Rui Hachimura made history before ever stepping on an NBA court.
The 6-foot-8 forward became the first player born in Japan to be drafted when the Washington Wizards selected him with the No. 9 overall pick this June. His popularity in his home country is unmatched, making him unique among this year’s rookie class.
“I hope to continue to be the face of the sport in my home country,” Hachimura told ESPN this week.
Hachimura’s status as the favored son of an entire nation made him stand out among the crowd as potentially one of the most impactful rookie endorsers. The Japanese market remains relatively untapped, for both sneaker companies and the NBA as a whole. Hachimura represented a way for one lucky company to make inroads across the Pacific.
As he plays his first season in the NBA, a large contingent of Japanese media follows him around the league, tracking his every move — all while he sports the famed Jordan Brand Jumpman logo from head to toe.
“You’re going to see some things that you’ve never seen from an athlete before, with respect to developing and selling in a new country,” said Hachimura’s agent Jason Ranne.
While the NBA and sneaker companies have worked to make inroads in China for years, the Japanese market presents a different scale and opportunity.
Industry analysts and company projections anticipate that Nike Inc.’s footwear and apparel business in China could outpace the U.S. marketplace within the next 10 years. The sheer size and population difference — 1.4 billion in China versus 128 million in Japan — will always maintain a gap in the markets, with several thousand Nike stores already embedded in mainland China.
Japan, by comparison, currently features only Jordan products in several hundred stores, and Jordan’s overall revenue in Japan is just a fraction of what it is in China or the United States. The company hopes Hachimura can change that, becoming an icon in his homeland who also transcends throughout Asia.
“I think he’s going to take it to another level,” said Gentry Humphrey, Jordan’s VP of footwear. “He’s a perfect complement, and he’s going to help us grow our business internationally.”
Part of that growth is tied to the NBA’s ongoing efforts to grow basketball in Japan, an effort that should be boosted by next summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo.
According to research by the Statista group, basketball participation over a 20-year period has shown only gradual growth in Japan. In 2011, 3.5% of the nation played the sport. The group found a “slight increase” in 2016 to 4.3%.
“During the exhibition games in Japan preparing for the World Cup this summer, I saw a lot of young fans,” Hachimura said. “That made me excited to see that basketball is growing in my home country.”
The NBA has rapidly ramped up activations, partnerships and events in the region. For the first time in 16 years, Japan hosted a pair of NBA preseason games this fall. Rather than rely on YouTube videos, as Hachimura did as a child, young fans have access to live games thanks to the NBA’s partnership with Rakuten, which has been streaming games in the country since 2017.
“I see enormous opportunity in this market,” Adam Silver said during his press conference last month.
Over the past two years, retired players have visited Japan for viewing parties, skills clinics and community events, helping increase subscribers in the NBA’s streaming package sevenfold over the past two years.
“Promotion of the NBA in Japan is expanding the fanbase of basketball as a whole,” Makoto Arima, president of Rakuten’s Media & Sports Company, said. “It’s also contributing to a leveling up in the quality of play — being able to see live action from some of the best teams in the world.”
As Hachimura found, the media frenzy now following his every move comes with an expected payoff. This season, the Wizards launched their own dedicated Japanese website, Twitter account and podcast for the region.
During the 1990s, the popular anime series “Slam Dunk” introduced the game to a generation of young players throughout the region. Now Hachimura hopes to be the real-life version of that, sparking interest in basketball for the next generation of young players in Japan as he continues to succeed at the highest level of the sport.
“He is literally educating an entire country about basketball,” Ranne said. “From facilities, to coaching, to the rules. The phrase ‘double-double’ wasn’t really a recognized or known term in Japan until after his first regular-season game. That little example alone is the microcosm of what we’re experiencing here. It can be mind-blowing at times.”
Because of Hachimura’s status as a national icon, there was a unique competition to land him as a sneaker endorser. It was a process that began long before Hachimura walked across the stage at Barclays Center on draft night, and it’s one he took seriously.
“I was looking for a unique and special partnership that was true to my background,” Hachimura said.
Initially, seven companies presented to Hachimura, including basketball staples like Nike subsidiary Jordan Brand and multiple China-based companies. But, because of Hachimura’s background, that group also included a pair of basketball outsiders.
Both Asics and Mizuno, who don’t currently sponsor any NBA players, presented extensive marketing plans, product concepts and pitches around making Hachimura the face of their company.
Hachimura wore Mizuno sneakers throughout high school, and Ranne said the company “made a really great presentation.” Based a little over 200 miles south of his hometown of Toyama, the company presented the potential for him to put a Japanese brand on the map in the sport, a compelling premise for the 21-year-old.
However, Hachimura decided to sign with Jordan Brand, which offered a blend of proven performance products, marketing ability around the world and an opportunity to join a smaller stable of players within the larger Nike umbrella.
“They were making him the first and only Japanese Jordan athlete,” Ranne said. “They were focused on making him a global ambassador, and not just a Japan or North America ambassador.”
They also had an ace in the hole: Michael Jordan himself.
In addition to highlighting the company’s upcoming designs, innovations and marketing ideas in store for Hachimura during their May 10 pitch meeting, the Jordan team pulled out a mid-presentation surprise. “The Boss” was calling in to personally express his desire for Hachimura to join his Jordan Brand family.
“I could not stop thanking him for the opportunity,” he said. “It was really impressive.”
Through seven games this season, Hachimura is averaging 12.6 PPG (seventh among rookies) and 6.0 RPG (fourth). He’s done so while lacing up his own red and navy colorways of the new Air Jordan 34, accented by the flags of both Benin and Japan on the underside of each tongue, representing the native countries of his father and mom.
“It shows who I am,” he said. “It shows my unique background, which is important to me.”
In addition to the player exclusive sneakers, Hachimura was also featured in Jordan’s new “UNITE” commercial, alongside fellow newcomers Zion Williamson, Jayson Tatum and WNBA player Kia Nurse. Clad in a Jumpman logo shirt reading “TOKYO,” he’s flanked by a diverse young mix of multi-racial and Asian descent players in the spot.
“UNITE celebrates a generation coming together to create impact that goes beyond the game,” said Sean Tresvant VP of Global Brand Marketing, Jordan Brand. “He’s uniting a country and generation around basketball culture and inspiring them to believe in their uniqueness and the power of coming together.”
While having Hachimura wearing the Jumpman is important to Jordan Brand throughout this NBA season, the bigger moment for the company — and for Hachimura himself — will come next summer, when Tokyo hosts the Summer Olympics.
The addition of the new 3-on-3 event in tandem with the traditional 5-on-5 basketball tournament is expected to escalate interest in the game among Japanese youth. As the host, Japan will be participating for the first time since 1976. Hachimura, who played for Japan at the 2019 FIBA World Cup, is expected to be the star attraction, and making the most of that Olympic spotlight was one of the priorities of his new deal with Jordan.
“They had a very good plan for me in Japan and internationally,” he said.
While exact details are still under wraps, the brand is planning out a variety of product capsule launches, experiential pop-up locations for consumers, and unique ways to tell Hachimura’s story in conjunction with the Olympic timeline in Japan.
“Obviously, we create great shoes that perform, but people respect those shoes when you have great stories,” said Humphrey. “He’s going to have some phenomenal stories for us to veneer on a product that people I think are going to love.”
While there’s expected to be tangible signs of Hachimura’s impact throughout the early stages of his career, the real imprint of his potential might not be fully realized until the close of his NBA journey.
“It’ll be something to look at two years from now, and then 15 years from now,” Ranne said. “I’m a firm believer that when you see a player like this, there’s a generation of future players that happens, solely because of this moment. Because of him, they’ll focus on basketball.”