Basketball star Oh reflects on journey to Japan

by

Staff Writer

Asako Oh, a Japan women’s basketball national team center, balked at enrolling in a Japanese high school about a decade ago. Now she has no regrets about her decision.

Oh, a native of Tianjin, China, was persuaded to come to Japan by Mitsuo Yasue, head coach of the Gifu Girls’ High School basketball team, when she was in junior high.

For Oh, or Wan Cen Jing as she was known back then, her mind was made up. She never wanted to leave her native country, and she told Yasue and her Chinese coach at the time so.

“I was only 15 years old and didn’t want to go,” Oh recalled in fluent Japanese. “I couldn’t even imagine myself going. I was thinking of playing basketball in China and eventually wanted to go to college through the sport in China.”

But in the end, Oh wound up moving to Japan. Her family and relatives, who initially told her she didn’t have to go if she didn’t want to, persuaded her to take the opportunity as it would be valuable.

“I was like, ‘that’s not what you were telling me,’ ” the 189-cm, 26-year-old Oh said with a laugh. “But I wanted to please my parents and I thought if it was a good place to go to, it was worth a shot. So I came over here, crying.”

Ultimately, it was worth it for Oh. She helped Gifu Girls’ compete for national titles, enrolled in Hakuo University in Tochigi Prefecture, and then joined WJBL’s Mitsubishi Electric Koalas afterwards (foreign players are not allowed to play in the league unless a player gains Japanese citizenship or intends to do so).

“I was just thinking of taking care of basketball and studying Japanese for three years (at high school) and nothing beyond,” said Oh, who was third both in points per game (16.24) and rebounds (10.15) in the league during the 2013-14 WJBL season. “But then I was given a chance to go to college and then join Mitsubishi. I wasn’t confident that I could do well (at Mitsubishi), but I’ve certainly grown as a player there.”

Last year, Oh became a naturalized Japanese and started playing for the national team. Being in a Hinomaru jersey, Oh was a member of the squad that won the first FIBA Asia Championship for Women in 43 years in November.

Apparently, the decision to become a Japanese citizen wasn’t as hard as her earlier choice to go to Gifu Girls’.

At least until she got all the information. Oh had thought that she could regain her Chinese citizenship easily if she wanted to.

“I was told at the interview that I wouldn’t be able to,” Oh said. “And then I thought about stopping it (becoming Japanese). But if I did, everything that everybody had helped me out with in setting it up would’ve been wasted. So I proceeded.”

Still, switching your nationality may not be so straightforward, especially when a Chinese national becomes a Japanese considering the complex history between the two countries.

Oh said that her case was seen in both a positive and negative light in her native country.

Yet it was an article written by a Chinese newspaper reporter that turned things in her favor.

“The person wrote about my history, including why I came to Japan, what I went through in Japan, what my favorite things to do are, how I felt to be back in China . . . things like that,” Oh said. “And after that, people just started cheering me a lot more and my mother was pleased to see that as well.”

And now Oh is one of the four bigs for Hayabusa Japan along with Asia Championships MVP Ramu Tokashiki, Yuka Mamiya and Maki Takada. Oh says she is humbled by playing with Tokashiki and Mamiya, arguably the top two inside players in the country, on Team Japan, which will compete at the FIBA World Championship for Women in Spain from Sept. 27 to Oct. 5.

Oh still seems a little raw, particularly in her offensive game, and says that she’s learning a lot from her national teammates like Tokashiki and Mamiya. But Herb Brown, a former NBA coach and ex-advisory coach for the Japan women’s team, insists that Oh is a big contributor to the team and that as much as she’s improving from playing against her teammates, they get better because of her every day.

“(Oh’s) effort, hard work and tenacity prevents them from coasting or taking a play or a possession off. She never stops working,” Brown, who recently became an assistant for the men’s basketball team of the University of Portland, wrote in an email. “She is a great contributor and her effort deserves to be rewarded.

“Whenever she gets an opportunity, she contributes. She rebounds and defends and does whatever is necessary to win. She was a pleasure to coach.

“Big players are expected to set the tone. They must run the floor, block shots, set screens, rebound, defend, take charges and provide physicality. Wan (Oh) does that as does Mei (Mamiya).”

Oh, who averaged 8.0 points and 4.2 rebounds in the FIBA Asia Championship last year, acknowledged that the centers at FIBA worlds would be a lot stronger than in Asia, but seemed to be looking forward to the challenge.

“We became No. 1 in Asia with everybody, and we want to compete with that confidence in mind (at worlds),” she said.