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Where EAST meets the Northwest

SIZE, SPEED & STRENGTH. Ramu Tokashiki of Japan has completed her second season with the Seattle Storm of the Women’s National Basketball Association, where she helped the team rise from a disappointing 2015 performance to a playoff berth in 2016. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

From The Asian Reporter, V26, #23 (December 5, 2016), page 13.

Seattle’s Tokashiki blazes Japanese WNBA trail

By Mike Street

Special to The Asian Reporter

The Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) has drawn from players across the globe, but few of those have come from Asian countries. A notable exception to that trend, Japan’s Ramu Tokashiki, has completed her second season with the Seattle Storm, where she helped the team rise from a disappointing 2015 performance to a playoff berth in 2016. Although the Storm was eliminated in the first round, the team is looking forward to more success with Tokashiki in the years to come.

Tokashiki came to basketball relatively late, at age 12. But seven years later, she was a standout rookie for the JX-Eneos Sunflowers of the Women’s Japan Basketball League (WJBL). In her first season with the Sunflowers, she led her team to the championship, earning Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player (MVP) honors. At more than six feet tall, Tokashiki towered over other WJBL players, slamming dunks with both hands and using her impressive reach to dominate the paint.

Over the next six seasons, Tokashiki became a WJBL force, as the Sunflowers won five straight championships and she was honored with two MVP awards. She further distinguished herself as a two-time MVP with Japan at the FIBA (International Basketball Federation) Asia championships.

Seeking a greater challenge, Tokashiki signed a one-year deal with Seattle before the 2015 season, becoming just the third Japan-born player to play in the WNBA. The first two, Mikiko Hagiwara and Yuko Oga, did not make much of an impression, each averaging less than three points per game.

But Tokashiki is a different player than Oga and Hagiwara, both of whom were guards. Tokashiki’s nickname is "Taku," Japanese slang for "strength," and it’s a fitting one. At 6’3" and 176 pounds, she has the size and strength to play the low post and the speed to blaze down the court on fast breaks.

Her size makes her fairly average in the WNBA. But Seattle teammate and all-star Sue Bird raved about Tokashiki’s "crazy athleticism" and her great jumping ability, calling her "probably one of the fastest post players I’ve ever seen."

Despite these natural talents, Tokashiki took some time to adjust to the WNBA’s more physical play. In 2015, Taku started the season’s opening game but struggled and found herself on the bench. She kept her head high, focusing on her defense, speed, and hustle. One opponent remarked, "She kind of plays with a little chip on her shoulder … she was running the floor every single time … that shows a lot about her."

After scoring 21 points off the bench in June 2015, Taku found herself back in Seattle’s starting lineup. In the middle of the season, however, she left Seattle to play with the Japanese National Team, leading the squad to a gold medal for the second straight year at the FIBA Asia Women’s Championship, which qualified them for the 2016 Olympics.

After her return, Tokashiki played so well down the stretch that she barely missed making the all-star team. Nonetheless, she was named to the all-rookie squad after a season in which she averaged 8.2 points per game, 3.3 rebounds, and 0.9 blocks. This production also put her in fourth place in the Rookie of the Year voting, with teammate Jewell Loyd taking the top honor.

Such an impressive rookie season put huge expectations on Tokashiki’s shoulders heading into 2016, which began with a multi-year deal in Seattle. Her coach, Jenny Boucek, said, "Taku is a key building block for our future. Her combination of passion, athleticism, fearlessness, and instinct for the game makes her a dynamic playmaker on both ends of the floor."

Taku responded to those expectations by becoming a consummate team player. With the first pick in the 2016 draft, Seattle chose forward Breanna Stewart, who’d led the Connecticut Huskies to four straight National Collegiate Athletic Association championships, and won four straight Final Four Most Outstanding Player awards.

This shifted Tokashiki to the bench for the first half of the season, where she provided excellent support until the WNBA season broke for the Rio Olympics. In Rio, Team Japan finished in eighth place, thanks to Taku’s 17.0 points-per-game average, third best overall.

Rejuvenated, Taku saw her role grow again with the Storm, and she averaged seven points and four rebounds per game down the stretch to lead Seattle to the playoffs. They fell to the Atlanta Dream, 85-94 in the first round, but the Storm have plenty to look forward to in 2017, as Taku continues to develop with the team’s core of Bird, Stewart, and Loyd.

In the offseason, Tokashiki has returned to the Sunflowers in the WJBL to keep her skills sharp and challenge her stamina. Her role is different in Japan, where she dominates the middle instead of playing on the outside as she does in the WNBA. As she passes her way out of double- and triple-teams and grinds the ball inside, Taku is further developing the all-around game that will benefit Seattle in the future.

As she becomes even more of a force, Taku will continue to blaze a trail for other Asian players looking to make their mark in the WNBA. And she will give Asian-American sports fans someone to watch in 2017 — and beyond.

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