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Hideki Matsui to receive high honor in Japan

04/01/2013 3:03 PM ET
By Lou DiPietro

Hideki Matsui was named the MVP of the 2009 World Series, helping the Yankees top the Phillies for the title.(AP)
During Hideki Matsui's career in Japan, he was honored quite often: three times the Central League's Most Valuable Player, and nine times an All-Star. Now, he's about to add another honor to his trophy case, this one the highest any Japanese celebrity can receive.

Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary, Yoshihide Suga, announced Monday that Matsui and one of his idols, former Yomiuri Giants slugger Shigeo Nagashima, are set to receive the People's Honor Award, a national distinction awarded to athletes, entertainers and other cultural figures. According to Japanese media, the honor is akin to receiving knighthood in Great Britain.

The award, to be given by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is designed to honor a national hero or heroine who "is widely loved by the people" and has "made remarkable achievements that gave bright hope to society."

According to the Japan Times, Suga said Nagashima was picked because he is "an undisputed national hero," and Matsui was also selected due not only to his great achievements, but also because of he and Nagashima's "mentor-disciple relationship."

Nagashima, now 77, played for and managed the Giants during his years in Japanese baseball, and when Matsui joined Yomiuri in 1993, Nagashima became a mentor -- something Matsui gratefully touched upon during his retirement press conference in late December.

"That time we spent every day, him giving me guidance, was the foundation to my baseball life," Matsui said in December. "That interaction was a huge deal for me, and I can't fully express my gratitude to coach Nagashima."

Only 20 people have received the award since its inception in 1977, and Matsui and Nagashima are the first baseball players since 1987 to be honored. Current Yankee Ichiro Suzuki was reportedly twice a candidate, according to the Japanese edition of the Wall Street Journal, but turned it down in 2001 because he felt he was too young and again declined in 2004 by saying it would lower his motivation.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi was asked about Matsui's honor prior to Monday's Opening Day game against the Red Sox, and while he hadn't heard the news until then, he praised and congratulated "Godzilla" on what he said was a well-deserved nomination.

"I didn't see that, but congratulations to Hideki," Girardi said. "I think everyone is aware of what this organization thinks of Hideki Matsui. He's a wonderful man and was a wonderful player who did a lot for the New York Yankees in his time here. He represented us very, very well, and I think from the Yankees standpoint we'd like to congratulate him, because he's a man who deserves it."

Matsui is also expected to be honored at a retirement ceremony held by the Yomiuri Giants on May 5, a tribute to his uniform number both in Japan and in the United States. According to the Journal, speculation is that he will follow in Nagashima's footsteps and eventually become the skipper of the Giants himself.

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