Why Basketball is a Slam Dunk in Japan
If you have been following international youth basketball competitions over the past few years, particularly the FIBA U19 Basketball World Cup in 2017, you likely noticed a standout player from Japan. A swingman with great leaping ability and broad shoulders, able to shoot from three-point range and attack the basket with post-up moves. He averaged 20.6 points per game, 11 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game in that tournament and along with Canada's RJ Barrett, was undoubtedly one of the stand out players among his peers.
We are, of course, talking about Rui Hachimura, the biggest basketball prospect that Japan has ever produced. The expectations will be enormous for Hachimura as he gets ready to make his debut for the senior national team in the upcoming third window of the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 Qualifiers. The hopes of Japanese basketball fans will no doubt be on his shoulders, but for fans from elsewhere in the world there is surely curiosity around their star player. Japan is not a nation historically associated with producing individual prospects at the most elite levels of the sport, but it has a fascinating basketball culture and Hachimura's story is an interesting way to explore this landscape. His father hails from Benin, West Africa and along with the familial genetic traits, he also passed on to his son a name that sounded like Louis: too difficult for Japanese pronunciation, thus they needed to transliterate it.
The peculiar thing is, the kanji (ideogram) that stands for Rui also means base, as in baseball, Japan's most popular sport, and Rui Hachimura began his athletic career playing baseball in primary school. Ten years later, he's close to being drafted into the NBA. After a standout NCAA tournament performance, he will stay another season at Gonzaga and now that he has learned the language and grown accustomed to the American lifestyle, he'll most certainly be the team leader. After that, he'll declare for the NBA Draft. With scouts projecting him to be a first round pick. He would be the first Japanese player ever to be selected.
But there's more from where Hachimura comes from. Yuta Watanabe has just finished his fourth year with the George Washington Colonials and has also already represented the Japanese senior men's national team. He will be trying to impress NBA scouts during the next Summer League and his plan B is to play professionally in Europe. Behind them waits Chikara Tanaka, 15 years old and already on the verge of the national team. We're still a long way from the generation of football geniuses that is spreading through Europe's most famed clubs, from Keisuke Honda to Shinji Kagawa, but the Japanese basketball scene is starting to make some noise. So where did this generation of basketball players come from?
Although in terms of sheer numbers (when looking from the perspective of global sports) relatively few people play basketball in Japan, the country has contributed massively to spread the sport all over the world, and in a very unusual way. Official data says that Slam Dunk, a manga by Takehiko Inoue published from 1990 to 1996, has sold more than 121 million copies - a firm grip on a top 10 spot in front of football-themed Captain Tsubasa.
According to a 2012 poll, Slam Dunk is also the second most popular manga among Japanese readers, and boasts the most beloved quote, made by captain Takenori Akagi: "If you give up, the game's already over". Even aside from these staggering numbers, it is literally impossible to calculate how many boys and girls, all over the world, started playing basketball after being inspired by the story of redheaded protagonist, Hanamichi Sakuragi.
The Reasons Behind This Success
Cosplay, animated series, movies, action figures and every kind of gadget - manga culture keeps a comic relevant even many years after first being published. The story, though, must stand out among thousands of others and stave off fierce competition: something like hitting the jackpot, statistically speaking. Aside from the author's drawing style and how relatable his characters are, to successfully pass the test of time, a story needs to rely on a powerful narrative: it has to be a masterpiece.
By the time the first edition of Slam Dunk was published, basketball in Japan was a tiny dot on a very large map. Spokon, though, was a popular genre. It's a particular kind of shonen, a manga targeting young adults, revolving around sports. We've seen many of them in television shows all over Europe, from Attacker YOU! to Aim to the Ace, and the iconic Captain Tsubasa - the main reason behind Japan's recent and burning love for football.
In order to please his editor Shonen Jump - who was very doubtful of the potential for such a low-key sport to appeal to Japanese readers - Takehiko Inoue masked the story. In the opening chapters, basketball becomes simply the background to a more common teenage story, slice of life style: school life, friendships, rivalries and romance. The opening scenes are truly memorable, starring poor Hanamichi Sakuragi getting rejected by girl number 50.
The narrative mask achieves its goal. Inoue's characters are so well designed and so human that the reader keeps following the manga even when the action moves to the basketball court. Slam Dunk is built upon a strong foundation. There's a huge cast of secondary characters, from Hanamichi's rowdy friends to the dangerous opponents that Shohoku faces every game. Their role is to widen the story's horizon: key moments during matches are often brought out by the audience's reaction, just like a choir would do, in exceedingly expressive drawings. Nonetheless, no single detail is left to chance. Inoue gives us an in-depth analysis for every one of these characters. See Kaede Rukawa who faces his nemesis Eiji Sawakita, Sannoh Kogyo's best player, in the last Shohoku game. A lengthy flashback acquaints us with Sawakita's story, way more thoroughly than the background of the main character, Hanamichi Sakuragi.
Slam Dunk is also one of the greatest coming-of-age stories ever written in a manga format. Every step of the maturation process is easy to recognize in the narrative arc of Hanamichi and his comrades: challenge, fall, redemption. Inoue is a master at smoothly tweaking his style to suit the more tragic moments (like Hisashi Mitsui's background) without losing the irony that runs through the entire plot.
Like every great story, Slam Dunk is also a story of conflicts, of opposites. Against oneself and one's alter ego, in basketball games this is often personified by the opponent who plays the same role. Hanamichi squares off against Ryonan's Fukuda, Kainan's Nobunaga Kyota and Sannoh Kogyo's gigantic Mikio. Every one of them represents a particular trait of his own personality, and in defeating them, Hanamichi's ends up a more rounded individual.
Kaede Rukawa is obsessed with victory and locks horns against the prodigy Akira Sendoh: a sensational talent, but with a laid-back attitude. Akagi and Uozumi are so similar, they could be twins. They both play center and give each other a hard time in the paint. Nonetheless, the two couldn't be more different. Akagi is a chosen one. He excels at school and in sports, a natural leader and a gifted athlete, already targeting high-level colleges. Contrastingly, Uozumi owes everything to his height. You can't teach height, says his coach, quoting Red Auerbach, but everything else in Uozumi basketball's life is a struggle. He needs to train hard in order to move his heavy frame properly, he needs to smooth out his rough attitude or his teammates won't listen to him. He comes from humble beginnings and has humble ambitions, accepting a modest job as a chef right after the end of his school years. Reunited by their mutual respect, Akagi will learn from Uozumi how valuable sacrifice is, and the dangers of flying too high.
Inoue also depicts a class conflict, somewhat hidden to westerners' eyes, but a very sensitive subject for Japanese readers. Shohoku's players come from 'low-level' families and live in the suburbs. Aside from flawless Akagi and Kogure, they all flaunt a rebel look: unorthodox haircuts, earrings and casually-worn uniforms. In comparison with Kainan's Shinichi Maki or the whole Sannoh Kogyo's squad, perfect in both clothing and behaviour, the difference is striking. Unfortunately, Japan is often thought of as having an ancient fear for what is different, and the usual answer is alienation. But a 'troublemaker' like Sakuragi, in Inoue's mind, is nothing but a kid with bad luck and a good heart. His struggles lead towards redemption, as he strives to carve himself a space in a hostile society. If school, a metaphor for the “adult's world”, doesn't offer him any future, he will fight for his hopes and dreams on a neutral ground, where every social difference is leveled: the basketball court.
Above everything else, though, Slam Dunk is a testament to the love of basketball. Inoue was able to anticipate the explosion of the NBA on to the global market, with the iconic Michael Jordan as his ambassador. Particularly following the performance of the original USA Dream Team, basketball was showcased on the global stage. He based some of his drawings on real NBA photos, shot from courtside, and many of his characters are caricatures of NBA stars from this time period, starting from their appearance and attitude.
Sakuragi, the most obvious comparison, is a Dennis Rodman doppelgänger. A genius with no respect for rules, a hot temper, larger-than-life personality, weak fundamentals but an unstoppable rebounder. Even his jersey sports the same number, 10, that Rodman had in his Detroit Pistons days. Akagi looks like Patrick Ewing, sporting a crew-cut and a soldier-like persona. Like Ewing himself, Akagi's career was all hard work and no prize. Sharpshooter Hisashi Mitsui boasts a shooting form ripped straight from Jeff Hornacek - but with Reggie Miller's accuracy, whilst playmaker Ryota Miyagi resembles the feistiest point guards that terrorized defenses across the 1980s and 1990s: Kevin Johnson and Isiah Thomas. Similarly, Kaede Rukawa is an early-MJ clone: band on the forearm, slick moves to the basket and the very same obsession for victory - an individual feat, before a team goal.
References are generous among Shohoku's opponents too. The star player of Kainan, whose logo resembles the Lakers emblem, is Shinichi Maki, a legend in Kanagawa prefecture. He's comparable to Magic Johnson both in style and charisma. Jun Uozumi, Akagi's toughest rival, could very well personify Alonzo Mourning and Akira Sendoh is the same kind of versatile swingman, a jack-of-all-trades, that Scottie Pippen was in his prime. Kenji Fujima is Shoyo's floor general, who combines a clean face with a tidy game: he almost immediately rings a bell, namely John Stockton.
We could go on at length with such comparisons, more or less disguised by Inoue's drawings, but there's an even more interesting scenario. What if the key plays in Slam Dunk were a tribute to historical NBA moments? Sakuragi, as an absolute beginner, puts his team in jeopardy when he inadvertently gifts the ball to opponent Takasago, in the final seconds of the game against Kainan. To an NBA enthusiast of those days, that scene would have recalled the Pistons' Isiah Thomas and his ill-advised pass, caught by Celtics' Larry Bird to secure a key win.
And what about the shoot-out between Rukawa and Sendoh? Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins put up such a show to decide a game 7, during the 1988 NBA Playoffs. And so on: Shinichi Maki, Kainan's point guard, at some point starts directing traffic from a post-up position, in order to destabilize Shohoku's defense. Such a move was concocted by coach Don Nelson for his playmaker Paul Pressey. From that moment, he became known as the first point forward ever.
Every one of these clues adds to the bigger picture: a picture that's all about love for the game of basketball, and faithfulness to its principles - and those of any sport. The kids in Slam Dunk are able to dunk the ball like an NBA star, not something you'd necessarily expect from the average high school student, but hyperbole is a vital part of spokon. At least, Inoue doesn't draw plays that defy the laws of physics, as we see in Captain Tsubasa and Attacker YOU!, neither does he shape his characters' skills like they are superpowers: his rightful heir, Kuroko no Basket, adopts this approach.
Slam Dunk celebrates basketball, both in the joy of victory and in the cruelty of defeat. Shohoku's path in the National Tournament closely resembles the NCAA tournament, the famous March Madness where anything can happen. Like the most incredible of Cinderellas, Shohoku eliminates the number one seed Sannoh Kogyo, but midnight comes sooner than expected. Only one page is needed to describe the rest of the tournament. Exhausted by the match played the day before, coach Anzai's squad surrenders to a much weaker opponent. Sakuragi, injured, doesn't take part in the game, but ends up more passionate than ever about basketball. This was a swift finale that spelled the end for Slam Dunk in 1996, at the very apex of its success, without indulging in any half-hearted sequels.
It's an ending that effectively sends Inoue's message to millions of kids. In sports, many things aren't under our control, and despite our emotional connection and investment in particular teams and their story, defeat is a much more common outcome than victory. Even in terms of our own participation, despite our best efforts and intentions, there is no certainties to the outcome. It is this tragedy, along with many other reasons, that makes sport beautiful.
Basketball in Japan
The whole of Japan, for a population of 126 million people, counts only 30 playgrounds. This should give an idea of how pick-up basketball culture has not become a mainstream activity on Japanese soil. As a matter of fact, many street basketball players are foreigners, gaijin, often Americans who are working abroad. Even in a megalopolis like Tokyo, finding a place to play is no easy task. There is the beautiful Yoyogi Park, which hosts many tournaments on its two courts, and you can go to the Jordan Court, branded and launched by His Airness back in 2004. It's hidden among trees and construction sites though, and in order to shoot a corner three, you need to climb onto the fences. In Komazawa, the basket is attached to a flyover, next to a pedestrianised square. If the ball bounces the wrong way after a rebound, it goes straight down the street.
Moving to other regions, things get even more difficult. In Sapporo, the capital of the North in Hokkaido island, there is one playground but it has been built beneath the railways. To reach the basket, you need to dribble between the pillars. Here and there, inside the many green areas scattered throughout bigger cities, one may find a rim with a couple of white lines sketched around. Nine times out of ten, though, it will be deserted, just like the playground where Haruko taught Hanamichi the fundamentals of basketball in Slam Dunk.
Sports, and the concept of games as a whole, plays a very different role in Japanese culture compared to the Western world. Given the frantic pace of their lives, an average office worker won't have much time to invest in physical activities. If they choose to, they'll likely prefer a more socially-validating sport like golf, which is rising in popularity, to bond with his colleagues after work. Amateur clubs are also very rare, so one of the best ways to play basketball in Japan is to rent a gym with co-workers, once or twice a week.
The professional domestic league, recently rebranded as the B-League, hosts both local talents and American expats (among them is Milton Henderson, who changed his name in JR Sakuragi to obtain citizenship). It is fair to say that in terms of attendance and viewership figures, the league has yet to impact mainstream culture in the same way as the biggest global basketball leagues.
But we have to remember this is still far ahead of where Japanese basketball was before the age of Slam Dunk. Without Takehiko Inoue's manga, basketball in Japan wouldn't even be on the map. Instead, it's now one of the most popular sports in school clubs, and it's a clear number one for girls. It's not by accident that Makoto Shinkai's worldwide blockbuster, Your Name, depicts a female basketball scene. Japanese culture doesn't necessarily have the same conceptions of sport as a professional activity but its importance within education and for young people is accepted.Therefore every school holds a wide variety of sports clubs, following the American blueprint.
Competition between academic institutions is fierce, just like in Slam Dunk, and the audience easily grows attached to young athletes. Sometimes, they follow school tournaments with more enthusiasm than B-League games. When leading Meisei High School to three consecutive national titles, Rui Hachimura gathered 10,000 people in a packed Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium. Looking at the pictures, it almost seems like you can spot Hanamichis' rowdy friends rooting for Shohoku, the bottles filled with pachinko coins to make more noise, the “Mitsui burning soul” banner up in the air for everyone to see.
Japanese basketball appears to be at the dawn of a new age. Looking towards the FIBA Basketball World Cup 2019 in China and the Tokyo 2020 Olympics taking place on home soil, fans of Japanese basketball will be looking to Rui Hachimura, Yuta Watanabe and Chikara Tanaka to lead the national team. Hachimura in particular has already proven himself for the junior national teams and has racked up many highlights along the way.
For women, the future is even brighter. They've already won three straight FIBA Asia Cups, and at Rio 2016 they fought bravely against the seemingly unbeatable Team USA. Akatsuki Five is how the Japanese national teams are called at home: “the five of the dawn”, reinforcing the idea of a new wave of stars.
We are now talking about kids born between the 1990s and 2000. They have grown up into a basketball culture deeply affected by Slam Dunk. Whilst some have likely only received second-hand knowledge of the manga, they have no doubt still been impacted. It's no strange thing that a manga would penetrate so deep in the social fabric of this country. The Western world is realizing just now how wide and influential nerd and geek communities are, whereas Japan has been dealing with otaku culture - and the alienation/integration issues related to it for at least 30 years. This is a country where a parliament member may happen to quote Neon Genesis Evangelion in his speech, or a minister can wear an Evangelion-themed tie.
As we mentioned earlier though, Slam Dunk's contribution to basketball should be measured on an even broader scale; a global one. Still today, almost 30 years after it was first published, anywhere in the world when a kid starts reading a tankobon signed by Takehiko Inoue, the story works its magic. They go on the same journey so many other readers have been before. They empathize with Hanamichi. His desire to redeem himself and his unlucky love for Haruko, they hate cocky Kaede Rukawa with all their strength, they grow fond of captain Akagi's 'rough' manners and they envy Hisashi Mitsui's outcast appeal. Then, just like we see with our protagonist, Sakuragi, that person decides to learn from scratch how to shoot and dribble.
All you need, in the end, is just a ball, a hoop and a reason to start.