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Basketball’s rapid growth in Japan has largely been driven by the men’s game, including the professional B. League and the emergence of homegrown NBA players in Rui Hachimura and Yuta Watanabe.

The women’s game has also made clear its determination to drive the sport forward, naming Cannes Film Festival prize-winning film director Naomi Kawase as the new chairperson of the Women’s Japan Basketball League.

The 52-year-old — who is currently serving as the official film director of the Tokyo Olympics — replaced Kiyomi Saito, who had been the league’s chief since 2015.

“I’ve been to training camps to shoot the women’s national team as the director of the official Olympic film and seen how hard they have worked,” Kawase said at a Tokyo news conference Monday. “But I’ve been shocked to learn that women’s basketball has not been recognized and I’ve come to want to introduce these players to the public.”

Kawase is an acclaimed director with multiple international film festival awards to her name. She became the youngest director to win the Camera d’Or at Cannes with her work “Suzaku” in 1997. She also captured the Grand Prix at the festival’s 2007 edition with “The Mourning Forest.”

The Nara native used to be a basketball player herself and competed at the National Sports Festival as a forward when she was in high school.

Kawase and other newly elected board members have only been on the job for a few weeks since their elections, and Kawase said that she would need time to fully understand what would be required of her as chairperson. But one of the biggest tasks she knows she will face is the development of greater public exposure for the WJBL.

“I live in Nara, yet you don’t really know where you can watch a game around there. That’s the status quo,” Kawase said. “In order for us to be recognized, we need to have our league appear in the media much more so that we can be exposed to many more people.

“So we need to deliver that message as a league, and the players will also have to do that individually as well.”

The WJBL has made a thorough change to its board of directors, expanding the number of seats to 15 and bringing in seven women including Kawase. Among them are retired star Natsumi Yabuuchi, who competed at the 2004 Athens Olympics, and Minami Iju, who represented Japan at the 2019 3×3 Asia Cup.

The new board was selected early this month, replacing the previous board, which featured just two women out of 11 positions.

Iju, a former Denso Iris guard who retired after the 2019-20 WJBL season, is the youngest board member at 30 years old and hopes to be able to pay back the league with her experience.

“With the Olympics having been postponed, I decided to retire because I wanted to see what I could do next,” Iju said. “I played for Denso for seven seasons and I’m proud to have represented the team and country. And I’ve wanted to contribute to basketball from a different position. I’m honored to be able to work with a variety of people at the WJBL.”

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