For This N.B.A. Rookie, Reality TV Is an Escape That Feels Like Home

Rui Hachimura, a Washington Wizards forward, has found comfort and meaning in the hit Japanese reality show “Terrace House.”

Rui Hachimura of the Washington Wizards, second from right, was a guest commentator on the fifth season of the Japanese reality television show “Terrace House.”
Credit...Fuji Television/East Entertainment

Long before he began feeding his obsession and even found himself sitting next to its hosts, Rui Hachimura didn’t understand all the fuss about the Japanese reality television show “Terrace House.” His high school teammates in Japan had tried hard to get him on board.

“I was the only one who was like, ‘Nah,’” said Hachimura, a rookie forward for the Washington Wizards. “But then I started to watch it and it was like, ‘Oh, OK.’”

Soon enough, Hachimura became infatuated with “Terrace House,” which chronicles the (often humdrum) day-to-day routines of several strangers who agree to live together. After Hachimura moved to the United States in 2016 to play basketball at Gonzaga, one of his tutors figured out how to motivate him to study: Let him watch an episode after he had completed his schoolwork. For a homesick teenager, the show was bliss.

“When I’m watching the show,” Hachimura said, “I can forget everything.”

That has never been as true as it is now. Stuck at home like so many others as the coronavirus pandemic continues its spread, Hachimura, 22, has occupied himself by working out, playing video games, filming a public-service announcement for the World Health Organization and watching more “Terrace House” than even he thought was humanly possible.

“It’s helping me relieve some stress,” he said, adding: “I’m ‘Terrace House’ for life.”

In one sense, Hachimura’s own life had already turned into a reality show before the Wizards selected him with the ninth pick in last year’s N.B.A. draft. As the first Japanese-born player to go in the first round, Hachimura was trailed by about a dozen reporters from Japanese media outlets whenever he appeared in uniform before the N.B.A. suspended its season on March 11.

Credit...Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press

For an athlete who has gotten used to operating as the focus of everyone else’s attention — “It feels like I always have cameras on me,” Hachimura said — “Terrace House” has long been a welcome reversal, offering him the chance to peek into other people’s lives for a change. Now, it is even more of a diversion — and a reminder of the way things were before the onset of the pandemic.

There have been five seasons of “Terrace House,” which debuted on Japanese television in 2012 and now streams to a global audience on Netflix. Even before Hachimura’s rookie season came to an abrupt halt — he was averaging 13.4 points and six rebounds a game — he had watched each season of the show multiple times, including no fewer than six rewatches of all 36 episodes of his favorite season, “Terrace House: Aloha State,” which was based in Hawaii. That works out to more than 120 hours of watching other people eat their meals, clean their bathrooms and chat about their crushes.

A group of widely known television and film personalities host the show, introducing each episode and providing occasional commentary from a set designed to look like a living room.

“It’s so different than other reality shows,” Hachimura said. “It’s the one reality show where everything is actually real.”

On certain American reality shows, cast members launch themselves into amorous adventures almost as soon as they unpack their bags. Hachimura acknowledged that he was an avid viewer of “Ex on the Beach,” an MTV series that features stars from other reality shows living together with their exes on — you guessed it — the beach.

“On the shows over here, they want to be crazy,” Hachimura said.

Credit...Nick Wass/Associated Press

“Terrace House,” though, tends to have a different aesthetic — a slower, more contemplative unspooling of relationships that is reflective of Japanese society, Hachimura said. Consider that through the first 24 episodes of the current season, which is based in Tokyo, none of the cast members had so much as smooched. Entire episodes hinge on the communal anxiety of asking love interests on dinner dates. A carpenter will show up to do some work on the porch and offer sage advice to cast members about the “quest for self-improvement.”

It was not until the ninth episode that anyone argued, and that exchange — while heated — was still more civil than a presidential debate. One cast member, a fitness instructor named Risako Tanabe, accused a housemate of having a “victim narrative.” At the end of the scene, one of the mortified hosts described the fight as ranking among the most explosive in the show’s history. (Spoiler alert: The housemates reconciled the next day when they agreed to spend more time trying to understand one another’s “point of view.”)

“I usually get bored with shows,” Hachimura said. “But I can watch ‘Terrace House’ over and over.”

Hachimura’s teammates are aware of his obsession, even if they do not share it.

“We see him watching it on the plane all the time,” Wizards guard Troy Brown Jr. said. “But he doesn’t say much about it, probably because he knows we wouldn’t understand what he’s talking about.”

That has not stopped Hachimura from introducing the show to friends, like Kenta Maeda, a pitcher for the Minnesota Twins. Hachimura had no idea how much Maeda had grown to love “Terrace House” until he settled in for a fresh episode last season — and saw Maeda on his TV screen as a guest commentator. Hachimura was floored, especially when Maeda told the show’s regular hosts that he had been a fan of the program “from the beginning.”

“Yeah, I had to call him out on that,” Hachimura said. “And he was like, ‘OK, you got me.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I need to be real.’”

Credit...Fuji Television/East Entertainment

Hachimura got his own opportunity to be on the show last July when he returned home to Japan following the draft. By then, he had seen his popularity in Japan soar to pop-star dimensions, with requests to appear on game shows, news programs, other reality shows — you name it. Hachimura turned them all down, except one: “Terrace House,” which asked his agents at Wasserman if he would fill in as a guest commentator for two episodes. Hachimura jumped at the chance.

Yet for all his anticipation — “I was pretty nervous,” Hachimura said — he almost missed out. A few hours before the scheduled taping in Tokyo, he was in a different region of the country to watch one of his younger sisters play in a high school basketball tournament when a minor volcanic eruption forced the cancellation of his flight back to Tokyo. Hachimura scrambled back in time to take his spot on the studio set, then told the show’s hosts about the other offers he had declined.

“Are you sure you’re making the most of your time?” the comedian Ryota Yamasato asked him.

Hachimura went on to offer his observations about what was happening on the show, and even answered questions about his own love life. (He prefers “more mature” women.)

But his appearance was about more than ticking an item off his bucket list, he said. He has spoken openly about his biracial background — his mother is Japanese, and his father is Beninese — and he viewed “Terrace House” as another opportunity to use his celebrity to help erase stigmas in Japan, where notions of racial purity persist.

“It was a big deal for me,” he said. “And ‘Terrace House’ is a show where diversity has become really normal.”

These days, even the show’s most trivial story lines — a drive to the shore, a tiff between housemates, a group outing to the new ramen restaurant — seem oddly reassuring. In an uncertain world, “Terrace House” now feels rooted to a bygone era as fans like Hachimura, and so many others, wait for their own lives to return to some sort of normalcy.