It is an exciting time to be a Japanese sports’ fan. The Rugby Union World Cup will take place in the country this September, and the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics Games are getting ever closer.
For most of the Western world, what comes to mind when thinking about Japan’s sports culture is sumo and, for manga fans, baseball. These are part of Japanese culture, yes, but we would be remiss in thinking this is where it ends. After all, big International events aren’t coming over to Japan only for the sushi and kawaii. There is definitely something more!
Having a look at Japan’s sports culture means delving into its religious and feudal history. Sumo used to be a Shinto ritual, and the survival of the Japanese people is said to have been determined by a sumo match between the Gods! The legend, written in the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters), dates from 712. Kendo, another traditional sport, originated with the need for samurai to hone their swordsmanship and evolved into a spiritual practice thanks to Zen Buddhism. It was also, before and after the Second World War, part of the Japanese students’ curriculum, removed by the Americans for being too “Japanese.” Kyudo, like Kendo, comes from the samurai tradition, and this time it’s all about proving your skills with the bow. Military exercises transformed into highly entertaining and popular sports? We’re all for it! Aikido translates to “way of the harmonious spirit” and incorporates Japanese dance, Shintoism, Buddhism, Karate and Kendo into a defensive martial art that takes spirituality to the next level.
A very Japanese Olympics
The history of Japan and the Olympics starts at the Stockholm’s Games of 1912, as the only Asian country participating, with just two athletes. What a long way we’ve come, almost 500 medals later!
To understand modern Japan’s sports culture, it’s necessary to remember that Japan held the Summer Olympics once before, in 1964. Every year, the second Monday of October is Health and Sports Day, and it’s a National Holiday, commemorating the Games of Tokyo 1964.
Whilst we’re sure many a Japanese will be hoping for a new National Holiday following the 2020 Games, the rest of the world will be looking forward to some quintessentially Japanese display of sportsmanship. With a national sport, karate, making its debut at the Tokyo Games, these Olympics will be infused with the host country’s national identity throughout, something that hasn’t always been so obvious at past Games – where was the cricket during London 2012 and the capoeira at Rio 2016?
The sports that make the Japanese’s hearts sing
The most popular sport in Japan is baseball. It was introduced to the nation in 1872 by an American, and the rest is, as they say, history. With the War and the changes the USA made in Japan in its aftermath, we see baseball being introduced in schools – remember how Kendo was taken off the students’ curriculum? The Japanese got baseball instead. They adopted the sport without ever looking back, leading to incredibly vocal and colourful supporters packing stadiums to the rafters.
Next in Japanese’s hearts is soccer. National identity is no defence against a sport that is played and loved all over the world. Football truly is THE global sport on Earth, and the Japanese embrace it as wholeheartedly as the English or Brazilians. It came to Japan through a British Lieutenant-Commander who was training the Imperial Japanese Navy. From training exercise and cardio, soccer took wings and Japan even co-hosted the 2002 FIFA World Cup with South Korea.
Rugby isn’t anywhere near as popular as soccer or baseball, but it does have a history in the archipelago. Traditionally, the sport was played by the elite at Japan’s private universities, so it isn’t so different from its roots at British boarding schools. But with the National team’s win over South Africa at the 2015 World Cup and the 2019 World Cup being held on home ground, we can be sure to see Japan getting rugby fever.
Japan’s sports culture is not confined to sumo and baseball. With popular sports like volleyball, swimming, figure skating, gymnastics and even horse racing – one of the only legal forms of gambling – rounding off the overwhelming love of soccer and, hopefully – at least after the World Cup – rugby, Japan should never again be thought of as anything but a major sports’ nation.