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Rui Hachimura has a complicated relationship with Japan, but he’s happy to be back

Washington Wizards forward Rui Hachimura during the team's media day at Capital One Arena. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

TOKYO — The Rui Hachimuras streamed into the yellow-lit gym with the other 120 or so people wearing credentials, a hodgepodge of American and Japanese reporters, social media influencers, sponsorship partners and three hulking guys dressed in sumo attire. Everyone squeezed into two small patches of court marked for interviews except, thankfully, the three guys dressed in sumo attire.

Members of the media donning the jersey of a player they cover would elicit at least mild disapproval in the United States. But at Minato Sports Center on Thursday, the handful of men wearing Rui Hachimura’s red No. 8 Washington Wizards jersey while hefting video cameras on their shoulders or shooting footage on smartphones went largely unremarked upon.

It was a warm welcome home for Japanese basketball’s greatest export.

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Hachimura — the original — returned to his native Japan when the Wizards touched down Wednesday ahead of a couple of preseason games against the Golden State Warriors scheduled to be played at Japan’s Saitama Super Arena on Friday and Sunday night.

It is the first time Hachimura has been home since he bore his country’s flag at the Opening Ceremonies of the Tokyo Olympics just over a year ago. As the media horde showed, these games will differ than those as Japan continues to lift its pandemic precautions.

The group of reporters Hachimura faced at the Summer Games was maybe half the size of Thursday’s contingent, and the pandemic-era two meters of distance between player and press shrank to mere inches. At tip-off Friday, there will be fans in the stands for the NBA’s first showcase in Japan since the Toronto Raptors and Houston Rockets faced off in 2019.

“This reminds me of when I got drafted,” Hachimura said. “It’s been a while since I felt like this.”

Despite his renewed intimacy with the camera lens, Hachimura will remain at a distance from Japanese fans for the bulk of the Wizards’ brief stay.

It is a contrast to Washington’s 2013 trip with Nene to Rio de Janeiro, where the team played just one game and the Brazilian native had time to host a clinic and engage with every fan packed into the crowded gym. In Japan, Washington has to squeeze two games and two practices into four days on the ground, meaning Thursday morning’s trip to Tokyo Tower for a wholesome photo shoot was one of the few non-dining outings the team has scheduled.

The lack of face time may be a good thing for Hachimura.

The 24-year-old’s homecoming marks a year since news broke that Hachimura would be sitting out a portion of last season for mental health purposes and burnout after years of nonstop basketball with national team duties, college ball and the NBA.

After his appearance as flag bearer in Tokyo, Hachimura faced a rash of ugly, racist comments on Japanese social media despite the pride many felt at having the first Japanese player ever picked in the first round of the NBA draft serving as a face of the country. Naomi Osaka, the four-time Grand Slam tennis champion who is also biracial, faced similar harassment after she lit the Olympic cauldron, then lost her third-round match in an upset.

The Wizards, who have followed Hachimura’s lead in talking about his time away as a mental health respite without specifically mentioning the racism he faces, were cognizant of the potential for overexposure on this week’s trip. In a news conference last week, Wizards President and General Manager Tommy Sheppard said Hachimura was able to complete many of his sponsorship duties before the team arrived in Japan, allowing the forward to focus on basketball.

Even with a streamlined schedule, Hachimura has an outsize role to play. He is an ambassador for the NBA in Japan and a de facto tour guide for his teammates — two jobs he seems to enjoy.

“I can imagine it means quite a bit,” Wizards Coach Wes Unseld Jr. said this week. “Just the opportunity to be the face of our franchise while we’re on the ground, but also he can lead the charge in some of those player-only or team-bonding experiences.”

Hachimura has been fielding questions from teammates about foods to try, where to shop (no matter how tight the schedule, there’s always time to shop) and the nuances of Japanese culture. The coach and general manager of the Japanese men’s national team were both at practice Thursday. Hachimura said six or seven of his family members will be able to watch him play in person this weekend.

“The whole Japanese basketball, it’s getting bigger every year. I can feel that,” Hachimura said. “It’s not only basketball but the whole athlete — sports is getting bigger. It’s a good thing. I see a lot of Japanese people representing the country playing in Europe or the U.S., all over the world. It feels good.”

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Hachimura isn’t the only draw of the Japan games. Although he spent the most time in front of reporters — he was the only player to speak in English and Japanese — he has been happy to share some of the stage with Golden State’s Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.

Curry met Korean pop megastar Suga, of the massively popular group BTS, during the Warriors’ portion of practice. Thompson playfully tried to topple another revered visitor, Hakuho Sho, the legendary sumo wrestler. A small group of fans waited outside Minato Sports Center for the end of the Warriors’ practice, one of them carrying Andre Iguodala’s 2019 memoir.

But Hachimura alone carries with him the regard — and the responsibility — of a national figurehead. No matter how many people in a crowd bear jerseys with his last name.

“I want to do this thing since I was a kid. Finally I’m here, actually back in the country, my country, to play against the Warriors,” he said. “It’s a crazy feeling. Amazing feeling, for sure.”

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