The man named Ichiro Suzuki, the super-celebrity known everywhere by his first name and the smiling guy holding a frosty one aloft on that giant Kirin beer billboard above the left-field bleachers, has returned to his homeland for the two-game Opening Series that pits his Seattle Mariners against the Oakland A's. And even though he's 38 years old and coming off the least productive season of his storied Major League career, his aura remains intact.
Since the Mariners arrived at Tokyo's Narita Airport on Friday evening, Ichiro has been showered with the omnipresent love of the Japanese people, and for good reason. To them, he's a lot more than a baseball player.
Since Ichiro came over to Major League Baseball and the Mariners in 2001 and immediately won the American League MVP and Rookie of the Year Awards and a Gold Glove Award as the leadoff hitter and right fielder for a team that racked up an AL-record-tying 116 wins, his legend has grown in Japan.
It grew in 2004, when he rapped out 262 hits to break George Sisler's 83-year-old single-season record of 257. It grew in '09, when he recorded the game-winning hit in Japan's World Baseball Classic title defense. And it grew in '10, when he tallied 200 hits for a record 10th consecutive season.
In Japan, it all added up to an unrivaled sports and cultural icon.
"He gave a tremendous boost to the national ego," wrote Robert Whiting, an American author and expert on Japanese baseball for 40 years who penned two definitive books on the subject in "You Gotta Have Wa" and, fittingly, "The Meaning of Ichiro," in an e-mail to MLB.com.
"The country went through the roof when he won his MVP in 2001, again when he broke Sisler's record and yet again when he got 10 years in a row of 200 hits. He proved that a Japanese ballplayer could play with the best of the MLB, and that was a tremendous source of pride. He helped eliminate a complex Japan had about its global presence. He became the first Japanese cultural icon in the U.S.
"Most Americans couldn't name the Prime Minister of Japan or the Emperor or the top singer in the country, but everyone knew Ichiro. He opened the door for a succession of everyday players. If Ichiro had failed, I don't think Hideki Matsui would have gone to the U.S. By succeeding, Ichiro put pressure on Matsui to leave the Yomiuri Giants or risk being called a wimp.
"You could argue that [Japanese filmmaker Akira] Kurosawa was just an art-house figure, but Ichiro put a face on Japan that was familiar to the masses. That gave Japan cache."
And now he's back home.
The Mariners were scheduled to return to play an Opening Series in 2003, but concerns over travel because of American military action in Iraq led to the excursion being canceled. Now Ichiro and the Japanese fans are reveling in each other's presence.
Flashbulbs have been popping for every at-bat, and his signature bat-point prior to each pitch has the crowd at Tokyo Dome oohing and aahing. Billboards with his image still flood the streets. He's present on TV commercials and even on an ad in the lobby of the team hotel.
"He's obviously an icon, and somebody that's one of the most popular people in Japan ... not just athletes," Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. "From what he's accomplished, he's highly respected, and to have the opportunity to come back here after 12 years, it's a great opportunity for him and a great opportunity for the fans."
Brad Lefton, an American freelance TV producer and writer who has covered baseball in Japan and the U.S. for 20 years, said Ichiro's return to Japan as a Mariner is long overdue and more special because of the fact that he's got 12 years of big league time under his belt.
"The Ichiro that they're getting to see in 2012 is a lot different from the Ichiro they would have seen in 2003," Lefton said. "He hadn't fully emerged yet. It was before he had his 262 hits, before 10 straight years of 200 hits. So you're seeing a fully blossomed Ichiro, which I think is more exciting, but they had to wait longer to see it."
For many, it was more than worth the wait. When fans enter the main entrance of Tokyo Dome, for example, they walk right up to a souvenir stand that sells the regular jerseys and baseballs, caps and miniature bats, but it also has an annex with miniature "Ichi-Meters" inspired by the creation of Seattle-based Mariners fan Amy Franz, who has been holding her personal hit-counter for her favorite right fielder at just about every game at Safeco Field since the record-breaking year of 2004. She wears an Ichiro jersey with the number 262, signifying his total from that season.
And as a result of her unique way of tracking the on-field exploits of Ichiro and the fact that she's been featured and interviewed in Seattle by NHK, the Mariners television affiliate in Japan, she's become sort of famous here, too. Hordes of fans snapped photos of and with her prior to Monday night's exhibition between the Mariners and Yomiuri Giants, and she said it looked like the mini-Ichi-Meters were selling well. She even was asked to autograph one.
"I knew he was pretty huge [in Japan] just by the amount of fans that have come to Safeco and have brought me merchandise and souvenirs of Ichiro, memorabilia, advertisements and things like that," Franz said. "I knew he was huge. It's big, though."
Ichiro thinks it's big, too. He has been social with the fans at the ballpark, tossing balls before the games and making time to sign autographs. He's been having pregame conversations with the Japanese players and coaches.
"I think he's really enjoying it," said Masa Niwa, a Mariners beat reporter for Sankei Sports who has been covering Ichiro since he moved to America 11 years ago. "He's waited a long time for this, since he was supposed to come in 2003. You see the billboards, you see him on the TV and he's everywhere. People are really excited for his homecoming."
And even before the regular season opens with two games here against the Oakland A's on Wednesday and Thursday, the soft-spoken icon himself seems to understand what it all means.
"It's important for us, because this is probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for myself," he said through interpreter Antony Suzuki. "We never get opportunities like this. We had a chance in 2003, but unfortunately we didn't make it here. So this is special. This is important, and I look forward to it."