Japanese ace player aims to steer her team to victory at Tokyo 2020
TOKASHIKI Ramu’s given name Ramu (written in Chinese characters) means “to come” and “dream”.
She was given that name by her parents in the hope that all her dreams would come to fruition. Now at the age of 29, she is getting closer to fulfilling her dream of winning a gold medal at the Olympic Games.
She may have had to put off the chance to fulfil her dream by a year due to the Games postponement, but she is looking at the bright side of things.
“I regard the postponement to be a great advantage to Japan. We are now closer to a medal. The key is for all of us to keep ourselves motivated. I wish other members were as happy-go-lucky as I am,” she laughed.
Speaking of the “bright side”, she also dyed her hair a bright colour this season.
“Many people watch our matches on video, so I had my hair dyed a bright colour to enable people to spot me instantly. I wanted to stand out with my play, my height, and my hair."
This is typical of Tokashiki, who cares a lot about her fans.
“I’m really happy to be able to play on court and have people watch me. I’ve realised that this is not something that can be taken for granted, and I am extremely grateful to my fans. I’ve also grown more appreciative of the administrative staff,” she said.
“I’m always fully motivated,” she said.
But Tokashiki has not always been this way.
“You are a once-in-a-century player. You can take on the world,” INOUE Shinichi, the coach at Ohkagakuen High School told her when he invited her into his team.
Under his tutelage at the high school, Tokashiki developed her skills as a centre. While she was on the team, they won eight titles in nine competitions including three major events: Inter-High School Meet, National Sports Festival and Winter Cup.
As a promising youngster, she joined JX-Eneos Sunflowers at Aichi Prefecture - which is renowned for being one of the strongest basketball teams in Japan. The team have won 11 consecutive national league titles to date.
At first, she was very reserved and felt daunted by Japan’s national players such as OHGA Yuko and YOSHIDA Asami, and was afraid to make mistakes. However, with the encouragement of Tom HOVASSE, the head coach of the Japan's national women's team, she was able to change her mindset.
During her rookie year in the WJBL, she was named the regular season MVP and after the end of the season, Tokashiki became a member of the national team for the first time.
From MVP in Asia to the WNBA
Her high school coach Inoue’s words resonated with her in 2013 when Japan won the FIBA Asia Championship (now FIBA Asia Cup) for the first time in 43 years - it became the first of four consecutive victories.
Tokashiki received the MVP award in recognition for her stunning play - and her impressive skills in scoring inside the zone - which overwhelmed the Chinese and the South Korean players.
“In each continent, there is an MVP and a winning team. When I was awarded the MVP, I thought I wanted to play against those people, stepping out beyond Asia. I believed that it was my destiny to take on the world, but it was around this time that I was able to actually say out loud that I wanted to play on the ‘world’ stage.”
In 2015, Tokashiki flew to the United States and became the third Japanese player to join the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) after HAGIWARA Mikiko and Ohga.
“America was the world leader in basketball, and I had always felt a yearning for the country. When I first watched a WNBA match with my team, I was so excited that I even told OKAMOTO (Sayaka), my teammate in Sunflowers [her US team], that I would someday stand on that court. Ms. Ohga had also told me how impressive American players were. I decided to take on the challenge of joining the WNBA because I wanted go beyond the seniors.”
While her height of 193cm is unrivalled in Japan, she is not particularly tall among WNBA players, so she was required to play more on the outside of the arc, rather than inside or under the goal, which she was good at. This got her to work harder on three pointers and middle range shots from the outside. Her experience in America broadened her playstyle.
“I’m going to have my own medal hung in Tokyo”
After three seasons in the WNBA, Tokashiki made her Olympic debut at the Rio 2016 Games. Japan made a great stride by advancing to the quarter-finals, but rather than being thrilled, she felt disappointed for having been defeated by Team USA.
“After we lost to the USA, my teammates decided to go and see other matches, but I stayed in my room, doing some reflection.
"It was a powerful experience to play against the US team, which I had only watched on video. Losing the match was distressing, but now we know what we are up against. If we can beat them, we will be able to win the gold medal, and this thought is spurring us on. The match against the USA is an asset for me.”
In her WNBA team, she had two teammates who were part of Team USA and gold medallists in RIo. Before each match, there was a ritual (in the form of clapping or flowers) to celebrate the USA feat - and this aroused a sense of rivalry in Tokashiki.
“It was really difficult to have to applaud them. One time, one of the medallists asked me if I wanted to hang the medal over my neck, but I declined, saying, ‘It’s okay, I’m going to have my own gold medal hung in Tokyo’. I didn’t want to succumb to the USA. We were defeated at Rio 2016, but I didn’t want to admit it. Our battle is not over yet.”
2016 Getty Images
Serving as a leader to develop younger players
In November 2020, the Japanese team’s training camp for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 resumed after a nine month absence. After Rio 2016, Tokashiki had been away from the team due to WNBA commitments and an ankle injury, which impacted her overall performance.
But after a three-year absence, she returned to the national team in August 2019.
"Since I was out of the national team, I realised how fun basketball is when I came back," she said.
Yoshida, a point guard with whom Tokashiki had built strong rapport, was no longer on the team and her long-time partner player OSAKI Yuka (nee Mamiya) had retired, but Tokashiki is proactively building new relationships with younger players.
“Taku (Tokashiki’s nickname) has become a true leader. She is a big sister to everyone now. She teaches the younger players during practice, and works for the team. I’m happy about her. Being an experienced player, she can adapt to whatever the point guard does and support her, so I have no worries,” said head coach Hovasse.
Refusing to lose in the inside zone
Japan's basketball game is focussed on speed, execution and team play. They are known for their excellent three-point shooting skills and their use of the pick-and-role offence (a manoeuvre where a player stands in front of a defender to set up a screen) while ensuring they achieve great plays inside the zone - which is the highlight of any basketball game.
“Everyone in the Japan team is capable of shooting three pointers - that’s the impression people have about the team - but we certainly want to display great plays closer to the goal too. The key is to maintain a good balance between plays ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the arc. We hope to entertain the audience, so much so that teams of other countries would want to imitate us,” Hovasse said.
Tokashiki feels the same way and that's why she wants to “dominate the paint area (restricted area)” with her speed, something she is proud of being second-to-none in the world.
“I make it a rule to shoot a three pointer whenever I get the ball unmarked. I’ve learnt to do this with a natural flow, so I’d also like to work harder to play inside the arc as the team’s pivotal player. In offence, I’m looking to broaden my skills by using my speed selectively, such as moving slowly at first when receiving the ball with my back to the ring, and then turning at top speed. In defence, the key is how much I can hassle the opponents by using my footwork. I think I’m quite good at this.”
Tokashiki is one of the of the best rebounders in Japan and, for her, rebounds are key to winning. Three-pointers can earn points, but only if successful.
“Rebounds are also a key factor. Shooters are only human, so they can miss the goal. I strive to grab the ball so that the shooter can shoot as much as they want to. I tell them, ‘You can miss the goal, I’ll get the rebounds.”
If a shooter missed shots, it's important for others to assist and get rebounds as soon as possible to give the shooter opportunities to shoot again. Dominating in rebounds is the best way to land a gold medal.
2016 Getty Images
Tokyo 2020 and beyond
“I really love basketball. I can’t help it,” Tokashiki said. “So, I don’t want to be defeated by any player, in any play. If we can win a medal at the Tokyo 2020 Games, we’ll be able to rev up excitement for both men’s and women’s basketball. This will be a great motivation for the players. I really want the team to win a medal.”
Her nickname on the court, Taku, originates from the word takumashii (strong and powerful) and takusu (to entrust), implying that Japan’s basketball community “entrusts” its future to Tokashiki.
Tokashiki is entrusted with fulfilling the dream of winning the gold medal and becoming the world’s best player.