Shohei Ohtani | Image Adapted from Mogami Kariya of Flickr

1. Shohei Ohtani

Several Japanese players have left an indelible mark on Major League Baseball (MLB), though none have created as much of a buzz as the two-way superstar, Shohei Ohtani. Despite only being 29, “Shotime” is already widely considered the country’s greatest ever sporting export. Since leaving the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters for the Los Angeles Angels at the end of the 2017 season, the man referred to as the “Japanese Babe Ruth” has lived up to expectations and then some.  

Rookie of the Year in the American League (AL) in 2018, Ohtani has since gone on to win the AL’s MVP award twice. He recently signed a 10-year contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers worth $700 million, which is believed to be the largest in professional sports history. Even his dog is famous. Named Dekopin in Japanese and Decoy in English, it was recently presented with a replica visa by the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo. 

boy and the heron golden globe

Hayao Miyazaki | Denis Makarenko via Shutterstock

 2. Hayao Miyazaki

A man with a godlike status in Japan, Hayao Miyazaki has directed some of the most imaginative animated films ever made. Six of his films are in the top 20 highest grossing Japanese movies of all time. That includes Spirited Away — at number two on the list — which won an Oscar for Best Animated feature in 2002. Miyazaki, however, didn’t turn up to receive the award in protest of the war in Iraq, which started a few days earlier.  

His first feature-length film was Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro, which came out in 1979, six years before he co-founded Studio Ghibli. Manga Entertainment’s DVD release included an unverified quote by Steven Spielberg calling it “one of the greatest adventure movies of all time.” Miyazaki’ latest film, The Boy and the Heron recently became the first non-English animated feature to win a Golden Globe. It’s supposed to be his last movie, though we’ve heard that before. 

Takeshi Kitano

3. Takeshi Kitano

The man who adopted the stage name Beat Takeshi is most well-known domestically for being one of Japan’s “big three” television comedians, alongside Tamori and Sanma Akashiya. Globally, he’s more famous as a director of critically acclaimed movies he also stars in, such as Sonatine and Hana-bi. Quentin Tarantino was so impressed with the former, he engineered its distribution in North America, while Akira Kurosawa rated the latter as one of his 100 favorite films. 

As an actor, Kitano gained global attention in Nagisa Oshima’s 1983 war film Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, starring David Bowie and Ryuichi Sakamoto, and then almost two decades later in Kinji Fukasaku’s action-thriller Battle Royale. His television creation Takeshi’s Castle also proved popular abroad. In fact, a poll on X by digital media Ladbible revealed that it was the game show Brits missed most. Kitano has excelled in various other fields, including as an author of novels and poetry.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles by Haruki Murakami

4. Haruki Murakami 

Compared to novelists like Bret Easton Ellis and Milan Kundera, Haruki Murakami is a global superstar whose books have been translated into 50 languages. Despite describing himself as “the outcast of the Japanese literary world,” he’s extremely popular here with his novels selling millions. Every year, devoted followers, known as “Harukists,” gather in various locations nationwide in the hope of hearing the news that he’s won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The award, however, continues to elude him. 

Before his writing career took off, Murakami ran the Tokyo coffee house and jazz bar, Peter Cat, with his wife Yoko. He says the idea to become a writer came to him after watching Dave Hilton hit a double for his beloved Yakult Swallows on April 1, 1978. His first book, Hear the Wind Sing, was published 15 months later. The novel that propelled him to global stardom was Norwegian Wood, which has sold over 10 million copies worldwide.

Photo by Tinseltown via Shutterstock

5. Ken Watanabe

It was Yoko Narahashi, the woman known as Japan’s gatekeeper to Hollywood, who introduced The Last Samurai director Edward Zwick to Ken Watanabe. While Zwick was initially unconvinced due to Watanabe’s lack of English, Narahashi persuaded him to give the Niigata Prefecture-born actor another chance. The rest, as they say, is history. Watanabe excelled in the role as Lord Katsumoto Moritsugu and received a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the 76th Academy Awards. 

That was just the start of Watanabe’s Hollywood adventure. He has since gone on to feature in several blockbusters, including Batman Begins and Inception. Away from the silver screen, Watanabe has also made a name for himself on Broadway. Debuting in The King and I, he became the first Japanese man to receive a Tony Award nomination for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical. The 64-year-old has survived battles with leukemia and stomach cancer. 


6. Ichiro Suzuki

Before Ohtani came along, the man known mononymously as Ichiro was considered Japan’s most iconic sporting figure. A 10-time All-Star who broke several records, he finished his career with 4,367 hits, more than any other player in the history of top-level baseball. Over 3,000 of those hits came in the Majors and the debate rages on as to how close to Pete Rose’s MLB record he would’ve been had he started his career in the States.  

Ichiro’s baseball journey began at the age of 3 with daily games of catch with his father. Gradually, those practices became more intense. Speaking to Robert Whiting, the former outfielder described the sessions as “being close to abuse.” Ichiro made a name for himself in Japan with the Orix BlueWave (now the Orix Buffaloes), before moving to the Seattle Mariners in 2001. Seventeen years later, he re-signed for them and played his final game in front of an emotional crowd at the Tokyo Dome.


The People By Kishin: Lennon-Ono-2016

7. Yoko Ono

If this survey were taken 50 years ago, Yoko Ono would no doubt have topped it. Blamed for breaking up the Beatles, she was, back then, arguably the most hated woman on the planet. The vitriol was also sexist and racist. “John Rennon’s Most Excrusive Gloupie,” read the headline in a 1970 Esquire magazine article. Thankfully, public perception has changed since then. According to Ono, this is simply “because people are getting wiser.”

Born into a semi-aristocratic family (her great-grandfather established the Yasuda financial group), Ono was a former classmate of the future emperor, Akihito. She met John Lennon at London’s Indica Gallery in 1966 and married him three years later. They then used their honeymoon as a stage to protest the war in Vietnam from their bed in the Amsterdam Hilton Hotel. Lennon, who once described Ono as “the world’s most famous unknown artist,” was shot dead in 1980. 

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