A schoolboy legend, a rookie phenom, a superstar ace, a national hero, and an import All-Star: Masahiro “Mā-kun” Tanaka has played many roles on the mound and has garnered as many accolades as any pitcher in the world.
He could have retired after his high school career with a solidified place in Japanese baseball history due to his otherworldly performance at the annual Koshien championship in 2006, but he didn’t stop there. He immediately earned NPB Rookie of the Year honors in 2007 as an 18-year-old rookie for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles and proceeded to dominate for six more seasons, tallying six All-Star games and two Sawamura Awards for best pitcher in the league. His 2013 season was the most dominant and captivating in NPB history, going 24-0 and leading the Eagles to their first Japan Series championship; more importantly, he was the face of the Tohoku region’s recovery from the devastating 2011 earthquake and corresponding tsunami and nuclear fallout.
Tanaka rode that championship wave to New York, signing a seven-year contract with the Yankees in 2014. He was four times their Opening Day starter (the most by a Japanese pitcher in MLB), twice an American League All-Star, and earned his pinstripes with numerous excellent starts in the playoffs.
After playing out his Yankees contract, Tanaka elected to return to Sendai, receiving a hero’s welcome from the Eagles faithful. Now the seasoned veteran, he still is effective, being named an NPB All-Star for the seventh time in 2021.
Over nine seasons with the Saitama Seibu Lions of NPB’s Pacific League, Shogo Akiyama was the leadoff/outfield prototype that managers’ dreams are made of. His bat-to-ball skills and blazing speed made him a pest to opposing pitchers, while his range and steady glove in the outfield made him one of the best defenders in the league. He did all of the “little things,” and the flashy ones too! From 2011-2019, he amassed an impressive number of accomplishments, including:
- 6× Pacific League Golden Glove Award (2013, 2015–2019)
- 4× Pacific League Best Nine Award (2015, 2017–2019)
- 5× NPB All-Star (2015–2019)
Before the 2020 season, he signed with MLB’s Cincinnati Reds. While it took him a while to adjust to MLB pitching in the Covid-affected 2020 season, he was highly productive in the second half of the season and was named a finalist for the National League Gold Glove Award for left field. Reds fans got a taste of all the ways he can contribute to a winning ballclub, and we look forward to him becoming a fan favorite in Cincinnati, just as he was in Tokorozawa.
This autographed Tomo Ohka rookie card commemorates his Major League Baseball debut on July 19, 1999.
At first, Ohka was not a star in Japan, pitching limited innings for the Yokohama BayStars from 1994-1998. However, scouts from the Boston Red Sox liked what they saw in his young arm and signed him at the end of the 1998 season. It was a shrewd move by the Red Sox: Ohka dazzled in his first two seasons, earning Boston’s minor league player of the year award in 1999 and 2000, playing in the 1999 All-Star Futures Game, and the 2000 Triple A All-Star game.
He went on to have ten productive MLB seasons with the Red Sox, Montreal Expos, Washington Nationals, Milwaukee Brewers, Toronto Blue Jays, and Cleveland Indians, before returning to Japan to finish his career with the BayStars. Ohka is now a coach with the BayStars.
A beautiful “New Releases” rookie card featuring Hideki Matsui, a.k.a. Godzilla, in his brand-new New York Yankee pinstripes.
In 10 seasons with the Yomiuri Giants, Matsui was Japan’s biggest star. He was NPB’s most feared power hitter from the get-go, swatting 11 home runs in just 57 games as a 19-year-old rookie and then tallying 311 more over the next nine seasons. He was 8x “Best Nine,” 9x an All-Star, a 3x MVP, and led the Giants to Japan Series championships in 1994, 2000, and 2002, winning the Series MVP in 2000. His NPB achievements were immortalized with his induction in the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 2018.
After moving to MLB from the Giants in 2003, he more than earned his pinstripes. He was twice an All-Star, twice earned MVP votes, and was the MVP of the 2009 World Series, leading the Yankees to a title over the Philadelphia Phillies. He contributed as a dependable veteran for the Angels, A’s, and Rays before retiring in 2013. His ten years in MLB showed Americans that Japanese players can be power hitters too, and he will go down in history as a beloved hero in two countries. We ranked him as the third-best Japanese import in MLB history.
Despite not being selected out of the University of Arizona in the 1983 MLB draft, Jack Howell was signed by the California Angels as an amateur free agent and quickly worked his way up the Angels system, making his Major League debut early in the 1985 season. He quickly established himself as a reliable and versatile player. From 1987-1989, he averaged 20 home runs per season.
Before the 1992 season, “Cactus Jack” signed with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows Nippon Professional Baseball. In 1992, he became the first foreigner to win MVP in his first season, when he led the league in home runs and batting average, and led the Swallows to the Japan Series, where they lost in 7 games to the Seibu Lions.
In 1993, hit for the cycle and set an NPB record with five “sayonara” home runs, en route to another Japan Series, where this time they beat the Lions in 7 games. It’s safe to say that with the MVP season and clutch performances in the championship season, Jack is forever beloved by Swallows fans. He played on more season with the Swallows and then in 1995 played with the Yomiuri Giants. He returned to MLB and the Angels from 1996-1997, and Astros from 1998-1999.
This set made by Upper Deck has a unique die-cut shape and shiny, foil-like surface (not depicted well in the scan). The photo on the card is from his first MLB start on May 2, 1995, against the San Francisco Giants. A great rookie card of Hideo Nomo from his 1995 MLB debut season!
Before even joining the professional ranks, Nomo was a sensation in Japan. He was a key member of “Samurai Japan” (the national team) in various international events, including the 1988 Seoul Olympics when he was only 19 years old. He joined the Kintetsu Buffaloes in 1990 and pitched at a level never before seen in NPB. He won the Pitching Triple Crown, earning him not just Rookie of the Year, but also the Sawamura Award for best pitcher and MVP of the Pacific League. He proceeded to lead the league in wins and strikeouts of his first four seasons.
He famously left NPB for the Dodgers in 1995, trailblazing the way for many after him. Nomo spent 12 productive years in MLB, including two no-hitters, one All-Star appearance, the 1995 National League Rookie of the Year award, and two seasons that we consider to be in the top 10 of seasons by Japanese pitchers in MLB; in fact, he pitched well enough for us to consider him the second-best Japanese import player in MLB history!
Playing catcher for the Fukuoka Daiei / Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks of NPB’s Pacific League from 1995 to 2005, Kenji Johjima was simply one of the best catchers in the world. Just check out his NPB resume:
- 10× NPB All-Star (1997–2005, 2010)
- 2× Japan Series champion (1999, 2003)
- Pacific League MVP (2003)
- 7× Golden Glove (1999–2005)
- 6× Best Nine Award (1999–2001, 2003–2005)
His accomplishments were enough to convince the Seattle Mariners that Johjima was worthy of being the first Japanese catcher in MLB history. He signed before the 2006 season and got off to a hot start, hitting home runs in his first two games, and never slowed down in year one.
Among his accomplishments that first season were a rookie record for his by a catcher, with 147, and tying the franchise record for home runs by a catcher, with 18. He wound up with a .291 average and 76 RBI and finished 4th in Rookie of the Year voting (behind Justin Verlander) despite playing for a last-place team.
He caught for the Mariners for three more years before returning to Japan to finish his career with the Hanshin Tigers, with whom he was a Central League All-Star in 2010.
Hideki Irabu was a flame-throwing phenom for the Lotte Orions and then Chiba Lotte Marines. He was the first Japanese pitcher to ever throw a fastball clocked at 99 MPH, and he knew where it was going too…well, most of the time, at least! He was the Central League-leader in wins and strikeouts in 1994, ERA and strikeouts in 1995, and ERA in 1996. All of that success earned him a ticket to New York to play for the Yankees. While his MLB career didn’t quite live up to the hype, it turns out that his personal situation was even more complicated than it was known to be by the public. Tragically, Irabu died by suicide in 2011. Fore more on Irabu’s life, check out this article from Sports Illustrated.
This MLB rookie card is Bowman’s “International” variant on their traditional set, featuring a chromatic surface and the Japanese flag in the background on the front and back of the card. Upon its release, this was one of the hobby’s hottest cards, depicting Japan’s most recent import in his new Yankee pinstripes!