When Maruo goes to the All-Japan Juniors competition, he ends up running into several other tennis players at a restaurant. Before eating his curry udon, Ogata Katsumi, is shown saying grace and crossing himself before doing the usual “Itadakimasu” before eating. His friend Araya explains helpfully that Ogata is Catholic.
(Btw, the comicbook sound effect for doing the Sign of the Cross is apparently “sutsu, sutsu”. I think this is supposed to be the sound of touching the cloth of his shirt. The “butsu, butsu” sound effect while he’s saying grace is a standard murmur sound used in this comic.)
The story goes on to have Maruo mention this to his coach Aoi, who lets him know that of course you meet people of all faiths in international play. Aoi also says that when he played, he was envious of people who believed in something bigger than himself. (An interesting comment, given that Coach Aoi also took Maruo and Yukichi to a Buddhist shrine for Zen meditation practice, and said that it had helped him a lot. Since some Japanese apparently do practice all sorts of Japanese spiritual things without believing anything at all, this isn’t unheard of. However, it’s also fair to say that there have been indications in the manga that Coach Aoi was a little bit lost in both his pro career and his adult life outside of tennis; he’s gradually becoming a more grounded person as an adult.)
In #213, there’s a flashback to Ogata’s two years of rehab after a knee injury, which ends up with him thanking God for letting him play tennis again and for teaching him to love it so much, and another carefully drawn Sign of the Cross.
Also, this all happens fairly far into the storyline, so unless the Baby Steps anime is continued for three or four seasons, we’ll probably never see Ogata animated, alas!
Back to the grace plus itadakimasu – this is manga, not a documentary. So it’s hard to tell whether this is something true of Catholics in Japan, or only some Catholics, or what. I would believe that it is factual behavior for some Catholics at least, because the author of Baby Steps is one of those people who researches the heck out of her characters’ lives, and bases many things on interviews with young Japanese tennis players in real life. When she’s going to the extent of putting her characters in the same hotel where the real tennis teams stay, I don’t think she’d be making a cultural mistake.
Btw, “Itadakimasu” really doesn’t mean “thank you for the food” (albeit that’s implied). It means “I humbly receive.” Some say this implies Buddhist gratitude to all the creatures of the world, some say Shinto gratitude to all the gods, and some Japanese just think it means gratitude to the cook. Obviously adding the Sign of the Cross would make it clear that you are thanking God the Holy Trinity first and foremost.
The end of meal thank you, “Gotisoosama,” means “Your food was a feast.” (Albeit in very humble language.)
It’s amazingly difficult to find out the literal meaning of a lot of common Japanese greetings and rote polite expressions, because the expressions are old, the language is a humility level not used in daily modern life, and a lot of teachers don’t want you to bother your head about what you are really saying. (Especially since a lot of Japanese don’t want to bother themselves about that, either.) But it makes you feel amazingly stupid not to know what the heck you’re mouthing back at people!