SHANGHAI – The rapidly growing popularity of Japanese basketball and its men’s national team has brought fans from the country to China for the FIBA World Cup.
Longtime basketball fan Atsushi Kawai was one of many eager Akatsuki Five fanatics wearing vivid red Japan T-shirts at Shanghai Oriental Sports Arena long before Sunday’s Group E game between Japan and Turkey.
The Aichi Prefecture native is actually a former 3×3 national team player for his native country. But he said it was “incredible” to see Japan in China participating in the sport’s premier stage.
“I used to be a 3×3 player myself, but back in the days, like when I would go overseas for games, I would never beat those foreigners,” the 53-year-old Kawai said. “But look at the current Japanese basketball (scene). They have guards that are as tall as 190 cm and the players’ athleticism has improved enormously. They’ve developed so much both mentally and technically.”
Kawai said he saw the potential in Japan’s biggest star Rui Hachimura to reach the NBA and be Japan’s best player ever since the forward played for Meisei High School.
“I’ve watched him since he was a freshman in high school,” said Kawai, who coaches multiple clubs back in Aichi, including one for players in junior high and above. “I’ve gone wherever he’s played (in Japan), whether in Tokyo, Nagoya or Toyama.”
Kawai, who has acquired three tickets for the Tokyo 2020 men’s basketball competition, hopes Japan can finish in Group E’s top two and advance to the knockout round in Shenzhen.
“And hopefully,” the salaryman said with a smile, “I want them to go to the final four.”
Fellow attendee Satoshi Kanno may not be as big of a hoop fan as Kawai, but he is surely a sports follower.
“I’ve been a fan of different sports and watch soccer’s World Cup,” said the 38-year-old from Tokyo, who attended Sunday’s game with his friend. “This is the first World Cup for Japan in a while and because (China) isn’t too far, we came over here.”
Kanno said that he has already purchased tickets for seven contests for the upcoming Rugby World Cup in Japan. He said that the national basketball squad would “create some momentum” for the Brave Blossoms as well.
Unlike Kawai, Kanno and most of the other Japanese fans at the arena, Ryota Aizawa lives in Shanghai. But the 33-year-old said that he was pleased when he discovered that his native country’s team would compete in the city.
“Now I genuinely feel like this is the World Cup,” Aizawa said about being at the arena. “There’s a lot of people who are from different countries. I saw a lot of people, including Japanese, Chinese and Turks, lining up for tickets.”
A native of Toyama Prefecture, Aizawa said he would definitely root for Hachimura, who was born and raised there.
“I want Rui Hachimura to perform as best as he can,” he said. “That’s what I’m here to see.”