No. Basketball is still an upcoming sport in Japan. Baseball and soccer are way more popular than basketball in Japan, which is the 108th most searched sport in Japan (of 110).
Although not the most popular sport in Japan, basketball is still quite popular at the high school level.
The Japanese Men’s National team is relatively successful in FIBA Asia, where they’ve won gold medals twice. This makes them one of the best Asian national basketball teams.
But, there’s more to Japanese basketball, so let’s dig in.
Facts about Basketball in Japan
Basketball in Japan is a small but growing sport, and these are some of the numbers on what direction Japanese basketball is moving in:
- 2 gold medals at Asian Basketball Championship
- 6 times qualified for the Olympics
- 6 times qualified for the FIBA World Cup
The number of active players in Japan is difficult to find. But it’s going to be much higher for high schoolers than in the professional leagues. The reason why is that basketball is still considered somewhat of a type of leisure.
What has Helped grow Basketball’s Popularity in Japan?
Basketball in Japan owes its small but growing popularity to a number of people and events that has helped the sport gain interest among young Japanese:
- Slam Dunk comic is a successful manga story about a guy who joins his school’s basketball team to impress a girl. Slam Dunk sold 126+ million copies and has probably inspired a lot of young people to try basketball.
- Yuta Tabuse, the most famous professional Japanese basketball player in history. He was the first Japanese born player to appear in an NBA game.
- B.League, a newly created basketball league from 2016, has helped support men’s basketball at a professional level in Japan.
These are the main reasons why Japan is slowly but steadily becoming a basketball-loving nation.
Basketball as a spectator sport still has a long way to go, but central players and a professionalized league are definitely helping to establish the foundation under the sport in Japan.
But one major factor that cannot be ignored when talking about Japan and basketball is Slam Dunk.
How Slam Dunk fueled Japanese Basketball
An unusual and interesting part of Japanese basketball history is the contribution of Slam Dunk.
The 90s manga comic has obtained cult status and is the best selling manga comic in history.
The protagonist, Sakuragi, is a young guy who has a difficult time talking to girls. One day, he meets a girl in school named Haruko, who isn’t scared of him like the other girls.
She convinces him to join the Shohoku basketball team, which he objects to at first—but ends up doing it to impress Haruko.
After a while, he grows to love the sport and realizes that he is a natural talent.
Together with a few central players on the team, they manage to win their way to fame and take the Shohoku team to the national championship.
This story of some misfits finding each other and their love for the sport (and girls) in basketball has inspired a generation of young Japanese kids.
With its vast popularity, the manga comic must be attributed part of the reason why basketball is a growing sport in Japan today.
Japanese Players in the NBA
Japan has been able to foster a few world-class basketball players. Some of them have played in the North American basketball league, the NBA:
With the nickname, “The Michael Jordan of Japan”, Yuta is one of the most popular basketball players in Japan.
He got popular early on when he led his high school team to three consecutive championships at the national level.
His first appearance in the NBA was for the Dallas Mavericks in 2003. After playing for a few different clubs, he came back to Japan in 2008 to play for Link Tochigi Brex.
Like his name-brother, Yuta Tabuse, Watanabe also got a nickname; “The Chosen One”. He started playing for the national men’s team at the age of 16.
Like Tabuse, he came to play in the NBA in 2019—although he wasn’t used that much by his team, Memphis Grizzlies.
Rui plays in the NBA for Washington Wizards. He started playing early and had some good years playing high school basketball, where he and his team won several titles.
In 2019, Rui faced Watanabe in an NBA game, which was the first time ever that two Japanese basketball players were to go head to head.
JBA: The Japan NBA
As one of the oldest basketball associations, the JBA dates back to 1930 where it was established. JBA has its base in the Japanese capital, Tokyo.
One of the recent initiatives by the JBA is the B.League which is becoming the most popular basketball league in Japan. JBA manages the B.League as well as the two Japanese national teams (men and women).
The JBA has a bumpy history as they got suspended from participating in the FIBA Asia championships. This was due to the fact that they failed to merge to competing leagues; the NBL League and bj-league.
The problem was that the rules used were different—NBA rules and FIBA rules. The suspension meant that the national teams couldn’t participate in any FIBA competitions.
The sanctions were lifted in 2015 when JBA was restructured completely. FIBA praised the work that had been done and welcomed the Japanese teams back into the championship.
Today, JBA is both members of FIBA and FIBA Asia.
Japan has a strong foundation under their basketball industry. With the B-League, popular NBA players, and a high school culture around basketball, the sport is to increase in popularity in the coming years.
Although the sport is far from the status of basketball in China, they are headed in the right direction.
Baseball and soccer will presumably continue to be spectator favorites in Japan, but basketball will be able to compete when the sport grows more commercial in Japan (sponsorships, salaries, etc).
So, is basketball big in Japan? Not relative to other sports and countries, but in 5-10 years, I’ll have to take another look to see where JBA, the Yuta’s, and Slam Dunk has taken the sport.
Yuta Tabuse: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yuta_Tabuse
Yuta Watanabe: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yuta_Watanabe
Rui Hachimura: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rui_Hachimura