Every time I go down to Little Tokyo I can't help but smile at the larger-than-life portrait towering over the Yagura. Shohei has become a fixture of the street. Kevin asks community members for their reactions to the new Shohei Ohtani mural.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or beliefs of the publication, its editors, or its contributors. 

Did anyone else feel that when Shohei Ohtani signed with the Dodgers, it felt like we all signed with the Dodgers? That's definitely how my 84-year-old bonsai sensei, Kaz Nakanishi, felt. He used to play semi-pro baseball back in Japan and said he’s never seen a player like him in all his life play in Major League Baseball and he witnessed Ichiro and Nomo.  Although he may not be 6’4” like Mr. Ohtani, he sure did walk a bit taller as he was hobbling from tree to tree in the Pasadena Japanese Garden in December after that 10-year contract was signed. The energy of the “Sho-Time” is palpable far and wide, from the chubby cheeks of a baby wearing an LA hat to the old bones of a Japanese gardener from Saga, too prideful to stop working. It’s truly a unique time for us Los Angelenos, Southern Californians, and Dodgers fans everywhere. So how do we commemorate a moment like this in our city? We paint a whole building, of course.

Throughout history, artists have always taken the time to honor the ideas of greatness and beauty in their lives. Michaelangelo used chisels and pumice stones to manifest David out of a hunk of marble. Eugene Delecroix took oil to canvas to personify Liberty as a woman in the French Revolution. Hokusai drafted wood blocks and pigmented ink to dwarf Mt. Fuji  “Under the Wave off Kanagawa.” However, as Los Angelenos we have our special way of doing things. We find a giant building, suspend a tiny platform by some wires, and then fight time and the elements to manifest our ideas, our heroes, and ourselves as a piece of the LA skyline. 

Big reveal day.

Normally, when painting a piece of this magnitude, muralists usually lay down a grid to outline the wall according to a thumbnail mock-up they made in Photoshop or by simply going up at night and projecting the layout straight onto the surface so proportions are maintained. However, artist Robert Vargas doesn’t do that at all. Instead, he has a small rendering of what is in his mind and begins to work on the wall at arm’s length with his two hands and a few paint brushes until he's covered head to toe in a wardrobe that looks like Jackson Pollock designed it. Think what you will of the piece, but that guy lived up there in the sky to paint a hero that looks like us over a 150-foot craggy surface while raining beads of sweat down onto the rooftop of Bunkado. Kent Yoshimura, the artist of the Elison Onizuka murals in Weller Court, once told me that painting an image of this size is purely physical endurance, like running a marathon day after day. It’s truly amazing to see this passion project load up on the wall like an old .jpg on AOL dial-up on the side of the Miyako Hotel for weeks purely fueled by Robert’s drive and obsession with Japanese culture, the Dodgers, and Los Angeles watching. As Bobby Caldwell said, “What you won’t do, do for love.”

Every time I go down to Little Tokyo I can't help but smile at the larger-than-life portrait towering over the yagura. Shohei has become a fixture of the street. People up and down 1st Street gather to take pictures and try to activate the augmented reality feature of “LA Rising.” A melancholy smile always crosses my face whenever I catch a snippet of Vince Scully’s voice saying “It’s time for Dodgers Baseball” because it reminds me of my Grandfather and the times we used to listen to the radio while my Dad drove us home from Grandma’s house. As I snap back to reality, I also can’t help but think of the future and how bright it is for our community and culture because of the platform that Shohei commands and the ideas he represents. I mean there is a legit Takoyaki stand in Dodger Stadium now, how crazy is that?

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To commemorate this unique moment in our lives, I wanted to get a few more perspectives from the people in our community, so I decided to reach out and ask the following questions:

  1. How has Shohei Ohtani's presence and success in Los Angeles impacted Japanese culture and its representation in the local community?
  1. What do you think of Robert Vargas’ Mural? 
  1. What are your dreams and aspirations for the future of Japanese & Japanese American culture?

This led to quite a few responses, so many that I would suggest you “Choose Your Own Adventure” as you continue in this Keizuchi creative exercise. I wanted to capture people’s thoughts and opinions into my article as a “Literary Time Capsule” with their full responses to be seen and pondered upon, so that we may reflect on how we would answer these questions ourselves, in this moment and when we look back from the future. I’ve learned a lot from all the different perspectives and will close with some thoughts.

Here is a table of contents of all the contributors to this “Sho-Time Capsule” experiment of mine:

  • Bill Watanabe - Founding Executive Director of Little Tokyo Service Center
  • Ryan Lee - Terasaki Budokan Director
  • Amelia Wallace - Communications and Outreach Coordinator
  • Seia Watanabe - Social Media Coordinator at Little Tokyo Community Council
  • Kristin Fukushima - Managing Director of Little Tokyo Community Council
  • Irene Tsukada-Germain - Owner of Bunkado,  Legacy Business in Little Tokyo
  • Yuko Kaifu - President of Japan House
  • Chef Chris Ono 
  • Jennifer Hirano - Board of Directors with JANM
  • Kevin Nish - Founding Member of Far East Movement, Co-CEO of Transparent Arts
  • Roy Kuroyanagi - Founder of Little Tokyo streetwear brand Japangeles
  • Derek Mio - Actor and Comedian
  • Kaz Nakanishi - 85 year old Ex-semi pro-Japanese baseball player, Bonsai Sensei
  • Nicole Cherry - 2003 Nisei Week Queen, Mother
  • Kenji - 14 year old Gosei, Athlete and Drummer, Son of Nicole Cherry
  • Miyako - 11year old Gosei, Athlete and Artist,  Daughter of Nicole Cherry
Photo Credit: Nicole Oshima

Bill Watanabe

1. I feel quite certain that Shohei has succeeded in creating a very positive image as a "role-model" who can succeed at the highest level and yet remain modest and be a good teammate and that this positive image is strong throughout our society and culture, for sports fans and regular folks alike. This in turn helps to promulgate positive feelings toward the Nikkei community across the board, as well as give an economic boost to places like Little Tokyo with the now-famous Ohtani mural on the Miyako Hotel.

2. I think it is well-done.

3. I believe Japanese Americans can take the best of what it means to be American and combine it with the best of what it means to be Japanese to make for a pretty good combination of a well-rounded and culturally rich human being.

Ryan Lee

1. The 'Ohtani effect' has been palpable on many levels. It's surreal that Angelenos can enjoy katsu sandos and takoyaki at Dodger Stadium, and the shockwave has spread far outside Chavez Ravine. Flocks of Dodger fans have come to Little Tokyo to explore Japanese history, culture, and cuisine in an effort to connect to the big off-season acquisitions (Ohtani and Yamamoto), and it's great for local legacy and small businesses in the community.

3. I'm hopeful that Japanese and JA cultures will be explored, understood, and respected by all. JA's have a rich history in LA; a dark, unjust during WW2 followed by the ups and downs of assimilating into post-concentration camp life in America, to now being a desirable and niche culture of food, entertainment, and more. It's our job (I'm a Yonsei) to tell the stories of our ancestors so that their experiences are not forgotten or brushed aside.

Robert Vargas with Shohei

Amelia Wallace

1. It's surreal to think about how drastically our society's view of Asian and Asian American culture has shifted over the past decade. I remember being part of the small minority of middle and high schoolers who enjoyed anime and regularly made the trek out to Sawtelle and Little Tokyo all the way from the San Fernando Valley to enjoy the food, markets, and small businesses. However, so much has changed recently and Japanese and Asian culture is being explored, supported, and getting recognition on a mainstream level. Shohei Ohtani's success has only widened the scope of people interested in learning more about Japanese culture and becoming fans of other talented Asian and Asian American athletes. Historically, there hasn't been a lot of representation of Asians and Asian Americans in sports (or in mainstream media in general...), so I think the outpour of appreciation for Ohtani, both within and outside of the AA community, is beautiful to see. 

2. As a white person, I'm taking this time to sit back and listen to what this mural means to the Asian American community directly in Little Tokyo and beyond, as I want to uplift and amplify their voices.

3. I hope that this influx of folks who are more interested than ever in Japanese and Japanese American culture brings more understanding, solidarity, and support to the JA community. It's easy to enjoy ramen, anime, and city pop, but I hope that everyone takes the time to go deeper than that. Japanese Americans have so much history that often goes unsaid- from struggling to immigrate to America during a time with racist-nativist laws and only being able to get work as farmers and gardeners to being forced into concentration camps during WWII with only the things they could carry and often coming back to nothing. I hope folks educate themselves on the history of JAs, support local AAPI small businesses, and make meaningful connections in the community. 

Seia Watanabe

1. As someone who is Shin-Nikkei, with both parents being from Japan, I think Shohei’s success has helped build a bridge of Japanese culture to the world in a modern way. Japanese and Japanese American people are very proud of him for being on their home team. He just brings the generations together. Even my Grandfather, who was a lifelong baseball fan, wanted to come to LA to see him play and even asked me to buy him BBQ-flavored sunflower seeds because he saw Shohei eating them. Even the amount of tourists coming to LA just to see him play has encouraged the stadium to change as well. 

2. I won’t lie, I was a little shocked. Living in a Japanese household, seeing a Japanese person playing in LA and Japanese new channels all covering him has been a bit wild. Robert Vargas, a Mexican American street artist, painting a giant mural of Shohei Ohtani in Little Tokyo, I can’t think of anything more LA as a city. It just encapsulated how we celebrate each other through arts, culture, and sports. It doesn’t matter what language you speak in LA. Once you’re here you’re one of us. Even when the mural came up, Japanese people were so excited to see it. Latinos were doing live streams and embracing him as part of LA. The mural speaks to the impact that he has made and the excitement he’s driving. What better way to honor him than with an interactive piece of street art that blends with the Little Tokyo skyline?

3. Historically, Japanese Americans haven’t had the easiest time in this country and it’s hard to get involved as a Shin-Nikkei as someone who doesn't play sports. Brands are now seeing the value of working with our community. Japanese artists and celebrities are rising in popularity in LA and I’m happy we share that culture. I’m excited to see more of this happen. I want to see more doors open for collaboration between our cultures. A healing of the past by reuniting with traditions and the ancestral language of Japanese Americans. We all eat the same foods, enjoy the same music, and are proud to be able to say we are Japanese.  

Photo Credit: Nicole Oshima

Kristin Fukushima

1. I think Shohei being a baseball superstar, not just locally but internationally too, brings a lot of attention to Japanese culture. Dodger Stadium is even starting to serve takoyaki and kinako desserts that say “Oiishi” on them. It’s not the first time we’ve had a Japanese player on the team but we haven’t seen this type of hype since Nomo. With Maeda on the team, there weren’t as many jerseys or apparel items written in Japanese. The number of Japanese tourists wearing Dodgers’ gear and taking photos of the mural during baseball season has also risen. It makes Japanese and Japanese Americans be seen in a new light, for better or worse, and there is definitely going to be a spike in Little Tokyo's small businesses. 

A lot of us are Dodger fans, as we’ve always been, but I’m seeing a few flip-floppers from the Angels here and there. Players come and go, but Dodgers is forever and southern California embraces him even more because that is where the largest JA population is. Friends who have never been interested in baseball are now coming out to see Shohei. The Japanese culture is mainstream now and it would be most interesting to hear what the younger generation thinks about this. 

3. Thinking about it from a community lens, I don’t have hope or aspirations for culture, but more so just a curiosity about where we will be. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize how diverse our community is with all of us being mixed or Shin Nikkei. It’s interesting to see how people who are yonsei, gosei and rokusei celebrate their culture despite being so far removed from Japan. Modern Japanese updated things play a role in how we perceive the culture. The younger folks and the next generation find it to be more accessible and accepted. J-pop for example was something only my church friends would listen to. No one I knew growing up watched anime, only the church people did. Now my younger cousins who are a quarter Japanese with friends who aren’t even Japanese just love anime. I find it refreshing to see the younger folk being able to play with culture and identity because of the mainstreaming of Japanese Culture. There’s just so much more visibility now with people like the Shibutani twins and Shohei on the screen. It gives people something to cheer for that relates to their identity and that brings people a sense of comfort in who they are.

Irene in front of the mural on its unveiling day

Irene Tsukada-Germain

1. There has been no one in my lifetime that has inspired as much pride among Japanese and Japanese Americans than Shohei Ohtani has. As an Angels fan and season ticket holder, I was sad to see him go, but his signing on with the Dodgers took away the sting. In fact, the Dodgers have a much bigger fan base and are such an LA institution that his impact grew to new heights.

2. In short, the man is a genius and I don’t use that term often. He is a true artist in body and soul and we are so lucky that he chose to leave his mark in Little Tokyo. I predict it is going to become an important landmark. Vargas has been frequenting LT for years and is extremely well-versed in the Japanese language and culture. Although he says LT was a natural choice for the Ohtani mural, I can’t believe our good fortune in being able to see this inspiring image every day. It also doesn’t hurt that Shohei is so cute!

3. I love that Vargas titled the mural “LA Rising” because the downtown area has come to life as did Little Tokyo. Downtown used to be a ghost town at night and there were periods where many LT businesses including mine were barely able to keep our doors open. Some people think of gentrification as something to fight, but LT would be gone without it—you can’t paint the concept of gentrification with one brush. I am very grateful for the new, youthful interest in Japanese culture, generated by their love for the culture, food, anime or baseball. This energy is helping to keep LT strong and prosperous and I feel encouraged about its future as a hub for Japanese culture.  Even people from Japan love coming here. 

Consul General

Yuko Kaifu

1. Shohei is not only a baseball superstar that everyone admires but is highly respected because of his integrity, demeanor, humility, and personality as a human being. The issue surrounding his former interpreter has been such an unfortunate incident, but he has maintained his integrity and has managed this most difficult situation very well.  That, too, must have impressed people. Many must have seen in him the Japanese culture of self-discipline, ethics, and consideration for tor others.  I feel many Americans are respectful of such aspects of Japanese culture and have become more interested in Japan. He’s definitely a role model for many of the Japanese and because of him, we feel more proud of being Japanese. 

2. The mural is an iconic presence of Shohei Otani in our community. It has drawn a lot of attention not only from the U.S. but also from Japan, particularly as a result of huge media coverage at the time of the unveiling ceremony. It shows how people in the Japanese American community are proud of Shohei and think that he is our hero and want to show our strong support to him. I also think it is a beautiful symbol of community-wide efforts and collaboration particularly as it was painted by Robert Vargas, and our community embraces and appreciates his talents

3. The relationship between Japanese and Japanese American communities had not been very close for many years after WWll. Some of the older generations blame the Japanese people for Pearl Harbor and the consequences that follow which is one reason why the JA community justified not going back to Japan. However, we have seen a lot of positive changes over the last 20 years or so. Many Japanese Americans have been traveling to Japan, studying in Japan, and doing business with the Japanese. Likewise, many Japanese nationals are traveling to LA visit Little Tokyo (not just for the Dodgers), and places like the Japanese American National Museum to learn about Japanese American history and legacy. There has been growing mutual respect and interest in respective cultures. There are also new generations of Japanese and Japanese Americans, who don’t need to be put into categories like Yonsei, Gosei, or Shin-Nisei, and Shin-Sansei, or Hapa or mix-race. They are all friends who are part of the larger and inclusive JA/Japanese community, and I am so excited to see how they nurture their relationship and partnership in the future.

Chris Ono

1. I think he is a great role model for Asian Americans in general and also great for the awareness and interest in Japanese culture, Little Tokyo, and the MLB itself. Personally, I have never been more excited to watch the Dodgers now and I believe many Angelenos can say the same.

2. An amazing addition to the Little Tokyo strip and it's a great-looking and attractive mural. I think more small ones around would be cool as well.

3. My dreams of Japanese and JA culture are rooted in our collective goals. Maintain the preservation of old Japan and the traditions that have been passed down from generation to generation.  My dream as a chef is to see Japanese American chefs succeed and carry on their own identity and beliefs. For me, I am living the dream of pushing Japanese and American food out to the community and beyond.

Jennifer Hirano

1. Representation in mainstream media is critical for diversity and seeing a once-in-a-lifetime player who comes from Japan is going to mean so much to future generations of Japanese-Americans who can take pride in their heritage. 

2. As a fan of both the Dodgers and Little Tokyo, I think that it looks beautiful. 

3. I don't think that I'm qualified to speak for the whole community, but, personally, I think it's wonderful that sports in general, not just MLB, are embracing players from around the world. And the fact that there are a lot of Japanese / Japanese-Americans that we can look to in the sports industry is important. I hope that it carries into other aspects of the world such as film, television, and even Fortune 500 company leadership. 

Robert Vargas in the Rockateer music video, courtesy of YouTube

Kevin Nish

1. The platform is just so large for Major League Baseball. He’s truly become a beacon of inspiration, not only for myself but for all minority groups striving for the American Dream. I came up as a musician in LA and there wasn’t a clear roadmap for people like me in this industry. The minority groups in Los Angeles didn’t have that, the AAPI community especially. The proof is what he has done so far and what is now possible for all to see.

2. When I first heard Robert Vargas was doing the mural I thought “Who Better?” Robert is a great advocate for Los Angeles and has even blessed the Far East Movement with a mural on Spring Tower. We even shut down the street for a concert on Spring and 6th during the Downtown LA Artwalk. Also if you look closely he makes a cameo appearance in our “Rocketeer” music video.

3.  It’s an amazing time in the culture. I just want to see Anime and J-Music keep growing in hopes that the bridges between cultures continue to grow deeper. Japan is such a great place for creativity and there are so many systems in place to create beautiful intellectual properties that stand the test of time. Although Japanese culture has always had a presence in American media, I hope that the medium continues to flourish in America and I want to support it in any way I can. Japanese Americans have a deep history here and many of them are now in high-level executive positions in their designated fields. It’s important to reach out to all the different executives in those industries just like Gold House is doing. The Japanese Consul is also leading the charge to develop these systems. The people with a voice must make bridges and opportunities for the next generation.

Roy Kuroyanagi 

3. I hope that Japanese culture continues to be as popular and relevant as it has become. I think Japanese culture is beautiful and I hope as many people get to experience it. As for Japanese American culture, I hope that the JA culture continues to stay as strong and as community-oriented as it has been. I’d like to see many leaders come out to preserve the culture and also make sure nothing like the injustices JAs faced after WWII repeat in history.

Photo credit: Nicole Oshima

Derek Mio

1. Shohei has provided a great source of pride for both the Japanese and Japanese American communities, especially those residing in Southern California such as myself. There is nothing like being at a Shohei baseball game watching people from other backgrounds wear Ohtani merchandise while cheering for him. As minorities, we feel empowered knowing that our culture is being embraced and celebrated in the mainstream by all communities. Who knows how many more Japanese television shows or movies are being greenlit or how many more bowls of ramen or sushi platters are being sold because of the Shohei Effect? Seriously! He's that big and we all want to be adjacent to his greatness! Shohei allows us to unapologetically express our Japanese selves and sets a seemingly impossible bar for us all to strive for—excellence at the highest level. His stature and presence in the sports world are so monumental that his fanfare reaches far beyond the local community and into that of the entire globe.

2. Robert Vargas' impressive mural of Ohtani on the Miyako Hotel in Little Tokyo is a perfectly synergistic intersection of all things Japanese, American, and Los Angeles—the greatest baseball player, perhaps ever, who happens to be Japanese, in the iconic Dodgers uniform gazing at a home run he undoubtedly just smacked, painted by a Latino Angeleno.  It represents cultures coming together, united under the banner of Dodger baseball, and it also harkens back to a pre-war era where both Japanese and Latino immigrants lived amongst each other in east L.A. and other neighborhoods—fittingly, Vargas grew up in Boyle Heights. I love how it represents the mutual affection and celebration we have of each other's cultures.

3. My hope for our Japanese and Japanese American cultures is that we continue to honor the traditions that have given us strength in identity and the ancestors who came before us and who sacrificed so much to give us a better future, whether back in Japan or here in the United States. I hope we can continue to innovate and evolve as a culture while never forgetting where we came from and who we are. Every generation, especially here in the United States, is faced with more challenges of cultural dilution which makes it that much more imperative that we come together and support each other's efforts to preserve and celebrate our community.

Kaz Nakanishi

1. It’s been great! Representation provides a sense of belonging and a feeling of empowerment. His role in the MLB demonstrates how sports bring people from different cultural backgrounds together. He is a figure people in our community can look up to. 

2. It looks amazing, it truly shows how important he is to the local communities and his impact on the MLB. Vargas mentioned how he hopes it brings city pride but it brings cultural pride as well. 

3. I hope for good relationships between Japanese and American cultures where there is mutual respect, understanding, and appreciation of each other's customs and traditions.

Nicole Cherry

1. Since he came to the Dodgers I’ve seen the Japanese community talk more about his significance and there’s more attention being placed on his presence, especially from people who are in the JA community. 

2.  I love that it’s created a focal point in Little Tokyo. I appreciate the artistic talent it displays!

3. That things like the Budokan continue to draw families and youth into Little Tokyo. For the future generations to have an understanding of the history of their own families and how that connects everyone in the community.

Kenji Yu

Kenji

1. It’s impacted Japanese culture and the local community in a limited way, just having a really good player that is Japanese but I see it mostly as we got a really amazing player on the Dodgers and it’s exciting! 

2. It’s really cool! I like it.

3. I hope the traditional Japanese food and restaurants stay in Little Tokyo.

Miyako

1. I think it’s cool that a Japanese player is on the Dodgers and he’s so famous.

2. It’s really cool and I like that it’ll move with the QR code! 

3. I would like to see more carnivals for different Japanese-specific and or Japanese American takes on holidays and celebrations.

Photo Credit: Nicole Oshima

It’s an interesting feeling reading all these interviews and hearing the voices of the respective authors in my head. I close my eyes and imagine them all, one by one, sitting on a stool in front of a backdrop and reciting their thoughts as if it were an audition to play the role of themselves. I find beauty in everything they’ve said and feel a deeper connection to my community knowing how they feel in this very moment. I’m truly grateful for the timeline I live in where Japanese culture is winning Oscars, making a quarter-billion dollar series like Shogun, and changing the culinary playing field at Dodger Stadium. It gives me an overwhelming feeling of hope and positivity for us Japanese Americans and Los Angelinos to share our experiences and to help build those bridges between Little Tokyo and Big Tokyo. It’s just like what Issei Grandmother Nomura said to her husband as her son Michi Charles’ family attempted to make them a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner.  料理をさせて (Ryōri o sa sete) “Let them cook.”

“To live and die in L.A., it’s the place to be. You’ve got to be there to know it, what everybody wanna see.” - Tupac Shakur

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