Last month, Rakuten crowned the second World University Basketball Series (WUBS) champions: The National Chengchi University Griffins from Chinese Taipei!
The Champions League-style tournament brought together top talent from eight universities in seven different countries and regions across Asia and beyond to duel it out in Tokyo over four days. The event culminated in a final bout between Japan’s Hakuoh University Soldiers and the Griffins of Chinese Taipei, who put on a convincing performance to take the crown for 2023.
Fostering basketball culture in Japan
Rakuten has hosted a number of basketball events in recent years, including two rounds of NBA fixtures in 2019 and 2022 that saw the Toronto Raptors, Houston Rockets, Washington Wizards and Golden State Warriors face off for excited NBA fans in Tokyo.
Rakuten’s own online broadcasting platform, NBA Rakuten serves as Japan’s hub for all things NBA, and the company has been deeply involved in fostering basketball culture in Japan through initiatives such as a surprise court makeover at a local youth center in collaboration with partners the Golden State Warriors.
This culture of giving back has continued with WUBS: Rakuten’s Brand Partnership Activation Department jumped on the opportunity to connect with Rakuten’s local community. This time, with the power of dance.
Through the A Better Future Together project – a Rakuten initiative aimed at promoting sustainability through sports and entertainment – the team reached out to aspiring dancers, with the goal of inspiring future athletes to consider non-traditional career paths.
Local stars steal the half-time show
The project saw the formation of a special dance unit, A Better Future Together Dance Crew, to perform at select WUBS half-time shows. Auditions were held in Setagaya and a team of 12 dancers were selected. The crew rehearsed choreographies created by current and former NBA dancers over a period of several weeks, leading up to the tournament. We spoke to some of the dance crew about their motivations and aspirations for joining the team.
Reiko: Bringing the NBA Spirit to WUBS
Leading the dance crew was Reiko Ogasawara, a former competitive cheerleader originally from Aomori Prefecture in northern Japan. She moved to America to pursue her dream of becoming an NBA dancer and danced professionally for both the NBA’s Utah Jazz and Detroit Pistons.
“I wanted to share what I’d learned dancing for the NBA with everyone here,” she said following the half-time performance.
In the lead up to the finals, the unit received a wealth of exposure at other Rakuten events and on social media.
“I was really happy that we were able to highlight each and every member. When you’re dancing in a team like this, you often don’t get to shine the spotlight on everyone individually.”
Nahoko: Spreading smiles through dance
Dance crew member Nahoko is currently working towards a dream of joining a team in the NBA.
“I discovered that this project was being directed by Reiko, who danced for the NBA, that I also want to join, and that the choreography was being done by other NBA dancers. I thought, this is it! There was no hesitation.”
The crew allowed Nahoko to absorb the experience and expertise of her NBA seniors.
“I have another job, but dance is my favorite thing to do. It would be incredible to earn money just by dancing, but it isn’t realistic in Japan. At my core is a desire to make people smile and make an impact, and to do that for even more people, I decided to take on this goal of dancing with the NBA.”
Sanae: Educating the next generation
Sanae has ambitions of cheerleading for the NFL. She, too, was attracted to the project by the involvement of Reiko Ogasawara and other NBA choreographers.
“We’re blessed with such a great environment – an international tournament in Japan! I was so happy to be able to dance here – the lights were incredible, and the audience was so great,” Sanae said. “I actually saw the half-time show last year, and started wondering how I might be able to join.”
Sanae recently launched her own company to teach and encourage young dancers.
“I have been dancing since elementary school, but as an adult, you can’t really make a living from dancing alone,” she lamented. “Some people are determined to get over that hurdle and do it anyway. For me, my life motto is to build a chain of smiles. That’s why I started my company.”
Ayane: Balancing passion and parenthood
Ayane currently dances for an American football team.
“You hear from people who’ve danced in America that it’s quite normal for dancers to have kids, be married or be a little bit older. Japan isn’t at that level yet. I want to help build an environment in which mums like me can chase their dreams. I want to turn dancing into a sport that you can continue long into the future.”
Ayane revealed that her daughter recently learned the word ‘cheerleading’.
“She encourages me all the time, and boasts about me to her friends,” she laughed. “That’s a source of energy for me. I hope my kids can see me and be inspired to express their own dreams – dancing or otherwise – without fear.”
Sheena: Teaching, dancing and daring
Sheena has a background in hip hop dance, and currently works as a dance teacher. She auditioned for the project to challenge herself to try something new.
“It was really exciting,” she said. “I’m really really glad I had the opportunity to first of all join the team and then present all our hard work to everybody on the court.”
Sheena is determined to continue pursuing dance as a career.
“I’ve done a lot of legwork so far on dramas and music video sets, but this has been something completely different,” she said. “I’m just really happy I got to join this team, so thank you Rakuten for putting on this performance and giving us the opportunity to explore ourselves.”
Fueling Aspirations at WUBS 2023
With an expanded roster of teams in 2023, WUBS brought together world-class university basketball teams for a rare and thrilling opportunity to compete against each other. This year, with the formation of the WUBS dance crew, the tournament also showcased how the magic of dance can ignite new aspirations.
Rakuten will continue to champion initiatives, such as A Better Future Together, that inspire individuals to chart unique and sustainable journeys.