Japan mourns Kobe Bryant, the man who helped put Kobe beef on the global map

Sales associate Kazuhiro Taguchi in Tokyo carries a poster showing an image of former NBA basketball player Kobe Bryant. (Jae C. Hong/AP)
Sales associate Kazuhiro Taguchi in Tokyo carries a poster showing an image of former NBA basketball player Kobe Bryant. (Jae C. Hong/AP)
Jan. 27, 2020 at 8:19 a.m. EST

TOKYO — Kobe beef has long been a famous delicacy in Japan, but one man did more than most to put it on the global map.

“Mr. Kobe Bryant was named after Kobe beef after his father had a taste of it and loved it,” said Tetsunori Tanimoto, director of the Kobe Beef Marketing and Distribution Promotion Association. “We think it is thanks to his name that the value of Kobe beef as something valuable was no doubt raised globally. It was our great honor for us to have him use our important name.”

President George W. Bush was a big fan of Kobe beef, praising it publicly on many occasions. President Barack Obama specifically ordered Kobe beef when he visited Japan in 2009.

Tanimoto said he had heard of Kobe Bryant’s death in a helicopter accident on television on Monday morning.

“I was stunned and could not believe it. It is very unfortunate. We offer our deepest condolences,” he said. “He was a man of great achievements globally, and yet we have had a privilege of feeling close to him.”

Japanese social media was also full of sorrow at Bryant’s death on Monday, with many people saying how much they admired him and had enjoyed watching him play.

Japanese sports stars were among the mourners.

“(Say you’re) kidding … Kobe,” tweeted Yuta Watanabe, who plays for the Memphis Grizzlies in the NBA.

“Thank you Kobe. You are the reason why I started dreaming to be a NBA player. Rest In Peace,” he posted on Instagram.

“I don’t know what’s happened. I can’t believe it … #8 #24,” tweeted Yudai Baba, who plays for the Texas Legends in the NBA G League, its minor league organization, using Bryant’s famous jersey numbers.

But it wasn’t just basketball players who were moved by Kobe’s death.

“It’s just awful. I’m just so sad. I can’t believe it,” tweeted Keisuke Honda, one of Japan’s most famous soccer players, who now coaches the Cambodian national team.

“I painfully realize that life is fragile and fleeting,” he wrote in another tweet in Japanese. “People say your perspective on life changes when you lose someone close to you. The fact that I am getting that feeling with Kobe’s death is probably proof that he was that great.”

The Kobe beef association’s website said Bryant’s parents had tasted Kobe beef on a visit to Japan, although the NBA merely recorded that his parents had named him after a type of steak seen on a restaurant menu.

Genuine Kobe beef is taken from the Tajima strain of Japanese black cattle, born and raised on farms in the prefecture of Hyogo and fed on grain fodder, and is known for its flavor, tenderness and fatty, marbled texture.

Kobe only started to export its beef around the world in 2012, although beef from Japanese “wagyu” cattle imported to the United States is often passed off as Kobe beef there.

Bryant is also remembered in Japan for donating money to recovery efforts after the 1995 Kobe earthquake. He visited Kobe in 2001 and was honored as a friendship ambassador, the Japan Times reported.

Kobe Bryant’s father, Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, is also well-known here, after coaching there for many years and twice taking the Tokyo Apaches to the runners-up spot in the Japanese basketball league, reportedly using his son’s dedication to training to inspire his team.

“I remember our very first season under Joe Bryant, he took the Japanese players for a mini camp at the Lakers’ practice facility where the (WNBA’s) LA Sparks were practicing at the time,” former Japanese-American guard Darin Satoshi Maki told the Japan Times. 

“We got there early and Kobe was all by himself, drenched in sweat, and Jelly reminded us how we had to put in the extra hours to be great. We heard the stories on TV and the Internet but to see it in person, we were just in awe of him and that kind of set the tone for us in that camp.”

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Simon Denyer is The Washington Post’s bureau chief in Tokyo, covering Japan and the Koreas. He previously worked as The Post’s bureau chief in Beijing and New Delhi; as a Reuters bureau chief in Washington, New Delhi and Islamabad; and a Reuters correspondent in Nairobi, New York and London. Follow Simon

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