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By Scott Kawaguchi
His name is Munenori Kawasaki. He is from Japan. He is Japanese. And with every game he plays for the Toronto Blue Jays, his legend grows.
Called up from the AAA Buffalo Bisons to replace the injured Jose Reyes on April 13th, 2013, Kawasaki was not originally expected to stick around. With the long-term injury to Reyes, Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos began looking for a more major league proven player to fill the void.
Yet given the opportunity, the former Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks star performed admirably. While proving to be a tough out at the plate and a reliable defender in the field, Kawasaki also showed himself to be a great teammate, possessing one of the most likeable and colourful personalities in the league.
As the team continued to struggle, Kawasaki’s antics provided a welcome distraction. Whether doing head stands to warm up, playing catch with fans, or dancing in the dugout, the kid-like 32-year-old’s genuine enthusiasm never wavered.
He soon developed a cult following, with one group of fans even launching a tongue-in-cheek online campaign to vote him into the MLB All-Star game.
Kawasaki is clearly not your average minor-league call-up.
He also is not your average Japanese major leaguer. Like those who came before him, Kawasaki arrived in North America carrying an impressive resume, having been a four-time Nippon Professional Baseball League All-Star, two-time Gold Glove Award winner, and two-time World Baseball Classic champion. Also like many of his fellow nihonjin ballplayers, the Kagoshima native came over speaking very little English. Yet in dealing with the language barrier, the cartoonish Kawasaki hardly fits the stereotypical mold.
He may swing like his idol Ichiro, but behind a microphone there is no one, Japanese or otherwise, quite like him. His signature moment as a Blue Jay was undoubtedly his post-game interview after hitting a two-run walk-off double against Baltimore closer Jim Johnson, in which he excitedly announced, “My name is Munenori Kawasaki. I am from Japan. I am Japaneeese!”
With the help of our interpreter, Takato Yamashita, Nikkei Voice was able to interview Kawasaki at the Rogers Centre on June 23rd, which would later turn out to be the final day of the Jays’ 11-game win-streak and Kawasaki’s second last game before being sent down to AAA. At a high point in the season for both team and player, we were especially eager to hear from the Jays’ fan favourite.
The following is an interview Nikkei Voice conducted with Munenori Kawasaki at the Rogers Stadium in downtown Toronto.
Your teammates and the fans love you. What is it like to be a part of this team?
I’m very happy. My teammates, the coach, the staff, everyone is very supportive and helpful, even though I can’t speak English well.
You are famous for your “I am Japanese!” interview. What does it mean to you to be Japanese?
川﨑選手はインタビューで毎回、「I am Japanese!（僕は日本人です!）」とコメントされていることで有名になっていますが、川﨑選手にとって日本人であるということはどういう意味を持っていますか？
I don’t know. I guess because my parents are Japanese (laughs).
How did it feel to hit your first major league home run?
Oh, I was very surprised. I’m not a homerun hitter, so it took me by surprise… I didn’t think it would go out.
What was it like to play with Ichiro in Seattle, and now against him in Toronto?
I’m very happy. I’ve been a fan and I’ve looked up to him ever since I was a child. That hasn’t changed.
If you weren’t a professional baseball player, what would you be doing?
My father’s an electrician so I think I would’ve followed in his footsteps.
Have you taught any Japanese to your teammates?
No, I haven’t taught any Japanese but my teammates mimic me.
Tell me about your English phrasebook.
I was nervous…Thank you very much…I love Japan…My hobby is sleeping…I’m hungry…Good morning…Good afternoon…Good night…How’re you doing?
What do you do in your spare time?
Do you miss playing in Japan with all the trumpets and music?
To me, it’s still fun playing here…but who knows what next year will bring.
Toronto is one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world. Many Japanese people come here and decide to stay. Do you think you’d like to stay here?
Yes, I would like to live here. Toronto is a great city. I love it.
Answering mostly in Japanese and occasionally in English, Kawasaki said he has found the biggest difference between playing in Japan and North America to be the languages spoken, adding that his Spanish is “bueno”. When we asked him to tell us about his English phrasebook, his answer was unexpected and yet entirely Kawasaki. While life is different here, Kawasaki feels he hasn’t changed much since his time i
n Japan, and while his number may be different, “[his] name’s still the same”.
Playing in Canada in such a prominent hockey market, we also asked him if he had ever felt the urge to play, and while he would like to watch a game, trying it may be out of the question.
Despite having been sent back down to Buffalo on two separate occasions to make room for the return of Jose Reyes and Brett Lawrie, fans will not soon forget Munenori Kawasaki. Many of his finest and funniest moments have already been enshrined in YouTube lore. His eventual return to the club will surely be celebrated.