20180322 NCAA Round Three Media Day MBB

At every turn, Japanese media follow Gonzaga's Rui Hachimura to report on the country's basketball phenom. 

If you type in the kanji "八村塁” on YouTube, you'll be greeted by videos with tens of thousands of views showcasing highlights of Gonzaga forward Rui Hachimura with “Gonzaga” prominently displayed across his chest in almost every video.

As Hachimura continues to become more famous in Japan, he has done so growing the name “Gonzaga” along with him, giving the university a unique exposure to the country.

“In Rui’s first year [at Gonzaga], when I’d walk around wearing a Gonzaga sweatshirt, people didn’t know what G-O-N-Z-A-G-A meant,” said David Sheppard, president of GU's alumni chapter in Japan.  "It was a pretty crazy progression as Rui became a known commodity. Walking around people who knew nothing about basketball, [they] would recognize the association between ‘Gonzaga’ and ‘Rui.’ ”

Basketball is a growing sport in Japan. The country has an established high school basketball tournament called the “Winter Cup,” which Hachimura won all three of his years in high school at Melisi High.

The country is also home to pro basketball players, including former Zags Robert Sacre, a 2012 GU grad and Ira Brown, who graduated in 2009. Brown has especially become a fixture of Japanese basketball, playing for his club team and alongside Hachimura for the Japanese National team, which has had unprecedented  success, including  a win over Australia with Hachimura leading the way.

Even with some established basketball in the country, Japan is looking for a star to take Japanese basketball to the next level. Japan has had successful basketball players before, including Yuta Tabuse, who played for the Phoenix Suns, and Yuta Watanabe, who is currently with the Memphis Grizzles organization. But none have the potential of Hachimura.

This has created an unmatched excitement for Hachimura in Japan, which is only further fueled by his play this year. Highlights of his play have become regularly broadcast in Japan, making the name “Rui Hachimura,” which had been common among the Japanese basketball communities for years, known by the masses in Japan.

Sheppard, a 2013 graduate of GU, spent three years in Japan from 2015-2018 and witnessed how Hachimura’s emergence changed what it was like to be associated with GU in Japan.

 “When I got [to Japan], Gonzaga was nothing.” Sheppard said. “I’d talk about my alma mater because I love Gonzaga and it would fall on deaf ears, but once Rui came to prominence, my colleagues who didn’t know much about basketball would say ‘I saw your university on the news last night.’ ”

The brand recognition that has been created between Hachimura and GU is unique in Japan. GU is now one of the most well-known universities, almost recognized at the same level as prestigious academic colleges such as Harvard and Stanford. 

However, unlike those schools, not much is known about the what GU has to offer other than basketball.

“When people ask about my Gonzaga shirt, it's mainly just about Rui,” Sheppard said. “I think that is where there is an information gap. Most people there know the name Rui Hachimura and know he plays for a place called Gonzaga, but they don’t really know what Gonzaga is besides that it’s a university in America.”

While the masses in Japan still only know GU as Hachimura’s school, there are some in Japan who are well aware of the school. The Gonzaga Alumni chapter in Japan consists of around 70-100 former Zags, many of which are basketball fans, including Sheppard, who has been an avid Zag basketball fan all his life.

Basketball has been at the center of the chapter's meetups, such as attending one of Sacre's games. They also have also had yearly meetup of about 10-25 people in Tokyo to celebrate Gonzaga Day — with Sheppard hooking up his laptop to a TV to watch the Zags game.

With an increased audience in Japan due to Hachimura, GU's outreach has seen some increase as the English Learning Center (ELC) and its English as a Second Language (ESL) program offer prospective students from Japan a reason more than just basketball to come to Spokane. 

Sota Igawa, a big basketball fan from Osaka, Japan, was looking to come to the U.S. to study English. Among the universities he was considering, GU satisfied the most factors he wanted in a U.S. university.

“I like to watch and play basketball,” Igawa said. “I talked to my father’s friend in Seattle about which universities I should go to and he mentioned Gonzaga was on the West Coast and easier to go home.” 

Igawa is not alone in coming to Gonzaga from Japan. According to Li Yang, the director of the English Language Center, there are currently 14 students in the ESL programs at GU, with four coming from Japan, the largest supplier of students to the program.

Hachimura, who was in the ESL program for his first year-and-a-half at GU, is well known to students in the program and has come to events and spoken to classes within the program.

The story of Hachimura's time in ESL is one that program wants to be known. After some media articles misconstrued the process of how he came to learn English — citing his consumption of American television and music — the ELC wants to make sure people, especially those in Japan, know what they did to teach him and how much work Hachimura has put in while at GU.

“He worked and studied hard at our center,” Yang said. “He went through our classes and tutoring center for a year-and-a-half and learned well through finding books he enjoyed reading.” 

Now able to do TV interviews in English, Hachimura displays what he has learned at GU and in doing so, inspires some in Japan to do the same.

“When I was in Japan, I met three high school students who played basketball and look up to Rui," Yang said. “They said, ‘We can’t play as well as Rui but we want to speak English as well as him.’ ”

Much of Japan might not fully grasp all that GU is besides basketball, but the exposure from Hachimura on the court has caused a bump in traffic on the Gonzaga.edu website.

In data provided by Gonzaga Web Content Strategist Jeff Bunch, sessions to Gonzaga.edu webpages in Japan have seen a 51 percent increase over the last six months when compared to the prior six-month period.

This includes a spike of 95 sessions on Nov. 22, the day after GU won the Maui Jim Maui Invitational and Hachimura was named tournament MVP. In addition, Japan’s 4,399 sessions onto the GU website in the last 12 months represent the highest mark among non-English speaking countries and the fourth-most sessions overall by country.

The challenge is to keep this interest as Hachimura is only at GU for a limited time before he goes to the NBA and shifts focus away from GU.

“Keeping attention is the fight we have to think about, because as soon as Rui goes to the NBA that is what his name will be associated with” Yang said. 

With the biggest star in Japanese basketball residing in Spokane, GU has meant more in Japan than it ever has and probably ever will. With Hachimura's star continuing to rise and the NCAA Tournament approaching, GU could become the country's darling in March once again.

“America became aware of Gonzaga in 1999 during their Cinderella run,” Sheppard said. “In Japan, they don’t have that basketball culture and with their one charismatic star that is succeeding on an international scale, Gonzaga has an identity there ... It would be good for people here to understand the gravity of what is going on in Japan.”

Trevor Bond is a staff writer. 

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