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The Washington Wizards broke new ground on June 20, 2019, when they picked Rui Hachimura at No. 9 in the 2019 NBA Draft — the first time a Japanese player had ever been chosen in the top 10.

One day later, when Japanese media outlets swarmed the U.S. capital for Hachimura’s introductory news conference, Wizards officials began to realize the impact of his arrival would stretch far beyond Capital One Arena.

The unprecedented interest in Hachimura’s selection led the Wizards to do something no other NBA team before them had attempted: A full-court Japanese-language marketing press, including the creation of a new localized Twitter account.

Wizards forward Rui Hachimura (left) speaks with members of the media during the team's media day on Sept. 30, 2019, in Washington. | USA TODAY / VIA REUTERS
Wizards forward Rui Hachimura (left) speaks with members of the media during the team’s media day on Sept. 30, 2019, in Washington. | USA TODAY / VIA REUTERS

“Our top business guy, (President of Business Operations and Chief Commercial Officer) Jim Van Stone, he saw (the news conference) and said, ‘Obviously there’s an opportunity there but there’s also a responsibility. We’re getting a player of that caliber, that’s really important for Japanese basketball,’” Ryo Shinkawa, a Japanese social media specialist who joined the Wizards’ Japanese-language media team midway through the 2019-20 season, told The Japan Times last month.

“I think we had the responsibility to make content and show what’s going on, especially with the distance of both countries. By creating a platform, we’re able to build a relationship with Japanese fans and sports fans, and we thought it would make sense.”

The Wizards worked quickly, hiring multi-sport commentator Zac Ikuma as their digital correspondent as well as producer Daiei Onoguchi. The two have been able to focus on creating Japanese-language content that stretches far beyond Hachimura himself, including pre- and post-game shows and the “Wizards Global Podcast,” a weekly show featuring players, broadcasters and members of the media. After games they’re able to upload Japanese-subtitled clips of player interviews at speed, within an hour of recording them.

Hachimura’s English skills were key to allowing the Wizards to hire Ikuma and Onoguchi. His three years at Gonzaga had enabled him to communicate without an interpreter, leaving Washington able to focus their resources on maximizing their star rookie’s reach and connecting with an overlooked — but growing — demographic of basketball fans in Japan.

“Basketball’s treatment in Japan is similar to how the U.S. treats soccer … obviously MLS is visible, but back when I was a kid the population (of soccer fans) decreased as you got older,” Shinkawa said. “Japanese basketball is similar. There’s a lot of youth players in Japan, but once you go to junior high and high school they turn to baseball and soccer. Hopefully with the B. League that dynamic changes.”

One of the cornerstones of the Wizards’ efforts to connect with Japanese fans has been its effort to collaborate with the B. League. As professional sports across the world ground to a halt during the initial spread of COVID-19 in March, Shinkawa envisioned a light-hearted competition between Wizards mascot G-Wiz and Chiba Jets Funabashi mascot Jumbo-kun that eventually spread across multiple platforms, including the B. League’s official TikTok account.

Ryo Shinkawa, a member of the Wizards' Japanese-language media team, poses with a statue at the entrance of Shibuya's Basketball Street on Nov. 18. | DAN ORLOWITZ
Ryo Shinkawa, a member of the Wizards’ Japanese-language media team, poses with a statue at the entrance of Shibuya’s Basketball Street on Nov. 18. | DAN ORLOWITZ

“From one random Zoom call, we connected and started a storyline. The Jets’ mascot had won (best mascot) for three straight years, so it made sense for him to compete against an NBA mascot,” Shinkawa said. “It was a fun entertainment piece that we were able to do. It’s about making a lot of touchpoints in different ways.”

The Wizards media team furthered those ties late this year with a trip to Hachimura’s hometown of Toyama, where they interviewed his junior high school coach Joji Sakamoto, visited the basketball equipment store he frequented and featured the Toyama Grouses, the area’s local B. League team.

“I felt the important part was to connect with B. League and basketball people in Japan. If we just talk about the Wizards, we’ll have a limited audience,” Shinkawa said. “We not only followed Rui’s roots, but featured how basketball is growing in Toyama, his hometown. Being able to connect with the Grouses and working together to build more awareness about basketball, that was really good.”

 Rui Hachimura speaks to the media after being selected by Washington as the ninth overall pick of the 2019 NBA Draft on June 20, 2019, in Brooklyn, New York. | USA TODAY / VIA REUTERS
Rui Hachimura speaks to the media after being selected by Washington as the ninth overall pick of the 2019 NBA Draft on June 20, 2019, in Brooklyn, New York. | USA TODAY / VIA REUTERS

While Hachimura is the hook for many Japanese fans, Shinkawa and his colleagues have taken great pains to ensure other players are also getting exposure. In a June interview, Ikuma quizzed Isaac Bonga on his favorite anime after the German forward’s TikTok video of character poses went viral, and other teammates are regularly highlighted on the Wizards’ Japanese-language media.

Shinkawa, who has interpreted for several Japanese pitchers in the majors, is well aware of the impact an untimely injury or trade can have on a team’s player-centered marketing efforts and the need to build a wider base.

“My mindset is, who knows what will happen with (Rui) in the future. We’re trying to build the Wizards brand until then. Hopefully it’s forever, while he’s playing, but you never know,” Shinkawa said.

“A lot of fans followed us because Rui joined the Wizards, that’s obvious. But from being in charge of the account, (I see that) there’s a lot of people who talk about other players. Obviously players will change in drafts and trades. But it’s about having a platform where people can access all Wizards content, and hopefully that doesn’t change to specific people even if Rui leaves.”

Shinkawa believes the Wizards’ Japanese-language marketing strategies, which have resulted in several award nominations and recognition by NBA officials, are in some ways a reflection of the B. League — which is seeing results in the fifth year of its mission to increase basketball’s following in Japan.

“I think basketball culture itself is growing in Japan,” Shinkawa said. “The B. League is growing, there’s Rui Hachimura, there may be more Japanese players playing (NCAA) college ball next year. We can’t look at this as a short-term project. I think that’s the mindset the Wizards have in investing in this. We have to look at this long-term and not look for results immediately.”

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