Raptors’ Yuta Watanabe looking to spark next generation with Japan Day event

Toronto Raptors forward Yuta Watanabe watches his shot go in during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Lakers Sunday, May 2, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

TORONTO – If you’re down at Scotiabank Arena for Sunday evening’s Toronto Raptors-Washington Wizards tilt, you may want to stick around even after the buzzer sounds.

Particularly if you’re a fan of Yuta Watanabe.

The Raptors fan favourite forward will be the guest of honour as part of a special celebration of Japanese culture at Scotiabank Arena Sunday after the Raptors take on the Wizards.

Simply dubbed “Japan Day,” Sunday’s event will see Watanabe holding a Q&A with a contingent of fans who specially bought tickets to participate in the event with the Raptors forward.

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In total, a little more than 375 tickets were sold specially for the event that actually started during the 2019-20 NBA season.

“Initially, 300 tickets were allocated for this event, but it sold out really, really quickly,” said freelance writer and FIBA Agent Teru Ikeda, who is helping organize Japan Day Sunday. “It was so fast that a second block had to be put out.”

In January, 2020, the first Japan Day was held at Scotiabank Arena to coincide with the Raptors, again, playing the Wizards, who had just drafted Japanese forward Rui Hachimura in the summer of 2019.

That event was pretty successful, with about 400 people coming out, and it piqued the interest of the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment sales team as something that could be penciled in annually on the Raptors calendar when the Wizards come to town.

Then the 2021-22 season happened with the Raptors displaced and forced to play all of their games in Tampa, Fla., meaning that no in-person event could be possible. However, with Watanabe joining the team and picking up plenty of popularity among the Raptors’ core fanbase and bringing in new fans to the Raptors from Japan itself, it seemed like it would be foolhardy to not do something to try to capitalize, so with the blessings of MLSE and the Raptors a second Japan Day – this time entirely virtual – was held in June of 2021, with participants paying for a chance to chat with Watanabe in a virtual environment, entirely in Japanese.

And that has all then led to Sunday now, with the third Japan Day scheduled to take place with, of course, the Raptors taking on the Wizards.

Unfortunately, for what will be an amazingly fourth time since Watanabe joined the Raptors, he and fellow countryman Rui Hachimura will miss squaring off with one another as Hachimura has just recently returned to the Wizards after taking care of a personal matter and needs to get into game shape, still.

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But even without Hachimura, the show must go on and with Watanabe, Japan Day still has a strong representative who upholds the values of what the event is trying to convey.

An off-shoot of the successful Japan Festival Canada, which is held annually in Mississauga, Japan Day came about during that 2019-20 Raptors season when MLSE approached Japan Expo Canada, the organization that puts on Japan Festival Canada, how they might be able to better reach out to the Japanese community across the Greater Toronto Area.

“Back in 2019, the Toronto Raptors proposed to us to put on some kind of prevalent event for the Raptors,” said Terry Wakasa, president and CEO of Japan Expo Canada.

The timing proved to be fortuitous with Hachimura coming into the league and, later, the Raptors picking up Watanabe, but the event could be possible if not for Wakasa, who created Japan Expo Canada initially as a means to fill a gap he saw as a business consultant as there was no major Japanese cultural festival such as ones you might see in Los Angeles or New York.

So for Wakasa, who is a Japanese native but emigrated to Canada in 1996, the creation of putting on Japanese-focused events to help promote Japanese food, culture and technology to Canadian people, and Japan Day at Scotiabank Arena is just an extension of that.

And the rationale to put on Japan Day is much the same for another of the event’s creators, Makoto Unagami, the founder of the Toronto-based J Athletics Canada, a youth athletics program that uniquely caters to the Japanese community in the GTA.

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“Our goal is to make our community and our kids happy with sports,” said Unagami, who is a certified soccer coach. “So when I was in Japan [as a kid] there was the World Cup that Japan and Korea hosted. So, I was in Japan and I saw a lot of key moments and people excited about sports and this brings me to my life. I want to make our kids have the same experience.”

Unagami’s desire to give back to the next generation began with the creation of his J Athletics Canada, but it continued when he was fortunate to partner with MLSE and TFC briefly in 2017 to help put on a Japanese community event for the Reds, leading to him eventually collaborating with Wakasa (and Ikeda) on the creation of Japan Day with the Raptors.

Seeing as one of the MLSE Foundation’s stated goals is to empower “youth through sport and recreation,” the goal of Japan Day looks to be a perfect fit.

If you’re curious about the event, head down to sections 103 and 104 at Scotiabank Arena after the game Sunday.

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