We begin this week’s news roundup by congratulating Samurai Japan on their WBC triumph. Fumio Kishida makes a surprise visit to Ukraine as Xi Jinping meets with Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Prosecutors decide against appealing a Tokyo High Court order to hold a retrial for Iwao Hakamada. The Japan Meteorological Agency announce that cherry blossoms are in full bloom in central Tokyo. Fashion model Jessica Michibata is arrested on suspicion of being in possession of MDMA. And a high school baseball player is given a warning after imitating Lars Nootbaar’s pepper-grinder celebration.  

Japan Crowned WBC Champions After 3-2 Win Over the US

In the end, it came down to the tournament’s two biggest names. Shohei Ohtani pitching against his Los Angeles Angels teammate Mike Trout for the World Baseball Classic (WBC) title, with two outs and Japan leading 3-2. In the latter’s 1,674 plate appearances, he’d recorded three swinging strikes just 24 times. For the former, it was the first time to close a game since 2016. Could he handle the pressure? You bet he could. The man with ice in his veins hit his 10-time MLB All-Star opponent with 100-mph fastballs before finishing him off with an 87-mph slider.  

Unsurprisingly, it was Ohtani who picked up the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award, though there were heroes throughout the team. This included Munetaka Murakami and Kazuma Okamoto, who both hit homeruns in the final. Murakami, who appeared to be in a slump early in the competition, came through when it really mattered. In what was a thrilling semi-final encounter with Mexico on Tuesday morning, he produced a walk-off double to seal a comeback 6-5 win, booking Japan’s place in the final. It was then a Hollywood ending with Ohtani securing the country’s first WBC triumph since 2009. 

Cherry blossoms were in full bloom in Tokyo on March 22

Sunshine, Sakura and Baseball

For Japanese fans, the only disappointment about their team’s WBC triumph was the fact that it came on a Wednesday morning, meaning many were unable to watch the game live. Several offices, however, did put it on for employees and, no doubt, large numbers would have had it on while “working from home.” Some, of course, had the foresight to take the day, or at least the morning, off. Public viewing events were held at several locations, including at the base of Tokyo Tower, with 400 in attendance. The place erupted when Ohtani sealed the victory.  

With the sun shining and Tokyo’s sakura blooming, the celebrations continued well into the afternoon for many. This year is the first time since 2019 that parks in Japan’s capital are allowing people to gather for food and drinks while enjoying the famed cherry blossoms. Naturally, people wanted to take advantage of that. The Japan Meteorological Agency announced on Wednesday that the popular pink flowers were in full bloom (mankai) in central Tokyo. That’s nine days earlier than an average year. It’s also the second earliest on record, level with 2013, 2020 and 2021. 

High School Player Warned for Imitating Nootbaar’s Pepper-Grinder Celebration

One of Japan’s main headline makers during the WBC tournament was Lars Nootbaar. The California-native, who plays as an outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals, is known for his pepper-grinder celebration, which has become a national craze here. However, when a batter from Tohoku High School imitated the gesture after reaching first base on Saturday, the umpire told him to stop. The school’s manager, Hiroshi Sato, who played for Tokyo’s Yomiuri Giants, defended his player. “The children are just having fun. Why do adults have to put a stop to it,” he was quoted as saying.  

In men’s soccer, Japan are preparing for their first post-World Cup game tonight against Uruguay. Several European-based players in the squad scored last weekend, including Cercle Brugge’s Ayase Ueda who grabbed his 14th goal of the season. Kaoru Mitoma hit his ninth as Brighton thumped Grimsby 5-0 in the FA Cup. They’ll face Manchester United at Wembley in the semifinal. Takefusa Kubo and Ritsu Doan struck for Real Sociedad and Freiburg respectively. Koki Saito also netted for Sparta Rotterdam, though he hasn’t been called up by Hajime Moriyasu. Sadly, a knee injury has ended Takehiro Tomiyasu’s season.  

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida made a surprise visit to Ukraine on March 21

Kishida and Xi Make Opposing State Visits to War Rivals

Fumio Kishida made a surprise visit to Ukraine on Tuesday to meet with the war-torn country’s leader, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The Japanese prime minister told his Ukrainian counterpart that Japan would contribute $30 million to supply non-lethal equipment for the Eastern European nation through NATO trust funds. He also invited Zelenskyy to participate online in the G7 Hiroshima Summit, which will be held in May. Kishida, who visited India on Sunday, entered Ukraine via train from Poland. He laid flowers at a church in Bucha, a small town near Kyiv that’s become a symbol of Russian atrocities against Ukrainian people.  

“I’m outraged by the cruelty. I represent the Japanese citizens to express my condolences to those who lost their lives,” Kishida was quoted as saying. Around 800 kilometers away, Chinese President Xi Jinping was in Moscow, displaying his support for Russia and Vladimir Putin. The two men, who refer to each other as “dear friends,” called for an end to actions that “increase tensions” and prolong the war in Ukraine. Last Friday, the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for Putin and Russian official Maria Lvova-Belova. They’re accused of abducting children from Ukraine.   

No Appeal from Prosecutors in Hakamada Case

On Monday, Tokyo prosecutors said that they would not be appealing last week’s decision to grant former professional boxer Iwao Hakamada a retrial. As a result, he will become the fifth person in prewar Japan to be retried after being sentenced to death. The other four were all exonerated in the 1980s. It now seems certain that Hakamada will also be acquitted. The 87-year-old Shizuoka-native spent more than 47 years on death row for the murder of a family of four. He maintained his innocence, claiming he was forced to confess during a brutal interrogation.  

Hakamada, who suffers from mental illness, appeared on stage in Shizuoka on Tuesday alongside his elder sister, Hideko, 90. Speaking to around 150 people, he thanked them for their support. Hideko then took the microphone. “I’m telling him that the retrial will begin and showing him newspapers with his photo in them. He is intently looking at them. I think it will be a long retrial and is going to take another six months or a year. The crucial moment will come from now on. Please stay with us for a while longer,” she said.   


Model Jessica Michibata Arrested for Alleged MDMA Possession

The Metropolitan Police Department arrested fashion model Jessica Michibata on Monday on suspicion of violating the narcotics special measures law. She’s accused of being in possession of the illegal stimulant MDMA. According to investigative sources, Tokyo Customs officials discovered the drug hidden in a package addressed to a man, believed to be her boyfriend, that arrived from overseas. After it was then sent to the hotel, the police raided the room and arrested Michibata, ex-wife of legendary F1 driver Jenson Button, and her acquaintance on the spot. According to local media, she’s denying the allegation, claiming she doesn’t know anything about it.  

In other celebrity news, singer Kyary Pamyu Pamyu and actor Shono Hayama announced their marriage on Tuesday. “Together, we’ll continue to strive even further to do our best in our work. We appreciate your continued support and encouragement,” read their statement, which appeared on both of their websites. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, whose real name is Kiriko Takemura, has been a cultural icon since debuting with “PonPonPon” in 2011, a song that became a global hit after being praised on Twitter by Katy Perry. Hayama is known for movies such as After the Storm and The World of Kanako.