Slam Dunk: How Japan’s Love of Basketball Can Be Traced Back to a Comic
This post has been republished, with permission, from nbaxpop.wordpress.com.
Of the four major sports leagues of North America, the NBA is, by light years, the most popular in Asia. While American media has often attributed this growth to the emergence of Yao Ming in the early 2000s, that’s simply an uneducated, misinformed guess (which I’ve gone out of way to bring up here in an interview with Voice of America and here in a feature in TurboJet magazine). I say this with no exaggeration, but in my six years of being around Asia, I’ve seen a Yao Ming jersey once — and that was in the form of a tribute on the day Yao announced his retirement (I’ve seen a Kobe jersey, oh, 4,000 times). In Hong Kong, I can say with 99.9% certainty that ballers here look up to the Kobes, the LeBrons, the Jordans, and that if you ask them to list players from whom they’ve drew inspiration, Yao probably wouldn’t even crack the top 15. Even in China, Kobe notoriously received a louder ovation — the loudest, actually — than Yao during the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.
Yao’s influence on the NBA’s business opportunities in China is undeniable, but as far as influencing “Asian males to love basketball?”
The Philippines’ love of the NBA has been documented many times, most notably in this wonderful Grantland piece, and it precedes Yao’s emergence by decades; Hongkongers and Taiwanese mostly distant themselves from anything related to “China”, and I can’t even name one local friend who watches the Chinese Basketball Association; In Japan, most of the basketball loving population would probably trace their first impression of basketball/NBA to the manga Slam Dunk, which ran from 1990 to 1996.
Its popularity endures: According to a 2012 survey by research group goo, it is still the second most popular Japanese Manga, and is responsible for the single most memorable piece of dialogue — when a coach says, “If you give up, the game is already over!” Its legacy has also continued well beyond the page. Inoue is credited by some with having popularized basketball amongst a whole generation of high school students. In 2007, his publisher inaugurated a scholarship that sends high school basketball players to study in America, and in 2010, Inoue received a commendation from the Japanese Basketball Association, for his services to the sport.
I grew up reading Slam Dunk (I was already living in Los Angeles in the mid 90′s but I’d trek to Taiwanese book stores to buy the Taiwanese edition of the books). I’m pretty sure it taught me how to shoot jumpers (use my knees, not arms). I’m not alone in this — manga is widely popular with Asian youth — every local male I know in Hong Kong also read, and loved, Slam Dunk. These are just a few of the reasons why:
1: The art.
Takehiko Inoue has, in my opinion, the best mix of “serious” and “goofy” tone in the history of comics, including American ones. Inoue can draw a stunningly detailed and emotional portrait of a human being in one panel and then do a 180 on that character’s facial features the next. And it works. Check out this page:.
(READ FROM RIGHT TO LEFT — IT’S JAPANESE, MAN)
Notice how Inoue draws the protagonist, Hanamichi Sakuragi, with meticulous detail and realism in one panel. The next, he’s clowning/trolling his fat/old coach.
2: Slam Dunk captures the love of basketball.
Here’s a panel of Hanamichi, a neophyte to the game, hitting his first layup, with help/guidance from his crush. The joy of hitting jumpers and layups is one all us young hoopers have experienced.
3: It’s about love — for the game, for the girl.
The story centers on a high school delinquent who joins the basketball team solely because his crush asked “do you like basketball” (I did the same in high school, but for volleyball). The book then follows his initial dismissal of the sport to eventually loving the game. Here, in one of the final chapters, Hanamichi battles a potentially career-ending back injury, and it is here, he remembers the original question, “do you like basketball?”, to which he responds by professing his love, for the game, for HER, at once. This scene was powerful back in ’96, but now that I’m a grownassman? Even more so. This is a book on not just basketball, but love and life.
4: Slam Dunk gets sneakerhead/hypebeast culture.
Check out this hilarious piece in which Hanamichi and his crush go shoe shopping. The owner of the sneaker store sums up sneakerhead/hypebeast culture with his rant against dudes who buy just to collect. Remember, this was 1995, before Hypebeast became the go-to website for all these wanna-be street-types today, like my flatmate.
I’ve really only just scratched the surface. There are a hundred more reasons why Slam Dunk is so beloved, including a hilarious rivalry between the main character and his teammate, a handsome superstar with a huge female fanbase, and many other characters and subplots which has since become a crucial part of manga lore. This book is big in Europe too — it’s sold around 120 million copies worldwide — making it arguably the most widely-read manga around.
Inoue’s love of the NBA — the game, the league, and its players — is evident throughout the book. Yet right when Slam Dunk reached its apex in popularity, Inoue just ENDED the series and walked away. Like Jay, dude said “status at an all time high, perfect time to say good bye.” Every Asian male has been waiting for Inoue to “come back like Jordan, wearing the 4-5″ since. He hasn’t. At least not with Slam Dunk. But Inoue has since written/illustrated several other award-winning mangas. The subject matter of one of them? The disabled community of Japan, and their love of — you know it — wheelchair basketball.
Ben Sin is a freelance writer in Hong Kong; he writes about sports and culture for the Wall Street Journal and South China Morning Post.