How Seattle Storm’s Ramu Tokashiki turned women’s basketball into one of Japan’s most popular sports

On the Olympic stage, Japan is not a country known for basketball. Softball, yes. Wrestling, no doubt. But in the ”Land of the Rising Sun,” where the average height barely soars above 5-foot-7, it’s tough for Japan to field a team tall enough to match the 6-foot-plus players typical in basketball powerhouse countries like the U.S., Spain and Serbia.

But Japan has one player who could help her country reach new heights in basketball—and just in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

That player is 6-foot-3 Seattle Storm power forward Ramu Tokashiki. Perhaps not coincidentally, in Japanese, “Ramu” means “dream come true.” At the very least, the 25-year-old WNBA star is determined to make Japan’s, as well as her own, gold medal-winning fantasy a reality.

“I always want to be a person who can make my dream come true,” Tokashiki told Excelle Sports through her translator. “This is why I work hard in everything that I do.”

Last year at the Rio Games, Japanese fans got a chance to see the potential of Tokashiki’s talent and relentless work ethic. When Japan faced Team USA in the quarterfinal round, Tokashiki’s layup prowess combined with her teammates’ lightning-quick passing game shocked the American defense, putting the Yankees on their heels. After the first 20 minutes of play Japan led the field 48-46.

While the U.S. eventually regained its footing, taking the match 110-64 when the final whistle blew, Japanese viewers still haven’t forgot what Tokashiki and her team displayed that night. The loss increased the popularity of professional basketball in the country, particularly of the Women’s Japan Basketball League (WJBL).

In the late fall and winter, when Tokahsiki is not playing for the Seattle Storm or Japan’s national team, she plays in the WJBL with the JX-Eneos Sunflowers. Last September after the Olympics, when the Sunflowers walked into a nearly sold-out stadium of 3,165 screaming fans in Tokyo for their season opening game, Tokashiki entered the court like a superstar, signing autographs, posing for photos and hugging supporters, even her opponents.

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Since Rio, the two-time league MVP and five-time WJBL champion has undoubtedly become the face of women’s basketball in Japan. And she’s proud to have that responsibility, she says.

“I want more people to come watch women’s basketball and I believe it’s a part of my role to deliver for Japanese basketball fans,” said Tokashiki.

But if basketball isn’t a major sport in Japan, how did Tokashiki get so good in the first place? To be recruited to the Seattle Storm and play in the WNBA—the most competitive women’s basketball league in the world—is no small feat. She is only the third Japanese player to enter the league and the only player of her nationality to sign for more than three seasons.

Tokashiki’s prowess all started with a childhood rivalry and an early growth spurt. Growing up in Tokyo, Tokashiki loved challenging her older brother to pick-up games and she practiced every day to beat him. Gradually she grew in skill. But she didn’t grow so gradually in size: By the time she was 16, she was one of the tallest women in her country, standing at just over 6 feet tall.

She feels honored to have inherited her grandfather’s rare genes for height.

“[When I was young] I wanted to grow more and more and I was excited [to see] how tall I could be,” she said. “I didn’t expect I would become [6-foot-3], though. The difficult thing about being tall was that I couldn’t hide myself under my desk when we had evacuation drills at school. My desk was too small to protect my body and it would just float off the floor.”

But Tokashiki’s height was an easy fit for the Ooka Gakuen High School basketball team, which has one of the best women’s programs in Japan. As soon as she graduated in 2010, Tokashiki was recruited to play with the Sunflowers and has since developed into a confident post player and the No. 1 shot blocker in the league.

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But in 2014, Tokashiki knew that, to add new elements to her game and be the best, she had to play with the best. Her club coach, former NBA player Tom Havasse, used his American contacts to get her game footage in front of WNBA coaches. Seattle Storm head coach Jenny Boueck saw Tokashiki’s raw talent on screen and thought she’d make a great power forward. In 2015, she signed the Japanese national.

Yet for Tokashiki, the transition to the new team wasn’t so easy, in part because she was no longer the tallest player on the court.

“When I first started playing in the WNBA, I tried to play in the paint like I usually do, but that made Coach [Boucek] mad,” she said. “I started to get used to my new role in the middle of the 2015 season and I understood when to play inside and when I shouldn’t.”

With the Storm, she improved her jump shot and learned how to penetrate the defense from outside the paint. She got stronger to adapt to the intense physical contact of the WNBA. In her first season, Tokashiki had 16 starts and averaged 8.2 points and 3.3 rebounds, earning her a spot on the WNBA All-Rookie Team.

For Tokashiki, though, what was more rewarding than the recognition was the chance to play with her Storm teammates and U.S. Olympians, Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart. The players became good friends and now even have a pet name for her: “Japanese Sensation.”

“It’s very fun playing with them and I have learned a lot,” Tokashiki said. “Sue’s way of thinking and behavior is my model and Stew’s well-rounded game teaches me a lot.”

Tokashiki also acknowledged that her experience in the WNBA helped prepare her for the USA-Japan showdown in Rio last summer. Now, she’s excited to get ready for the gold-medal challenge that lies ahead in 2020.

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But there will be added pressure on the Japanese Sensation: In her country, Tokashiki is the biggest hope the nation has for winning an Olympic title at home. But is jumping from last year’s eighth place finish to first place too tall of an order?

“I don’t feel any pressure,” said Tokashiki. “I set my goals high, and my will to achieve these goals leaves me no room to feel pressure in my mind. I think people expecting a lot from me gives me extra energy to perform my game.”

She even told Bird and Stewart that the Olympic crown will be hers next time.

“[Japan] will beat America in the final and win the gold medal,” she said. “We had a chance to make it happen in Rio so we will prove how good we are to the world.”

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