It's Not All About Sumo
It may be the more traditional sports that spring to mind when thinking of Japan, and certainly sumo, karate and kendo have many participants and followers, but as with many aspects of Japanese culture there is plenty of modern influence sitting alongside the more historical aspects.
The undisputed king of team sports in Japan is baseball, introduced by an American at the end of the 19th Century. Although happy to take on a foreign sport, the Japanese were keen that it should have a distinctly Japanese name, so whilst most other global sports are known in Japanese as ‘tenisu…sakkaa…basukettoboru’ etc (did you get them all?), baseball is known as ‘yakyu’, meaning field-ball. Kids get hooked on baseball young in Japan, with even primary schools having their own team, always decked out in full team colours. By high school competition for places is fierce, and the very best teams get to battle it out live on National TV in the All-Japan high school tournament, played at one of the largest stadiums in the country, seating 50,000 screaming fans!
Pro baseball has a massive following in Japan, with at least one match seemingly taking place almost every evening of the week from spring through to autumn, when the season climaxes with the play-offs and armchair fans across the country are glued to their screens. But perhaps the ultimate respect is reserved for the handful of Japanese baseball players who ply their trade in the US Major League, such as Ichiro Suzuki (Seattle Mariners) and Hideki Matsui (formally of New York Yankees). Every pitch, swing and movement of these heroes is followed closely by the fans back home, and barely an ad break goes by without one or more of them endorsing the latest trend in clothing, motoring or refreshment.
Following in baseball’s wake is soccer (or football as the IJT office would insist). Many football fans of a certain age will recall England’s Gary Lineker winding down his career with Nagoya Grampus Eight in the early 1990’s, but the J-League might have slipped from their memory since then. However, both J1 and J2 (the two divisions) are still going strong, with colourfully named teams such as frequent champions Kashima Antlers (Kashima means ‘deer island’) and Yamagata Montedio (combination of Monte and Dio, mountain and god in Italian – of course)! Although not as popular as baseball, football has a strong following, and the focus on teamwork resonates strongly with the Japanese psyche. The national team, the ‘Samurai Blue’ get fans hurrying to the bar after work to watch them compete in the Asia Cup, or (with mixed success) the FIFA World Cup, most notably as joint hosts of course in 2002 with Korea.
What else? Well, Japan has a handful of top golfers, both male and female, and getting out on the fairways (or even just the driving range) is a welcome break from the stress of business life for many salarymen in the cities. Volleyball is taken very seriously, with the women’s national team highly ranked, and swimming is also a popular pastime, with Kosuke Kitajima dominating Olympic breaststroke events in Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008. Add in figure skating (Japan has several world champions), pro-wrestling, rugby (Japan to host the 2019 World Cup) horse racing (one of Japan’s few legal forms of gambling) and various forms of motorsport, and you have a rich mosaic of sports. Rest assured that although baseball and soccer may dominate the back pages, there is a sport for just about everyone if you scratch beneath the surface.
With such an ageing population one should not overlook the sports favoured by the elderly in Japan. Walk through the suburbs of any town or city early in the morning and you are likely to spot a game of gateball (a leisurely sport similar to croquet), and out in the countryside fishermen take to the lakes and rivers. Even less strenuous (and just about qualifying for inclusion under this topic!) are popular board games like shogi (Japanese chess) and go (a form of draughts/checkers). And finally, no discussion of sport in Japan would be complete without a mention of pachinko. Huge arcades with garish neon signs house row after row of noisy vertical pinball machines, in front of which sit row after row of motionless (and emotionless) individuals, all waiting and hoping for the balls to drop in the right place. Sport keeps you fit they say…!
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