Japan boasts a great number of world-famous athletes who fascinate and captivate sports fans around the globe with their outstanding skills and talent. Some rank among the best players in the world and have consecutively won international competitions and championships, and some have been chosen for Japan’s national team and competed with top athletes from other countries at the Olympics. Who are the most well known Japanese athletes and what sports do they play? Read on for a list of some of Japan’s most famous athletes!
1. Ohtani Shohei (大谷翔平)
Whether you like baseball or not, you have probably heard his name before if you are in any way interested in sports or watch the news at all. Ohtani Shohei, aka ‘Shotime’ is a world-famous Japanese baseball player who is currently playing in the MLB (Major League Baseball) in the United States. Originally from Japan’s Iwate Prefecture, he started to play baseball when he was in 3rd grade of elementary school. Unlike other top baseball players, Ohtani is a two-way player who has exceptional skills both as a pitcher and a batter. Since 2018, he has been playing for the Los Angeles Angels in the American League. He was also officially selected as the rookie of the year in 2018 and the most valuable player (MVP) in 2021.
2. Hachimura Rui (八村塁)
Hachimura Rui is a professional basketball player. He has a Japanese mother and a Beninese father and was born and raised in Toyama Prefecture of Japan. Before he started playing basketball, he spent his childhood trying out a wide range of different sports, including baseball and short-distance sprinting in track and field. In junior high school he joined the basketball team and helped them win the All Japan High School Tournament two years in a row in 2013 and 2014. He was selected first in the NBA (National Basketball Association) draft by the Washington Wizards in 2019, which was the first time a Japanese basketball player had been chosen as the first pick in NBA draft history.
3. Osaka Naomi (大阪なおみ)
Osaka Naomi is a professional tennis player from Osaka. In 2019, she was officially ranked as the #1 female tennis single’s player in the world and was also the first Asian tennis player in history to achieve this. Although she used to hold dual citizenship in the U.S. and Japan, she officially chose Japanese citizenship on her 22nd birthday in 2019. She grew up in an international household with a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, and usually does interviews in English rather than in Japanese. In her career as a professional tennis player she has won a number of international tournaments and titles, including Grand Slam titles for four consecutive years from 2018 to 2021. This includes the U.S. Open in 2018 and 2020 and the Australian Open in 2019 and 2021, and Osaka is the first Japanese tennis player ever to win the Grand Slam title.
4. Nishikori Kei (錦織圭)
Another world-famous Japanese tennis player is Nishikori Kei. He was born in Matsue, the prefectural capital of Shimane Prefecture. His outstanding talent as a tennis player started to show when he was in elementary school. In 2001, he won the “All Japan Tennis Championships for Kids” at the age of 12. He became a professional tennis player in 2007 and won his first ATP tour title the following year, being only the second Japanese tennis player in history to accomplish this. He was only 18 years old at the time, and his world rank was 244. He is also known as one of the world’s highest-paid tennis players with earnings of more $23 million in prize money. He currently lives in Florida in the U.S., and participates in international tournaments around the world every year.
5. Hanyu Yuzuru (羽生結弦)
Hanyu Yuzuru is one of the most famous Japanese athletes and has an enthusiastic fan group across the globe. He is a professional figure skater and is originally from Miyagi Prefecture. His beautiful skating techniques and exceptional performances are consistently acclaimed at international championships. He won a gold medal in men’s single figure skating at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, and again at the Pyeongchang Olympics in 2018. During speeches and interviews in recent years he has often mentioned a quadruple axel jump (which requires four and a half rotations within one jump) as his ultimate goal as a skater. At the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022, he challenged himself to try this jump in his free skating program. Although he wasn’t successful, many people were impressed by his courage to attempt it and it will always be remembered in the history of figure skating.
6. Matsuyama Hideki (松山英樹)
Matsuyama Hideki is a professional golfer who was born and raised in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, and is recognized worldwide. As his father used to be an amateur golfer, Matsuyama started to play golf at the age of four. In 2010, while he was at university student, he won the Asian Amateur Championship as the first Japanese golfer in history to ever do so. He became a pro golfer in 2013 and won multiple domestic tournaments and titles in Japan. After graduating from university in 2014, Matsuyama officially started to participate in international golf tournaments. His first PGA Tour win was at the 2014 Memorial Tournament which was held in the United States. Since then, he has been successful as a professional golfer with remarkable performances at some of the worlds biggest international tournaments. In 2021, he became the first Japanese golfer to win the Masters Tournament. Although he finished the Tokyo 2021 Olympics in 4th place, expectations are high for his future as one of the top golfers in the world.
7. Matsuzaka Daisuke (松坂大輔)
Matsuzaka Daisuke is a retired professional baseball player from Japan’s Aomori Prefecture. Matsuzaka has played not only for professional baseball teams in Japan, but also in the MLB from 2007 to 2014. After spending his early childhood in Aomori, his family moved to Tokyo where he practiced kendo (剣道), a traditional Japanese martial arts form, from age five to nine. He started to play baseball when he was in the 3rd grade of elementary school. In his final year of high school, his baseball team won The National High School Baseball Tournament (koshien in Japanese) which is Japan’s most famous high school baseball tournament and held in spring and summer every year. During his years in the MLB, he played for the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets. In 2021, he made an official announcement about his retirement after finishing the season.
8. Suzuki Ichiro (鈴木 一朗)
Suzuki Ichiro is known as one of the best baseball players of all time in both Japan and America playing professionally for 28 seasons total in both countries. He grew up in a small town in Nagoya of Aichi prefecture. He played for the Orix Blue Wave in Japan for 9 years before be decided to take his talents overseas to the MLB in America. There, he instantly became a star for the Seattle Mariners and ended up winning Rookie Of The Year as well as making the All Star Team. He has endless achievements that include his record breaking 262 hit season, AL MVP, 10 time gold glover, and 10 time All Star. He hung up his cleats in 2019 with the Seattle Mariners but is still loved by people all over the world and is known as a legend in the sport of baseball.
Playing sports enriches one’s life, and professional athletes remind us of the importance of making a continuous effort and never giving up. Sports also have a special power to unite people regardless of nationality or the language they speak. If you ever have the chance to watch a game or match of any of the famous Japanese athletes on our list, please cheer for them and their future success!
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Miho Shimizu is a Japanese freelance writer settled in Shizuoka with her husband and two rabbits. Fascinated with traveling at the age of 18, she has spent most of her long holidays exploring incredible spots around Japan. She also loves to listen to music, draw, and read novels over a cup of green tea.
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