Ohtani may be South Korea's most-beloved Japanese athlete. His charm is winning over historic rivals

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Shohei Ohtani may be South Korea's most-beloved Japanese athlete, a testament to his charm in softening any lingering animosity between the two neighbors.

Since his arrival in South Korea with his wife for the Major League Baseball opener on Wednesday against the San Diego Padres, the Los Angeles Dodgers superstar has been the focus of keen, special attention.

Many Korean fans are wearing Ohtani jerseys and rooting for him at the stadium. The Korean national team manager covets his autograph and myriad media reports and social media posts are praising him.

This is nothing new for the two-way baseball sensation, who in December signed a record $700 million, 10-year contract to join the Dodgers. But a Japanese receiving such a treatment in South Korea is extremely unusual, because of historical grievances stemming from Japan’s 1910-45 colonization of the Korean Peninsula.

“Our social atmosphere has often made it difficult for us to openly say we like Japan,” said Lee Jong-Sung, a sports culture expert at Seoul’s Hanyang University. “I think Ohtani would perhaps be the first Japanese athlete who we can say we like. Maybe, some even consider him an honorary Korean citizen.”

Many of Ohtani’s South Korean supporters say they like him because of what they call his good manners as well as his baseball excellence.

“Ohtani has been nice to Korean fans, so I think that’s why everyone likes him,” Park Sungjin, a 40-year-old physician wearing an Ohtani jersey, said before the Dodgers' exhibition game with South Korea’s Kiwoom Heroes on Sunday.

“We have historical issues to be settled with Japan, but whether to like Ohtani is another matter," Hwang Seon-young, another Korean Othani fan, said at the Gocheok Sky Dome.

Ohtani, who is lauded in Japan as “the perfect person,” knows how to captivate Korean fans. Before his departure to South Korea, he posted an Instagram photo showing him making a “finger heart” gesture with a Korean national flag emoji.

After his arrival in South Korea, he told reporters that he’s always respected South Korea’s national teams and called South Korea “one of my favorite countries."

“The country that Ohtani likes the most is South Korea. The Japanese who South Koreans like the most is Ohtani,” reads a Korean message posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Relations between South Korea and Japan have improved significantly since last year, with the South's president, Yoon Suk Yeol, taking a major step toward addressing disputes over Japan's colonial-era mobilization of forced Korean laborers — one of the long-running sticking points in improving bilateral ties.

In 2019, a forced-labor issue triggered widespread public campaigns in South Korea to boycott Japanese goods and services.

Ties between Korea and Japan have experienced on-again, off-again fluctuations. So if anti-Japan sentiments deepen in South Korea again like in 2019, Ohtani fans may feel a challenge in publicly expressing their likings of the 29-year-old.

But despite their often-rocky political relations, South Korea and Japan are closely linked to each other culturally and economically. Many younger South Koreans don't harbor the same strong resentment against Japan as their elders, and they often view Japanese athletes as just foreign athletes.

“They view Japanese players more comfortably. They just think there is Ohtani in Japan while we have Son Heung-min,” Lee, the university professor, said of a prominent Korean footballer with Tottenham Hotspur.