(L-R) Erik Shoji and Kawika Shoji pose for a photo together after a game at the FIVB Nations League in 2018.
Growing up in Honolulu, brothers Erik and Kawika Shoji were often exposed to Japanese culture thanks to their great-grandparents, who were from that country. Now as members of the U.S. men’s volleyball team, they play in Japan regularly.
So after winning Olympic bronze medals together at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, the brothers are very much looking forward to the opportunity to represent Team USA again at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
“I think that there is definitely motivation because it is a city and country that is special to us and to volleyball,” Kawika said. “They are big volleyball fans in Japan. They have a great history and culture of volleyball. So it’s just a great place to play.”
Added Erik: “We always love playing in Japan. We play there a lot almost every summer. It’s always a special place for us. We grew up with some of the culture, the food. Our grandparents were pretty invested in the Japanese culture. We don’t know the language, but we’re really excited to play there and hopefully represent the United State in the Olympics there.”
Erik is 29 and Kawika is 31, and they have played volleyball together for much of their lives. They got into the sport because their father, Dave Shoji, was the women’s volleyball coach at the University of Hawaii for 42 years.
Erik said he started playing when he was 7 and Kawika was 9.
“Basically, we grew up in the gym and just developed at a young age a passion and love for the game,” Erik said. “The gym was like our playground and that’s how we got into it.
“Definitely just being in the gym and surrounded by great players and dad as a coach helped develop our skills. We knew we weren’t the most athletic or the biggest or the tallest so we needed to really learn and develop our skills and ball control.”
They did, going on to become great players, each playing and studying at Stanford and then making the U.S. national team about seven years ago. They have since won World Cup and World League gold medals, while also finishing third at the 2018 world championship.
May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and though their volleyball careers prevent the Shoji brothers from being in their home state of Hawaii that often — Erik says he is there just two or three weeks a year — they are very proud of their heritage.
For now, though, their lives are mostly far from home.
In addition to spending a good deal of time with the U.S. team, they also play for pro volleyball teams overseas because there aren’t such leagues in the U.S. Playing there can be long, roughly seven months during the season.
The two have played for teams in many countries, including Germany, Turkey, Italy, Russia and Finland. Kawika played in Milan last year, where his daughter was born 14 months ago.
“The experience is unique because you’re playing in another country, sometimes with another language with different cultures,” Kawika said. “So you just learn as much about other people in the world. I spent four years in Berlin, so I speak a decent amount of German.”
Erik, who will play in Moscow again next season, says playing overseas can be rough sometimes but overall is a very rewarding experience.
“It can be challenging for us when you’re just being away from family and friends, and just the comfort of living in the states,” he said. “But over time you kind of develop how to live overseas. Your style. Throughout the years I feel like I’m getting more and more adjusted.”
Clearly, the temperature is much warmer in their home state of Hawaii than playing in Russia, Germany or Finland in the winter.
“It was still below freezing yesterday (in Russia),” Erik said earlier this week. “And I’m in Hawaii right now where it is beautiful, sunny and 80 degrees. It couldn’t be more polar opposite.”
While Erik hopes to also compete at the 2024 Olympics in Paris, Kawika says the Tokyo Games will likely be his last. He is working on his master’s degree in sports psychology and considering going into coaching or mental coaching in sports. He also eventually wants to move back to Hawaii at some point.
But for now, they are focusing on making the 2020 Olympic team and earning a gold medal there, which they came short of in Rio.
“We had a heartbreaking match in the semifinals and then came back and regrouped and fought through a really tough bronze-medal match, and just showed a lot of who we were as a team,” Kawika said. “But then we left something on the table. We knew that we were probably the best team in that tournament and at the end we came up a little short. We were satisfied with the medal but a little disappointed as well.”
Now they’re hoping for a different ending next year, when they might win a gold medal — and possibly be cheered on — in the home country of their ancestors.
Jim Caple is a former longtime writer for ESPN and the St. Paul Pioneer Press based in Seattle. He has covered sports on six continents, including 12 Olympic Games and 20 World Series. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.