Interest in basketball has reached new, unimagined heights in Japan ever since Japanese basketball phenomenon Rui Hachimura was drafted by the Washington Wizards as the 8th pick overall in June 2019.

Core basketball heads anticipated Rui’s success as early as his high school days in Japan. However, nothing happened until he was recognized as a serious player at Gonzaga University (Spokane, Washington).

Yet, even as a standout player for Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament, the Japanese couldn’t fathom the magnitude of Rui’s achievement. Missing his significance was just a natural reaction from a nation that had never attained real success in this sport.

The nation’s No. 1 local sport is sumo, and in international sports it’s baseball. Japan has a long history of producing brilliant baseball players, starting with Sadaharu Oh and luminaries such as Hideo Nomo, Hideki Matsui, Ichiro Suzuki, and Shohei Otani. Japan is always considered among the top-ranking teams in the world.

Never for Basketball

Japan has not reached that level of recognition in basketball, but the reality is that Japan is no stranger to the NBA.

The whole nation fell in love with the NBA back in the 1980’s and 1990’s — the LA Lakers-Boston Celtics rivalry, Michael Jordan, and the Chicago Bulls’ two three-peats for six NBA championships. The 1992 Barcelona Olympics dream team has always been one of the favorite topics for fans. Many grew up idolizing MJ — basketball was as popular and cool as baseball or soccer.

Then around that time came the smash hit basketball comic Slamdunk. Most Japanese in their 20’s to 50’s can easily relate to a Slamdunk conversation and instantly talk about their favorite characters and scenes they love.

Then came the first Japanese-born NBA player, Yuta Tabuse, in 2004. But before we get to him, the legendary Wat Misaka should be mentioned — a second-generation Japanese in America who played professional basketball in the Basketball Association of America (BAA) before it was absorbed into the newly created NBA in 1949. Yuta Tabuse was a basketball wizard from the time he was 15 years old. He was a small-sized PG who had crazy handling skills and amazed the nation with his play. He even did a commercial with Patrick Ewing at the age of 15. Even though his NBA career was short (17 mins, 7pts, 3 assists), he made history and became a legend.

During the boom in the 1990’s, basketball in Japan was as hot as it could be. It was a very popular sport for both men and women. Kids would start playing at school from the third grade. It had — and still has — one of the top player populations in the country.

Actual NBA games were played in Japan in 2003. Weekly NBA programs were aired. Basketball legends Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen appeared in Japanese TV commercials. Basketball seemed to be in a good place.

Then There Was a Blank…

It wasn’t something that happened all at once. There was no recognizable incident.

The game was still popular. Kids were still playing the sport. Domestic league players kept on playing. But somehow, slowly and surely, the decline of basketball in Japan started.

There had been no significant achievement either individually or as a team since Tabuse made history by becoming an NBA player in 2004. The potential for basketball to become like baseball had been there, but it just didn’t pan out.

So for the general public, basketball went from a cool and fashionable sport that everyone loves, to something people liked generally but wouldn’t want to go so far as to become a fan of. In Japanese life, it had become a very minor sport.

Right Place, Right Time

With that background, who would have believed that a kid from Toyama who played the 4 position would be selected from the NBA? Not just selected, but selected 1st round, 8th overall?

Not many.

That Rui was drafted 8th overall was a historic moment itself in Japanese basketball history.

But some other samurai showed up at about the same time. This year, the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas had the most Japanese players in history: Rui Hachimura for the Wizards, Yuta Watanabe for the Grizzlies, Yudai Baba for the Mavericks, Makoto Hiejima for the Pelicans.

Yuki Togashi (point guard for the Japanese national team who also played for the Texas Legends) was also scheduled but couldn’t make it due to an injury.

Maybe it was just timing, and maybe it was a coincidence. But it’s almost funny how a nation that had close to zero players qualified to even be considered, suddenly had four players attempting to make it in the NBA.


By - Ben K.