Japan riveted as beloved baseball team and star player compete in Thunder Bay
Japanese media are following Kotaro Kiyomiya's every move.
The members of Team Canada competing at this week's U18 Baseball World Cup aren't exactly household names in their home country.
In Japan, however, it's a whole other ball game.
More than 50 members of the Japanese media arrived in Thunder Bay, Ont., last week to broadcast the games of their national team and follow every move of its star player, Kotaro Kiyomiya.
"High school baseball in Japan is huge, something compared to NCAA March Madness in the United States," said Kiyoshi Mio of Japan's T.V. Asahi, which is broadcasting the games live.
Kiyomiya, he said, first captured the imagination of the Japanese public as an elementary school student, when his team won the Little League World Series.
He went on to break the national high school home run record.
"Everybody loves a home run hitter," Mio said.
The 18-year-old Kiyomiya spoke to CBC after practice Wednesday as some 30 Japanese reporters filmed and snapped photographs of the brief exchange.
"This happens on a regular basis, like every day, ... I'm having interviews every time, so it's just daily life for me," he said through an interpreter.
Asked about his fame in his homeland, he said, "I'm pretty happy that a lot of people talk to me," but he added that his school forbids him from signing autographs.
For all his celebrity, however, Kiyomiya insisted that he is "just an ordinary player."
'I don't think I'm better than any players'
"I don't think I'm better than any players," he said.
The son of Japanese rugby star Katsuyuki Kiyomiya, Kiyomiya is a big name in Japan, but members of the public leave him alone because he's still in high school, Mio told CBC.
They are also prepared to forgive him should his performance ever fail to live up to expectations at this week's tournament, he said.
"People will be disappointed he didn't perform well, but nobody is going to be upset," Mio added. "Once he gets to be a professional, things are going to change."
Japan plays Canada Friday at 5 p.m. at Port Arthur Stadium.
If the team makes the gold medal game, Mio estimated that around a tenth of the Japanese population will be watching it on TV.