Rui Hachimura’s recent drafting to the Washington Wizards sparked an NBA boom in Japan, generating an increase of basketball viewership on the archipelago. Being the first Japanese player selected in the 1st round of an NBA Draft, Hachimura presents a unique opportunity for the NBA, Washington and Japan to engage in sports diplomacy.
Over 100 Japanese media outlets were present at Hachimura’s first press conference as an NBA player in July 2019. Rakuten, the company that holds basketball broadcasting rights in Japan, reported a 30% increase in viewer subscriptions in November. Furthermore, one month after the draft, more Hachimura jerseys were sold at the NBA Store Japan than the next-best-selling player ever sold.
The “international” city of Washington has been touted as the perfect place for the Japanese star to be located. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver stated that the District of Columbia has the advantage of an extremely visible international media, best placed to depict Hachimura’s “NBA dream” on Japanese screens.
In October 2019, the Washington Wizards became the first NBA team to sign an international marketing agreement with Japan when they reached a seven-figure deal with the Japan-based Nippon Electric Company (NEC). This has led to the creation of an all-Japanese Wizards marketing platform, which includes a website, Twitter account and the use of kanji characters when posting Hachimura’s name.
For the city of Washington, Hachimura’s arrival means an influx of Japanese culture and tourism. Dulles Airport has become a hub for inbound flights from Japan as 6 flights a day arrive from Narita Airport. Stubhub reports that Wizards ticket sales in Japan have increased by 133%, which has led to more Japanese fans at Capital One Arena. This increased Japanese presence in the federal district allows for an exposure to American culture.
As the US capital, Washington has been the focal point of the US-Japan relationship for many years. The city is home to many Japanese advocacy and public diplomacy organizations that facilitate the integration of Japanese culture. Groups like the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA and the Japan America Society have established presences in Washington as a means of facilitating exchange. Washington is also home to the National Cherry Blossom Festival, an annual 4-week event commemorating the 1912 gifting of 3,000 cherry trees to the city by the Mayor of Tokyo.
Rui Hachimura’s arrival at the Washington Wizards has generated a buzz both on and off the court in the United States and Japan, and has created the opportunity for Washington-Japan relations to deepen. Washington is the perfect home for the new face of Japanese basketball.
Joshua Martelli is a participant of the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. He is a second year undergraduate student at the University of Western Australia studying a Bachelor of Arts, double-majoring in Political Science, International Relations and Asian Studies.