Sports culture in Japan

When you think of Japan, the first thing that comes to mind might not be its connection to sports culture. But Japan, which will host the Olympics in 2020, has a rich sporting history, with traditional Japanese disciplines practiced side-by-side with more recent imports.

From the dohyō to the pitcher’s mound

Until recently, sumo and baseball led the way in terms of playing popularity and viewership. The former lays claim to being the world’s oldest sport, and still symbolises a highly ritualised reenactment of Japanese culture and society, in which notions of respect, discipline and purity are deeply embedded within the physical action in itself. And baseball, with its deep ties to Japanese corporate life and work culture, has unsurprisingly become the go-to sport for a country where work is almost inseparable from the rest of one’s life. Between them, the two comprehensively covered the needs of post-war Japanese society: pairing the veneration of historical values and rituals with a celebration of the sort of hardworking spirit that was perceived as the catalyst for Japan’s re-emergence as an economic force.

“Japan has a rich sporting history, with traditional Japanese disciplines practiced side-by-side with more recent imports.”

The pace of social change in Japan post-2000 has been rapid, and so too has its sports culture; as globalisation combines with shifting cultural trends to refresh the landscape. Baseball and sumo still represent two of the three most popular sports, but they’ve been joined by soccer – the world’s most popular sport establishing itself here as it has almost everywhere across the globe. The recent influx of senior top-tier talent, including Andrés Iniesta, Lukas Podolski and Fernando Torres, into Japan’s top division, the J1 League, has spurred interest in soccer. That said, the division will have to contend with the branding issues that the MLS faced in America, and make sure it is not simply seen as a retirement home for aging European stars.

The buzz around the domestic game was most recently spurred by the success of the national team in the 2018 FIFA World Cup. After a shambolic build-up, in which manager Vahid Halilhodzic was fired just two months before the tournament was set to kick off, most people in Japan tentatively predicted a “last 16” finish for the team. This prediction proved correct, but the team’s spirited performance in their defeat by Belgium’s Golden Generation did little to temper the euphoria of the group stage, which started with a win over South American heavyweights Colombia. It was the first time that an Asian team had ever bested a team from South America in the World Cup, and it immediately flipped the narrative around the Japanese squad. Fans’ frustrations that their tournament hopes looked set to rely upon aging stars (Japan’s starting eleven for their four games had an average age of 29.2 years, the oldest of any of their historical World Cup squads) ultimately transformed into celebrations, and the likes of Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda proved that one can’t be too quick to write off experience – a fitting analogy as the wider country wrestles with its own generational attitudes and concerns.

Serving up sporting diversity

Looking beyond the top three sports, what else gets Japanese people excited? Haitian-American-Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka’s recent US Open win was more than just a victory for tennis in Japan – the country’s first-ever Grand Slam win – it was a victory for every haafu kid and mixed-race person who has ever felt underrepresented within a society that perpetuates a visage of cultural and ethnic homogeneity that marginalises so many individuals and communities. Foreign nationals might only count for 1.6% of the country’s overall population, but at 2.23 million, this is still the equivalent of half the entire population of New Zealand. And as Japan contends with its status as a rapidly aging nation that already faces severe labour shortages, immigration will be a dominant issue for years to come.

“Good sportsmanship is woven implicitly into the fabric of all sports culture.”

Then there’s rugby union. Traditionally a sport for academic elites in Japan’s private universities, rugby’s popularity has increased significantly in the last decade. Interest in the sport is at an all-time high, coming off the Brave Blossoms’ first-ever victory over South Africa in the 2015 World Cup, which captured the collective imagination just like any classic underdog story. The popularity of rugby’s distant cousin, American football, has fared less well. The public image of the sport was tarnished earlier this year when a college coach was found to have encouraged overly violent play in a match between Nihon University and Kwansei Gakuin University. In a country where good sportsmanship is woven implicitly into the fabric of all sports culture, it’s hard to see American football’s reputation recovering easily.

Looking for a legacy

For all the predictions made about the future of sports in Japan, most people aren’t looking much further than 2020, and the Tokyo Olympics. The Summer Games have been dominating headlines for a while now – not always for the right reasons – but for all the skepticism, grumbles over public expenditure, and controversy around plagiarised logos and scuppered failed stadium bids, there remains, as with every Olympics, an air of excitement around Tokyo 2020 and high hopes for its legacy.

The biggest sporting issue that Tokyo faces is that the city already lacks space for people to play. Futsal pitches sit hidden atop of skyscrapers, and kids travel for miles to Yoyogi Park’s basketball courts just for a game of pickup. More sports facilities available for local people once all the buzz has died down would certainly be one positive legacy for the Summer Games. But success will also be judged on its impact beyond sports culture, and whether Tokyo 2020 can deliver on widely expected improvements to the urban landscape, including accessibility, multilingual signage, and improved transport infrastructure.

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics had a profound impact on the city’s development, including the construction of four new five-star hotels, a $55 million monorail to Haneda Airport, and a billion-dollar bullet train. And as the government recently announced, for the first time ever, one people in five in Japan is 70 or older, when 2020 rolls around there will likely be at least 26 million over-70s who will have clear memories of the 1964 Olympics. Few of them would likely have expected to experience a second Olympic Games in Tokyo in their lifetime, but their expectations, and, ultimately, their judgement, will be as important as anyone’s.

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