Feb 16, 2024


Always play together to make “golden flowers” bloom.

They aim to win the Women’s Basketball League and the gold medal at the Olympics.

Sakura Akaho and her younger sister, Himawari Akaho, lead the DENSO IRIS for the Japanese women’s basketball league. (W-League) Sakura left her parents when she was in junior high school and made her way by improving herself at a school that has a powerful basketball team. Himawari followed the path created by her sister and contributed to Japan's silver medal win at the Tokyo Olympics. The sisters, who have always been close and supportive of each other, are aiming for the W-League win and the gold medal at the Paris Olympics.

Contents of this article

    Himawari who played a key role in the silver medal win at the Tokyo Olympics says, “My sister led me to this stage.”

    Himawari (right) and Sakura look back on the Tokyo Olympics with smiles.

    On August 6, 2021, in the women's semi-final at the Tokyo Olympics basketball venue, Himawari was selected as Japan’s starting member. Her outstanding performance scored a team-high 17 points and 7 rebounds, contributing to the victory against the strong French team. It was a moment when Japan's medal for the first time in Olympic basketball history for both men and women was confirmed.

    Himawari: I think it was the best game in my basketball career. I realized that I could do my best when I enjoyed playing basketball. I enjoyed all six games I competed in at the Olympics, but particularly the semi-final was the best among them for both the team and me. We could do everything we wanted to do because we were on the same page. That is to say, we were in stress-free conditions. I was very happy to be able to show the results of all the hard training which I didn't even want to remember anymore.
    It was a big stage held in Japan, but since there were no spectators due to the spread of COVID-19, I was able to play without being too enthusiastic. Except for the first game, I was not nervous at all, and I feel like I gave a good performance.

    Himawari made her mark on basketball history as a key player for Japan on the podium. She says that there was an opportunity for her to leap up to the tournament.

    Himawari: I am 185cm tall, my initial position was mainly around the rim, but based on the advice from then-Japan's head coach Tom Horvath, I switched my position to shooting guard, which is centered on the outside area. I am grateful that he found me a suitable position as an outside player. Doing the unknown is challenging, but it is always exciting after all.

    Himawari made a name for herself on the big stage by taking advantage of her inherent mobility. In her background, she had the support of her sister, Sakura, who is 2 years older and plays for the same team, DENSO IRIS.

    Sakura: I tried not to talk about basketball with Himawari while she played it as a member of the Japanese national team. I didn't want to put too much pressure on her. Besides, I thought it would be stressful to talk more about basketball to her though she had to face it for a long time. I used to purposely keep our conversation casual so she could unwind. I think Himawari is grateful to me for that lol.

    "You have so many things to thank me for. I have made great contributions, haven’t I?" Sakura jokingly asks Himawari (right).

    Himawari: Something to be thankful for? I can't think of any lol. But I am sure that without Sakura, I would not have chosen to play basketball in junior high school, and I could not have competed in the Olympics. Because Sakura paved the way for me first, I could follow the same path as her, including my decision to leave my parents to go to a junior high school that has a powerful basketball team. I think I wouldn’t be who I am today without my sister. I am grateful for that.

    Sakura decided to leave her parents to join a junior high school to improve herself. She made a way with the support of her parents.

    Sakura (left) and Himawari looking back on their childhood memories.

    Two of them have been playing on the same basketball team since they were in elementary school. Sakura joined the local basketball club first.

    Sakura: I started playing basketball when I was in the second grade of elementary school after watching my father play as a corporate team member. Both of my parents have competitive careers, but they have never taught me techniques strictly. However, they told me off for my unmotivated attitude and not playing defense.

    Himawari: Besides Sakura, my twin brother, Raita, had already started playing basketball, so I followed their lead and jumped into the world of basketball in the third grade of elementary school. I didn't like it very much at the time. Still, I continued to play it since my sister and brother were playing it.

    When Sakura was in the sixth grade, she decided to leave her hometown of Ishikawa Prefecture to enter Showa Gakuin, a junior high school in Chiba Prefecture which has a powerful basketball team.

    Sakura: I wanted to play in a strong team to improve my skills. I chose Showa Gakuin from the schools that my father found through his acquaintance. When I went and saw their training, I was attracted by their high competition level and by being able to join the training with their high school students because the school is an integrated junior and senior high school.

    Himawari, who says she had no strong feelings towards basketball, eventually followed her older sister.

    Himawari: When I watched a game at Sakura’s junior high school, the players of the team were so high-level that I couldn’t take my eyes off them. I gradually thought, “I would like to join such a strong team.”, and eventually I chose the same way as my sister.

    Himawari talks about how she chose junior high school.

    Sakura says during this junior high school period that she had the hardest time in her athletic career.

    Sakura: Looking back now, I think I had a hard time mentally leaving my parents for the first time. I was not even aware of myself feeling lonely at the time, so when my parents contacted me to see how I was, I said, "Don't worry, I’m okay," but they sensed that I was feeling homesick. They supported me by communicating with my junior high school teacher frequently. I realized that my parents knew me inside out.

    Even after graduating the high school, the sisters chose the same team. Encouraged by each other, they strived and grew together.

    Sakura (left) and Himawari talk about seeing each other as a reassuring ally

    The sisters, who also went on to high school at Showa Gakuin, put themselves through rigorous training which includes training in the cold winter weather. Their efforts paid off as the team advanced to the top of the national competition.

    Himawari: In my third year, we were eliminated in the early stages of the tournament at the inter-high school competition (All Japan high school sports tournaments) However, injured members of my age turned their frustration into the driving force to strive to rehabilitate themselves, and as a result, we were able to win the third place in the Winter Cup (Currently known as The National High School Championships). In that tournament, it was the third graders who turned the game around and boosted the atmosphere in difficult situations. I realized that they have a positive influence on the team.

    The two players attracted attention from the W-League because they did well at a prestigious school. First, Sakura joined DENSO IRIS.

    Sakura: I admired Maki Takada, and I wanted to play with her. I was also moved by the fact that DENSO needed me more than any other team. They clearly explained to me what kind of player they wanted to develop me into and how they wanted to use me in games. When I finally joined the team, I was overwhelmed by the stoic attitude of the members toward training and the atmosphere of the team. I felt like I had to brace myself again.

    Himawari: DENSO appreciated me the most highly, too, and that was the deciding factor for me to join the team. In high school, I played basketball on top of my studies and other school activities, but life was so different. I realized "Basketball is at the center of my life here. This is what it means to be a professional athlete.” I remember it was physically demanding because training was at a high level and the players were highly skilled, but at the same time, it was very fresh and exciting.

    Encouraged by each other's presence, the sisters strived and grew together. Eventually, they each gained a strength that they can be proud of.

    Sakura: I think physical strength and jump shooting are my strengths, and I don't want to lose to anyone including my sister in terms of it. I think Himawari is amazing at her agility. Though she is tall at 185cm, she can attack from outside corners, defend against small opponents, and even is strong in rebounding.

    Sakura working hard on her shooting training.

    Himawari: I think my strengths are my defensive ability to defend any position and my agility. I especially like to penetrate the inside while dribbling. When it comes to rebounding, it's important to take part in it, then we can get the ball once in several times. Amazingly, Sakura can keep playing with her full strength in every game. I can't collide with opponents and steal the ball without flinching like her.

    Himawari (left) competing in the training.

    As for their private lives, on the other hand, they go out together for movies, dinners, and other activities on their days off. They refresh themselves together, sometimes care for each other when they need to, and they continue to be at the forefront of the basketball together.

    We are aiming for the top of the basketball, also we want to spread the fun of the basketball to children.

    DENSO Iris wins first title at the Empress's Cup Basketball 2023

    New members joined the team, and DENSO IRIS won the 90th Empress’s Cup All Japan Basketball Championship for the first time in December 2023. Himawari supported the team as the captain and Sakura as the vice-captain.

    Himawari: New players joined the team, and the team color has changed positively. Mawuli Evelyn, who has won the W-League title in a different team, raises her voice to set the mood for training in her way, which is very new for me. I want to be attentive so that everyone can enjoy playing. I spend lots of time talking with young guard players who play important roles in setting up the game for them and I am trying to play smoothly for the team.

    Himawari (center) and Sakura (second from the right) talk to team members to lead the team at the 90th Empress’s Cup.

    Himawari has her sights set on the 2024 Paris Olympics as well as the first league championship. Japan will participate in the world final qualifying round in February of the same year, aiming to qualify for the Olympics.

    Himawari: I would like to have fun basketball games in Paris like I had them in Tokyo. I had so much fun even with the silver medal in Tokyo, so I am very excited about how much I will have fun if I get the gold medal in Paris. I will try even harder towards that dream.

    In recent years, basketball has been getting more popular in Japan thanks to the success of its national team. The sisters say they would like to be committed to developing basketball further.

    Himawari: I would be happiest if more children wanted to start playing basketball by watching our basketball game. To make that happen, I want to be a player who can have children think, “I want to be a player like Himawari," and “I'm always excited to watch games Himawari is playing.”

    Sakura: As Japanese basketball attracts much attention, I hope more children aim to be W-league players. For example, I’m good at physical play, and I think anyone can do it because it is a basic one. So, I would be happy if children could find hope in themselves, such as “If I work hard at physical play like Sakura, I can also become a W-League player.”

    We are happy to announce that Kanna, the younger sister of Sakura and Himawari and now a university student, will join DENSO as a team manager.

    Sakura: This is the first time for me to work with Kanna in the same team, and I am looking forward to it very much. Kanna often makes harsh comments about our play lol. But in fact, they are to the point. In addition, she makes me smile every time she contacts me, so I can keep my spirits up without letting it get me down.

    With their reliable younger sister by their side, they will become one team, and they are ready to aim for the top of the W-League.

    Sakura: Last season we finished third in the playoffs, but I felt like we played together with the fans in the semi-finals. After the COVID-19 pandemic, the ban on cheering aloud was lifted and their cheering really helped us. We have ever achieved only second place at the highest. This season, I want to share the joy of victory with our fans.

    Sakura was born in April and Himawari in August. When the basketball-loving sisters make “their flowers” in full bloom in the W-League and the Olympics, you may see shiny gold color in their background.

    *The contents presented in this article are as of December 2023.

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