aoike, who began covering for Ohtani when he signed with the Angels at the end. 2017. “It was easier to talk to Ippei, and we didn’t bother Shohei, so it was out of politeness that Ippei would respond as much as possible.”

One question Mizuhara was asked and answered daily was simply when Ohtani planned to leave the stadium after a match or practice. Japanese journalists are expected to arrive before the player they are covering and stay until the player leaves.

“It’s been very, very beneficial,” Aoike said.

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