One day when the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us, I hope to walk the streets of Tokyo and see Toronto Raptors jerseys littering the crowds.

OK, fine, maybe that's probably a pipe dream.

Basketball is still very much in its infancy in Japan. It's at most the third most popular team sports, well behind baseball and soccer. Frankly, it's not too dissimilar from Canadian basketball just a few decades ago when hockey and baseball dominated the country. In Japan, basketball is seen as more of a game than something to be taken seriously by the public.

"It's popular to play but it hasn't gained that citizenship or respect culturally, as a major sport," said Chris Sasaki, a Japanese NBA broadcaster and former Japanese basketball player. "It's a sport, not for your career, you do it doing elementary, middle school, or high school, but that's it."

That, however, is slowly beginning to change thanks to Japanese native Yuta Watanabe and the Toronto Raptors.

Since cracking the Raptors' roster in training camp, Watanabe has quickly become a basketball sensation both in Canada and Japan. Fans have fallen in love with his story, that of an overlooked four-year college prospect who never gave up on his dream to become an NBA player and preserved against the odds before getting a chance with the Raptors this offseason. 

"Yuta had to pay his dues and everything and I think a lot of Japanese people have kind of like they really relate to Yuta’s work ethic," Sasaki said. "The more I talk about Yuta and how he gained trust from the Toronto Raptors 2019 World Championship team, it's a great story and I think a lot of Japanese fans are really gravitating towards it."

It's why Watanabe has once again jumped to the top of Japan's NBA jersey sales list this season and why the Raptors — for the first time in franchise history — haven't just made their debut appearance on Japans most sold NBA jerseys list, but they're leading the league in jerseys sold, the NBA announced Tuesday night. It is the first time the Raptors or a Raptors player have been in the top 10 most sold jerseys in Japan since tracking began in 2017.

Watanabe fits the mould of the idyllic Japanese basketball player, Sasaki said. He works hard, doesn't give up easily, and plays with a high level of basketball IQ that has impressed his North American coaches.

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"Growing up in Japan it's like a virtue like we're told to be modest, hardworking, diligent, and everything he's shown on the court kind of ticks all those boxes," Sasaki said.

That work ethic has been with Watanabe since his youngest days growing up in Japan. His parents, two former Japanese basketball players, taught him to perfect his shooting form on an electric pole outside their home, Sasaki said. The young Watanabe would go out with his father and shoot on the pole for hours knowing that if he missed the pole or didn't hit it perfectly straight on, he'd have to run to recover or rebound the ball.

It's a nice story of determination, Sasaki said, but one he hopes other young Japanese basketball players won't have to go through.

"That's how difficult it is to play basketball," Sasaki said. "I can't find a park to shoot a hoop, there's no driveways, we're so cramped up in the city. There's no basketball hoops."

The hope for Sasaki and Japan's growing basketball community is that Watanabe and fellow countryman Rui Hachimura of the Washington Wizards can help pave the way for another generation of Japanese basketball players. The two Japanese forwards bring representation to a sport that went 14 years — from 2004 when Yuta Tabuse became Japan's first NBA player with the Phoenix Suns to Watanabe's debut in 2018 with the Memphis Grizzlies — without a single NBA player from Japan. With their successes and the birth of Japan's professional basketball league, the B.League, in 2015, the sport has slowly begun to gain respect in Japan.

"I think that kind of paradigm shift is just happening," Sasaki said. "I'm more looking to five years from now, 10 years from now, but I think it will be a huge difference."

So maybe some time down the road seeing at least a handful of Raptors jerseys in Japan won't be all that unrealistic.

Further Reading

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Doling out grades for the Raptors' defence at the halfway mark of the season

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