The game changer for men’s basketball in Japan

Japanese national athletes SHINOYAMA Ryusei and TSUJI Naoto
Japanese national athletes SHINOYAMA Ryusei and TSUJI Naoto

SHINOYAMA and TSUJI eye Tokyo 2020 as chance to transform the sport of basketball after the country's last appearance in the Olympic Games 44 years ago

Tokyo 2020 will be the first Olympic Games for the Japan men’s national basketball team since the Montreal 1976 Games. We interviewed two players on the national basketball team — point guard SHINOYAMA Ryusei and TSUJI Naoto, who has been on the team since 2013 — to ask them about recent developments in Japanese men’s basketball as well as their aspirations for the upcoming Olympic Games.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the professional basketball league matches in Japan were terminated midway through last season and the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 were postponed. However, the time away from basketball turned out to be meaningful for these two players as it reignited their love for basketball.

SHINOYAMA Ryusei

Last season was tremendously fulfilling for us, but the league decided to call off the season halfway through due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To a certain extent, I had expected the cancellation, as well as the postponement of the Olympic Games in the summer.

TSUJI Naoto

When I heard the news about the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Games, I was like, “Oh, just as I’d thought.” Personally, I was able to see the postponement in a positive light because I had a major injury and the extra year would give me time to start again.

Shinoyama

When we resumed practice, I felt relieved. I had never been away from basketball for such a long time, so I was able to play with a fresh mind.

Tsuji

When [basketball practice] resumed, it truly felt like starting over again. For the first time in years, I felt truly excited to be able to play basketball. So, maybe the time away from the sport was meaningful as it reignited how much I loved the sport. Come to think of it, I had been doing all I could as a basketball player during the lockdown period.

SHINOYAMA Ryusei was called into Japan’s national team for the first time in 2016
SHINOYAMA Ryusei was called into Japan’s national team for the first time in 2016
Tokyo 2020

The two first met on court as high school players on opposing teams. Their well-coordinated play as national team members is attributed to their close relationship and mutual support off the court.

Shinoyama

We first met when we were high school students. My school team played practice games against his school team several times a year, and we were often matched up against each other, but I didn’t have any clear impression of him at the time.

Tsuji

My first impression of him was that he was a really quick player - but only when playing on the left side. He’s really fast on the left side (laughs).

Shinoyama

I haven’t changed much since then. It’s really been fun since we started playing for the same professional team. I’m the point guard and he’s the shooting guard; we’re in perfect alignment. I’ve always felt that he’s right there where I want him to be.

Tsuji

He has been the most dependable player on the team ever since he joined us. He accepts everything, and nothing seems to faze him. He has become even more dependable since he was selected for the national team (laughs).

Shinoyama

When we play for the national team, I always ask the staff to put me in the same room as Tsuji. You may not think so, but I’m actually not very good at adjusting to new people or environments, so when I was first called up, I struggled to settle in the national team. Tsuji is the kind of person that brightens up the atmosphere of the team. I used to follow him around everywhere; I wouldn’t take a bath unless I was with him and I would always wait for him to go to the cafeteria, however hungry I was.

Tsuji

When I ask him, “Shall we go eat?” he immediately replies, “Yes,” all set and ready, and I’d realise how hungry he was (laughs).

Shinoyama

I’m able to go to the cafeteria or the bath without feeling tense now, but at first, I started getting butterflies in my stomach from the night before I had to join up with the team. I’m surprisingly shy around new people (laughs).

For us, the Olympic Games was [something to] watch, not to take part in.

Shinoyama

(About the Olympic Games) To be honest, I’ve always preferred watching Japanese athletes and sports that I usually don’t watch other than basketball. I imagine the efforts they put in the four years leading up the Games, and just immerse myself in the excitement of the sports festival along with the rest of the world.

Tsuji

I enthusiastically watched swimming and athletics more than basketball. As I watched swimmers put on a spurt before the finish line while holding their breath, I would stop breathing myself too (laughs).

Shinoyama

Japan’s national basketball team had no chance of taking part in the Olympic Games. When we were students, we were a far cry from being a top team with world-class players. We dreamt of joining the national team, but to fight on the world stage at the Games was just unimaginable.

Tsuji

We were on a lower playing field, and set our sights more on winning in Asia. Aiming for the Olympic Games was unthinkable.

Shinoyama

Maybe we became aware of the Olympics a couple of years ago after winning the World Cup preliminary rounds, which served as a qualifying event for the Olympic Games. We felt pressured to win through the qualifiers no matter what. [Then] competing at the Olympic Games finally became a reality.

Tsuji

Honestly speaking, when we had first lost in a qualifier, the first thought that came to our minds was about the Olympic Games. Whether or not we compete in the Olympics will make a difference to the future of Japan’s basketball community, and we were very much aware of our responsibility and the outcome. When HACHIMURA Rui joined the national team - enabling us to push our way through the qualifiers - we all became even more aware of the Olympic Games.

Shinoyama

Once you watch basketball, you’ll see how much fun it is to watch. What I wish for the most at the Olympics Games is to show the world that Japan also has a fine basketball team. If we can demonstrate some nice plays that stick in the minds of people new to basketball and convey the beauty of the sport, I believe we can help build a better future for basketball.

Tsuji

We are still a long way from earning the gold medal, but we want to demonstrate to the world that our berth was fully deserved and that we can fight on equal terms on the world stage. I hope to help people new to basketball realise how much fun the sport is.

TSUJI Naoto has been on the national team since 2013 and witnessed its growth
TSUJI Naoto has been on the national team since 2013 and witnessed its growth

Building skills and experience day after day for another year to fight against the world’s top-tier teams with confidence at Tokyo 2020

Shinoyama

My experience at the World Cup made me realise that we have much room for improvement before we can take on the world’s best teams. We need to build skills and experience day after day to fight against the world’s top-tier teams at the Olympic Games with confidence, at least in terms of our mindsets. I hope to become mentally stronger and move forward toward the Games so that we can give a good account of ourselves at the Tokyo 2020 Games.

Tsuji

I missed playing at the World Cup because of an injury, but that allowed me to see players from a different perspective; for example, I could tell when a player was being overwhelmed. The players are actually feeling all kinds of pressure, but I believe I’ll be able to help by keeping a fearless mindset and setting a positive tone for the team. By leveraging this strength, I hope to push myself to the limit for Japan at the Tokyo 2020 Games.

Tokyo 2020

Shimoyama and Tsuji are close friends, and hope their performances will further popularise to Japanese men’s basketball.