Los Angeles,
06:02 AM

Scientist Sings Japanese Anthem at Dodgers Game

It's not often that a young PhD in biomedical engineering shines on the baseball field before thousands of major league fans, but that's exactly what Michael Murata did recently at Dodger Stadium.

Murata, 28, a postdoctoral scientist in the Department of Surgery, didn't bat in a run, make a game-saving catch or strike out an opposing slugger. Instead, he took the field before a recent Dodgers-Angels game and sang, with three other a cappella performers from a group called Grateful Four, the Japanese national anthem as part of Japan Night at the stadium.

"It all went according to plan, very smooth," Murata said. "We were mostly just in awe of being so close to superstars."

He wasn’t referring only to baseball heroes. Murata and his singing companions were particularly excited about seeing Japanese tennis great Naomi Osaka, who threw out a ceremonial first pitch.

Until June, Osaka was rated the world's No. 1 women's tennis player, and she still holds the No. 2 ranking. "We all really love her," Murata said. "She's really amazing, so being able to be on the same field with her was really special."

Murata—a modern-day Renaissance man with interests including jazz composition and vexillology, the study of flags—would seem to be a logical choice for the singing of the anthem. Murata is the board chair and musical director of the Grateful Crane Ensemble, a nonprofit Japanese-American organization that performs music and theater highlighting the contributions of Japanese Americans to this country as well as the hardships they have endured.

As Murata points out, though, he identifies most closely not with Japan, but with the Japanese American community. He attributes the community's close ties, in part, to the experience of being forced into internment camps during World War II. Murata's great-grandparents emigrated to this country in 1906, and he doesn’t speak Japanese. "I've been a California boy my whole life," said Murata, who grew up in Palos Verdes, earned his bachelor's degree at University of California, Berkeley, and his PhD at University of California, Irvine.

Still, Murata takes pride in the fact that the Angels, with designated hitter-pitcher Shohei Ohtani, and the Dodgers, with pitcher Kenta Maeda, both have Japanese stars on their rosters. "Having these two prominent Japanese players in L.A. at the same time—and not just players, but they're quite good players—is pretty special for our community, even though we are Japanese American and they hail directly from Japan," Murata said.

His lack of knowledge of Japanese and the musical style of Japan's anthem —which is known as Kimigayo, a name whose meaning is ambiguous but sometimes translated as "His Majesty's Reign"—made it challenging to sing. On the other hand, the anthem is mercifully short. The performance, with Murata and his three co-performers clad in Dodger jerseys with Japanese lettering, lasted about 55 seconds.

"He did a fantastic job," said Hisashi Tanaka, MD, PhD, who supervises Murata’s work at Cedars-Sinai and who attended the game to provide support. Tanaka, who is from Japan, said the Grateful Four performed the anthem more "beautifully" than the "simple" manner in which it normally is performed in his native country.

In Tanaka's lab, which is part of the breast cancer research group overseen by Armando E. Giuliano, MD, co-director of the Saul and Joyce Brandman Breast Center—A Project of Women's Guild, Murata assists in studying ways to more precisely identify DNA markers for the disease.

Murata comes across as low-key, and a team player. "He's really helpful," said Ryusuke Suzuki, PhD, a project scientist who also studies breast cancer. "He has his own project, but he helps on other projects, including mine."

The recent outing wasn't Murata's first performance at a pro sports event. Last year he sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" before a Los Angeles Clippers basketball game. In fact, although Murata played baseball back when he was in elementary school, the sport he is most passionate about is basketball. He continues to play in Asian American recreational leagues.

Singing the Japanese national anthem at Dodger Stadium, Murata said, was "a little strange" for him and the other members of Grateful Four "given that we're all American citizens."

"But," he said, "in a lot of ways, it was meaningful for us to be representing both of our heritages. We're all Japanese-blooded, but grew up in America. And we were singing before this giant American flag at the end of the baseball field."

What's more, Murata said, baseball is "a very American sport, but also very popular in Japan. It was a combination of a lot of themes culturally."

Read more on the Cedars-Sinai Blog: Cedars-Sinai and the L.A. Rams: Partners in Health