Meet NPB's Kenta Bright, who wears No. 42 for Jackie

April 15th, 2024
Image courtesy of Chunichi Shimbun (中日新聞社); art by Tom Forget

Jackie Robinson’s immeasurable impact on the game of baseball is celebrated every year on April 15 -- the anniversary of him breaking the color barrier -- as every player dons No. 42, the only number to be retired permanently across Major League Baseball. But his legacy also lives on globally -- even halfway across the world, where one young pro baseball player sports the iconic No. 42 every time he takes the field in Robinson’s honor.

Kenta Bright, 24, is an outfielder for Nippon Professional Baseball’s Chunichi Dragons. Born to a Japanese mother and Ghanaian father, Bright chose No. 42 as his jersey number when he was taken in the first round of the 2021 NPB Draft.

“I’ve always known I wanted to wear No. 42,” Bright said to in Japanese. “I could have worn the number in college, but I thought if I used it then, it wouldn’t carry as much weight. I wanted to wait until I got to the highest level possible at which I could wear No. 42.”

Bright was born in Adachi, Japan, which is a special ward located just north of the heart of Tokyo. Influenced by his father, John, who loved the game, Bright took up baseball when he was in the sixth grade.

“I originally did judo but wanted to do a major sport -- soccer, basketball,” Bright said. “I tried a few things, but I liked baseball the most because it was the most challenging. I was always on the taller side so at the time, the other sports came more easily to me.”

It was also his father who instilled values, immersed his son in Ghanaian culture and introduced him to his biggest role model in Robinson.

“I think I was in elementary school when I first learned about Jackie,” Bright said. “There was a famous movie, and even when I was little and was feeling different from everyone else, seeing Jackie playing when racial discrimination was so much worse and overcoming all of that to be the player he was left an impact on me.

“When I would be going through something tough, it would inspire me to keep going, even if it’s just one step forward.”

Because the Japanese government doesn’t collect information on race and ethnicity, there is no way to know for sure what percent of the population is made up of people who are multiracial. According to a report by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, however, of the 946,065 children born in 2017, only 18,134 of them had one parent who was a foreigner, which accounts for 1.9% of the total. It’s estimated that that number has largely remained unchanged for the past 20 years.

Note that these numbers don’t include children whose parents acquired Japanese nationality or those who were born in a foreign country and immigrated to Japan, so the actual number of "half-Japanese" children is estimated to be much higher. Still, growing up mixed race in Japan makes for a completely different -- and perhaps more difficult -- experience than in more diverse countries.

“Being half-Black, especially when I was younger, being different meant being treated a little differently,” Bright said. “But as I grew older, being half-Black became something I’m proud of overtime -- now I’m glad I grew up differently.”

Dragons outfielder Bright was born to a Ghanaian father and Japanese mother. (Photo courtesy of the Chunichi Dragons 中日ドラゴンズ)

Entering high school, some young Japanese players choose to attend schools solely for the quality of their baseball programs. Hanamaki Higashi High School in northern Japan, for example, has produced the likes of Shohei Ohtani, Yusei Kikuchi and Stanford’s newly committed slugger Rintaro Sasaki. But Bright chose to go to a nearby school in Tokyo, in part to stay close to home but also because he was injured.

Bright had suffered a shoulder injury, and because he’d thought his path forward would be as a pitcher, he was considering leaving the sport, even turning down a scholarship at the time. But as his shoulder began to heal, his coach asked him if he’d like to try playing the outfield, effectively opening up a new path for him.

Though his high school didn’t make it to the national baseball tournament, or more commonly known as the Summer Koshien, Bright felt a renewed sense of determination and wanted to play at those levels when he went to college.

Bright enrolled in Jobu University, a private school in Gunma, Japan -- roughly a three-hour journey by train from his hometown. Living in a dorm for the first time while immersing himself in a competitive baseball environment proved to be difficult, as he began to question his abilities, so much so that he left his dormitory at one point.

That was when his teammates, including the captain, went all the way to his house to bring him back.

“You’re going to bat cleanup one day, so come back.”

And so he did. By his fourth year, Bright was able to put up a breakout season, leading his team to a league title. He bashed three home runs and collected 12 RBIs in the spring tournament and nabbed Most Valuable Player honors before hitting two more homers in the 2021 All-Japan University Baseball Championship.

Though his squad was eventually defeated in the semifinals by Keio University, Bright had proven not only to himself, but to a certain NPB team, everything he was capable of.

A first-round pick in the 2021 NPB draft, Bright chose No. 42 to honor Robinson. (Photo courtesy of Chunichi Shimbun 中日新聞社)

A first-round pick in the 2021 NPB Draft, Chunichi’s newest outfielder knew exactly who he wanted to honor when it was time to choose his new uniform number -- he’d known for a long time. Not to mention, in perhaps a serendipitous quirk of fate, the Dragons’ logo closely resembles Jackie’s Dodgers’ lettering.

“I was so happy,” Bright said. “When I was drafted by the Dragons, a lot of people asked me how I felt, but really the first thing that came to mind was that my uniform will be like the Dodgers’ No. 42. That was my first impression. It means a lot to me.”

Bright’s admiration and appreciation for Jackie has reached the Robinson family -- in a rather unlikely corner of the world. In December 2023, Dragons interpreter Jun Kato met up with Jackie’s youngest son, David, in Tanzania and presented him with Bright’s jersey. David happily complied with Bright's wishes to have him wear the uniform stitched with the No. 42 his father once wore.

“Obviously in America, I think a lot of people know the significance of having No. 42 as a jersey number,” Bright said, “but I wanted to show David that even in Asia, his father had made an immense impact on someone who carries a lot of meaning wearing that number.”

So what’s next for Bright?

“On the baseball front, I’d always played on teams that aren’t that good, but I managed to forge a path to professional baseball, and I’m now at the starting line of my career,” Bright said. “No matter what your circumstances are, no matter how good everyone around you is, if you practice more than anyone, I think you’ll find a way to succeed.”

But in the grand scheme of things, it was always bigger than baseball.

“In the future, I want to become the sort of player who can inspire kids of all backgrounds to want to begin playing baseball,” Bright said. “It’s not about hitting more home runs, or anything like that.

“... For kids who are half-Black [in Japan], I think especially when you’re little, you grow up feeling different from others -- maybe people say things, and maybe it happens even in adulthood, too. When people said those things, I felt sorry for them. But there will always be people who have your back. No matter the color of your skin, there will always be people who will stand up for you. So direct your energy toward those people and keep moving forward.”

Hampered by injuries and limited to 46 games his rookie year in 2022, Bright has mainly played with Chunichi’s Western League team, or NPB’s equivalent of the Minor Leagues. He bounced back in ‘23, slashing .309/.398/.488 with an .886 OPS, seven homers and 31 walks in 57 games for the second team. He also got a taste of playing on the first squad, getting 33 games under his belt.

With their last Japan Series title coming in 2007, the Dragons are certainly looking for young talent to develop a formidable core for the future. At just 24 years old, Bright figures to get a good look this season and beyond. But no matter where his baseball career leads him, his childhood hero will always have his back.

A Japanese version of this article is available here.