How Popular is Basketball in Japan?

Japan Hachimura
Photo: Japan Basketball

Despite basketball’s status as a B tier sport in Japan, firmly behind baseball and association football (soccer), the Japanese national basketball team has enjoyed success at the FIBA Asia Championships, having won the tournament twice.

They also have qualified for it in all but one of the years the competition has been active. Japan also hosted the contest in 2006 and is scheduled to be the co-hosts in 2023 alongside the Philippines and Indonesia.

While basketball may not enjoy the kind of popularity that baseball receives in Japan, it is a firm favorite at the high school level, both as a participation sport and a spectator sport. Some of the biggest names in Japanese basketball have fanbases that can be traced back to the players’ earliest days in high school teams.

This popularity at the high school level was perhaps epitomized by the hugely successful manga comic, Slam Dunk. Running from 1990 to 1996, with an animated adaptation running from 1993 to 1996, Slam Dunk follows the story of a high school student who joins his school’s basketball team to impress a girl. This starts his journey to becoming an all-star contender in Japan.

Slam Dunk went on to sell over 118 million copies. It won awards, broke records, and its impact on basketball was so significant that the creator was even honored for popularizing the sport in Japan. The adaptations of the series include films, video games, the anime we mentioned above, and even an art exhibition.

Many attribute the decline in the popularity of Japanese basketball to the ending of the manga series. Though the manga’s influence on the sport’s popularity is undeniable, it proved to be short-lived and did not enjoy the lasting success that soccer has seen after the creation of the J League.

As with most professional sports, one area where basketball’s popularity endures is the world of gambling, and Japanese bookmakers are happy to offer odds on the all latest basketball games.

Interest in basketball betting among Japanese bookmakers has been increasing lately, with the Japan-hosted Olympics fast approaching even though having to be postponed lately due to the coronavirus. The top Japanese bookmakers are expecting a surge in interest for the sport, especially with hopes being high that the Japanese team will put in a strong showing at the contest.

Still, basketball’s popularity in Japan has been waning for some time. When the nation hosted the World Basketball Championships in 2006, some games took place in front of half-empty stadiums, with an average attendance for the knock out stages of the tournament being placed at around 70%.

In terms of interest online, Japan ranked 108th in a list of countries searching for basketball on Google between 2007 and 2011. The list only went to 110.

While basketball is still not one of the most popular sports in Japan, it has seen something of a resurgence in recent years. A rebirth that is in no small part thanks to Yuta Tabus and Takuya Kawamura—two of Japan’s most successful and famous basketball players. Kawamura was even on the roster of NBA team, the Phoenix Suns.

This success has been reinforced recently by another successful Japanese player. The recent selection by the NBA’s Washington Wizards of Japan’s Rui Hachimura has created something of a resurgence of interest in the media.

Whether this could lead to a rebirth of basketball in the Japanese consciousness remains to be seen, though so far, there has been nothing to indicate Hachimura’s success will be any longer-lasting than that of Slam Dunk.

Sadly, it seems basketball is not particularly popular in Japan, and the many failed attempts to bring it to the Japanese masses seem to suggest it is destined to remain a B tier sport, living in the shadow of baseball and soccer.