A Look Into Japanese Sports Culture

Shotaro Honda Moore

Sports Culture in Japan

Japan is not often associated with a sports culture by other countries around the world. This is probably due to many other perceptions of the country that outweigh this culture, and possibly rightfully so. Whether that be technological development, a unique culture dating back thousands of years, or even video games and anime. It’s sports culture is often an after-thought. That being said, Japan without a doubt, has an affinity for athletics that rivals any other country.

Walking around in Japan you can often spot the ubiquitous sports culture. Whether that be the baseball bars that can be found wondering around, or that soccer team that you get stuck with on the same train car in the afternoon. You can see students often carrying Kendo or Kyudo equipment coming home from school, something quite unique to Japan. Outrageously large driving range nets are scattered all over Tokyo prefecture and it’s very hard to walk around for fifteen minutes in a town without passing at least one baseball diamond or soccer field.

In order to understand the basis for the sports culture in Japan, one must first look to the religious and historical development of the country. Things such as the native religion of Shintoism, and the subsequent Buddhist mixture. The practices of the Japanese feudal kingdom, the Bakfu Government, also play a staggering role of athletics still in Japan. Finally the undeniable influence of foreign countries like USA, China and Canada.

Religious Influences in Japanese Sports Culture

A Shinto Gate in Yoyogi Park.

It’s true that the Japanese in modern times aren’t a religious bunch, despite the numerous shrines and temples everywhere. This still doesn’t stop the fact that religion has played a relatively strong role in cultural development. As you may know Japan has two main religions. The first is the native religion of Shintoism that has written records dating to the 8th century, however practices obviously precede them. Much of the religion is focused around Kami which are essentially spirits or spiritual essences that are said to reside within many things in our natural world. Animate and inanimate objects are both said to have Kami. From trees, rocks and rivers, to animals and people. The majority of Shintoist practices center around communication with Kami in some form or another.

The second religion is Buddhism brought from Korea via mainland China around the sixth century. It is really a mixture of the two that has come to define Japan. The majority of Japanese people do practice some form of Shinto or Buddhist rituals, even if only on special occasions. Many Japanese children go through a Shintoist practice at young age which is called shichi go san (7–5–3) and is said to bring prosperity to one’s life. On the other hand, most Japanese funerals are carried out in a Buddhist ceremony with a monk.

The importance of religion for individuals in Japan, however, does not seem to be particularly high. For many it is more a tradition that one can connect with rather than something that will shape the character of their actions or their daily lives.

Sumo & Shintoism

If you need an example of how religion has directly impacted Japanese sports culture, you need only to look at the often proclaimed Japanese national sport, in sumo. The origins of sumo are closely tied to Shintoism as it is believed that the first acts of sumo wrestling were used as a means to worship ancient Shintoist gods to provide a good harvest. This speculation comes from the drawing of sumo like figures in cave paintings.

Early depictions of sumo wrestling.

What is known with much more clarity is that sumo was a common event on display in the Heian period. It was often used as a means to not only entertain the nobles of the Heian Court but also as a way to pay respect to Kami. Here is a picture from the Kamakura period that shows depictions of early forms of sumo.

As the sport developed it increasingly became more of a spectacle, but even today sumo still carries many religious elements. There are only six grand tournaments each year. One in Osaka, one in Fukuoka and one in Nagoya. The other three take place in Tokyo. Each tournament lasts fifteen days. Everything from the mawashi the sumos wear to the pre match rituals, it is all bathed in shintoist symbols. Here is a look at just some of the ways that Shintoism is involved in the process of a sumo match.

● The first day of the tournament is the Dohyo-iri. The entering of the ring ceremony where the top 5 divisions of Sumo are introduced. The first division of Yokozuna have a special introduction which only they are allowed to perform. During this ceremony various symbols of Shintoism are present. The Yokozuna will adorn a hemp made rope with an iconic zigzag pattern found across Shintoist shrines.

● Before each bout shorter pre-match rituals are performed which include a cleansing of the mouth with water. This is a similar practice one partakes in when cleansing hands upon entering Shintoist temples and shrines.

● Salt is also thrown around the ring to purify the dohyo and to avoid injury. The symbolic stomping of the legs is done in order to scare away evil Kami from the ring.

● A sumo who reaches the top rank of yokozuna, will go to the Meiji Shrine in Tokyo and perform a ceremony before their status becomes recognized.

Newly crowned Yokuzuna, Hakuho performing the entering ceremony at the Meiji Temple in Tokyo.

Sumos may be on the receiving end of many poor jokes in North America, but in Japan the status as a sumo athlete is one of high prestige. The link to the religious roots of Japan makes it one of the more serious sporting events to partake in and spectate.

Buddhism & Martial Arts

Buddhism also plays a role in modern day sports culture within Japan. There is a difference between Buddhism and Japanese Zen Buddhism. Although mainland sects do exist in Japan, it is Zen Buddhism that has dominated since its arrival in the 12th century. Explaining what Zen Buddhism is could be a whole article unto itself and if interested there are people with far more expertise on the subject. The basics are these: Zen was first developed in India, made its way through China and finally to Japan. What makes Zen unique is the heavy focus on meditation. Zen in Japanese literally translates to meditate. It is believed that it is important for people to consistently develop their consciousness to reach enlightenment. Enlightenment has no set definition, nor does it necessarily mean the same to different individuals. It emphasis the experience of living from moment to moment.

Some pretty obvious elements of Zen Buddhism appear in athletics such as the martial arts. Many teaching and ideologies translate between the two. A great example of this can be found in the most popular of the Japanese martial arts, Karate.

● The Dojo, which is often associated with martial arts, was first used by Buddhist monks as the area in which meditation would be practiced. The Dojo became popularized as a place of training in a slew of martial art movies from Hollywood in the 70’s and 80’s.

● The use of force strictly for self-defense purposes in karate is a dogma that Buddhist monks follow as well.

● Many forms of meditation and breathing exercises done in martial arts are derived from meditation practices created from Buddhism.

● The Japanese word Wabi Sabi is an aesthetics style that was originated from Buddhism. Some of the main concepts of Wabi Sabi are imperfection and simplicity. You can see this Wabi Sabi style and notion of Zen in the white minimalist uniforms worn by students in karate.

A standar karate uniform with a black belt.

As you can see, religion had an incredible impact on some forms of athletics that are uniquely recognized as Japanese. The religious teaching of Shintoism and Zen Buddhism undoubtedly led the way to these forms of athletics but they are far from the only factors that helped define Japan’s sports culture. There are other things from Japans history that would ultimately create what we know as modern day Japanese sports culture.

Historical Influences on Japanese Sports Culture

Like many other societies, Japan’s history was heavily dictated by warfare. For Japan, one of its most recognizable cultural symbols is that of the Samurai. Although the samurai government, known as the Bakfu was not always in power, the practice of Samurai predates it. The word “Samurai” means in traditional Chinese Kanji “to wait upon” and was first introduced as a social class during Asuka and Nara periods. They were individuals who were listed as a sixth rank in the social hierarchy. They often served as bodyguards for various groups of individuals, from merchants, to farmers, and nobility. Eventually the samurai would form into clans lead by daimyo. The daimyo were able to gain enough power throughout Japan and eventually became the defacto rulers of the country, despite the emperor officially remaining its figure head. The Shogun, leader of the Daimyo, would remain the position of power during some of the most significant periods in history, from 1185 to 1868. There were three different Shogunates during this time. Power was constantly a source of conflict until the Tokugawa Clan would win the final civil war which began the Edo period. That’s almost seven hundred years of samurai-based rule and culture governing the country, so it would seem quite obvious that these roots would still lie in the modern day culture.

Samurai holding a katana.

During the Edo period there was no open warfare and it was mainly a time of peace. Although no pitched battles between rival samurai clans would occur, the art of swordplay and archery would not be lost. These martial skills did go through a change from a strictly practical use to one of an athletic or ritualistic displays. This would occur most often in non-lethal events, but full sprung duels were not tremendously uncommon. These were called Shinken Shobu. Still, society started to frown upon these open displays of fatal violence and most sought a more peaceful version to continue to hone these skills. One such way was the development of Kendo and Kyudo.

Kendo

One of these transitions was the art of Kenjutsu to that of Kendo. Kenjutsu was the art and the teachings of swordplay during warring periods, while Kendo is a non-lethal variation that became a training mechanism. Kendo often focuses on the combination of artistry and functionality rather than solely the latter. The training became much more focused on the development of the individual in a complete sense. Concepts such as Katsunin-ken would teach individuals not only of the art of swordsmanship but also the strict self-disciplinary lifestyle taught in bushido code.

Kendo first began taking shape sometime between 1711–1715 A.D when the shinai, “bamboo sword” and the bogu or kendogu, “armour” were introduced. However it was still not in the modern form we see today. Then it was known as Gekiken, which is the Japanese term for free-fencing. Gekiken was not a seperate entity unto itself, however, and was part of the larger teachings of kenjutsu. It would slowly gain tremendous support, especially in Edo, but would still have its critics denying the legitimacy. Gekiken would be introduced into the Japanese schooling system sometime in the 1820’s. This introduction to the education system’s athletics saw its popularity grow tremendously as it was a safe alternative to traditional training for children. Gekiken would have a tremedous range of styles permitted as opposed to the standardized form of modern day Kendo.

Sakoku was lifted following the actions of the United States Navy and Commodore Perry in 1954. The Meiji Restoration began fourteen years later and the Edo period would end. This essentially restored power to the Emperor and ended the closed door policy to foreigners. In 1876, as Japan was transitioning both politically and culturally away from the feudal powers of the Bakfu and the Shogunate, swords became illegal to wear for samurai.This change was not well met by many samurai and led to the eventual erosion of the bushido code and practice of traditional kenjutsu.

The modern name of kendo would be introduced in the 1920’s with the All Japan Kendo Foundation being founded in 1928. This was a much more specialized format than kendo’s predecessor gekiken. Once again it was integrated into schools, but this was short lived. Following the end of World War Two, with America occupying Japan, they began to make changes to the education system. They began pulling out kendo as well as any other militaristic practices, including oaths recited by students at the beginning of the day. This was done so by the Americans to eliminate the overly “nationalistic” attributes of Japanese society.

Kendo would make its resurgence in 1952 when Japan was given its independence back from the US. The ban of martial art sports was thus lifted and The All Japan Kendo Federation was founded. The first move was not to organize competitions or open private schools, but to place it back into the schooling system as an educational tool. Eighteen years later The International Kendo Federation would be created, which was completely separate from the government. Today kendo is practiced world-wide with over a million athletes. Every three years the World Kendo Championship is held, usually at the end of May. The the host cities are constantly changed. The men’s division was created in 1970 and the women’s in 1997. There are both individual and team events. Team Japan has only ever lost one gold medal to the South Koreans in 2006 and no individual tournament has been won by a non-Japanese native.

Modern display of kendo with standardized armour and bamboo swords.

Kendo was not the only samurai warring practice that would become an athletic tool for both educational and physical training. Kyudo would also make a very similar transition.

Kyudo

A second prevalent athletic from samurai culture that can be still found in Japanese sports culture today is kyudo. Kyudo, like kendo, is the modern interpretation of militaristic practices in a non-lethal setting. Kyudo uses the Japanese long bow, which may possibly have been an even more influential weapon than the katana. Of course there is no doubt that the Japanese katana is the most iconic symbol of the samurai warrior, but the impact of the yumi (bow) can’t be understated.

A Japanese Yumi was quite large often being taller than the wielder.

The use of bows in Japan can be traced to the Japanese Paleolithic Ages but the first account of the yumi in particular was in the 3rd century in written Chinese text. The oldest yumi ever uncovered is from the 5th century. It was found somewhere near Nara, Japan’s original capital. This means that the yumi preceded the creation of the samurai class entirely and was a mainstay in the military for ranged warfare until the arrival of the Portuguese in 1543. The Portuguese brought with them firearms and gunpowder which naturally saw the decline of the yumis influence in battle.

Kyudo first developed as the recreational sport we see today during the Edo period. With no more civil war and outsiders essentially banned, the need for use in the practical sense deteriorated. It was actually monks who transformed the lethal teachings of kyujutsu of the samurai to kyudo which was partaken in by every class of society.

Similarly, during the Meiji restoration as Japan saw the evaporation of the Samurai class, kyudo, like kendo, suffered. It was saved somewhat in academia. Kyudo masters were able to combine ceremonial shooting with the practical shooting and taught them at The Imperial University of Tokyo. In 1949 the All Japanese Kyudo Federation was formed and would create the modern rules for competition and graduation we see today.

A modern day kyudo event has a long of ceremonial elements, making it a unique experience.

The longbow is still very prevalent in today’s society. The discipline is still currently offered in the educational system’s athletic departments. Often students coming home carry their equipment and can often be seen still wearing traditional garb. It is a unique sight that helps embody some of the aspects of Japan’s unique historical culture. That being said, as much as the internal roots of Japan has fostered its modern day sports culture, it would be a glaring oversight not to mention those aspects brought to Japan externally.

Foreign Nations Impact on Japanese Sports Culture.

Despite the obvious unique qualities to Japanese athletics, the influence brought from other countries cannot be denied. Despite Sumo being an iconic sport, the most popular are those from abroad. Soccer is one of the most popular as it is with much of the globe. Baseball is the most dominant professional sports league within Japan. Tennis, golf, rugby, basketball and a plethora of Olympic sports are also some of the most practiced athletics.

Soccer

Japan’s second most popular sport among youth males, and second among spectators, is Sakka. The game of soccer was introduced to Japan in 1873, by a British man born in Quebec. His name was Lieutenant-Commander Archibald L. Douglas. He would be stationed as an instructor for the Imperial Japanese Navy and taught his cadets the sport. It would become quite common for the military to take part in games as a form of cardio, and also as a way to break up monotony of regular training. The sport would eventually become a popular pastime for those outside the military as well.

Forty years later in 1921 The Japan National Football Association was founded and an early form of professionalism in the sport began to take shape in the JSL(Japan Soccer League). It had some early success but what really drew the attention of fans was The National Team. Since soccer is the most popular sport globally, it helped spur support for Japan’s team to be competitive to earn respect on an international stage. The national team won an Olympic bronze medal in Mexico in the 1968 and is the height of their achievements to date. This would also be the high point of the JSL both in terms of popularity and talent.

Old graphic of the JSL.

The JSL, and soccer in general, would go into decline in the 1980’s. There could be a number of reasons for the popularity of the sport dropping. Lack of funding for professionals in Japan caused top level soccer talent to either leave Japan or work day jobs to make a living. It should be noted that release of Nintendo’s first home system also may have caused a decline in youth participation in Soccer as a pastime. Due to this steep decline changes were made and in 1993 the JSL was replaced by the Japanese Professional Football League. This meant that many of the top teams could actually retain their talent rather than lose them to foreign leagues. It also meant that teams no longer had to rely solely on corporate sponsors and gave opportunity for smaller teams to make their way to the top division. Attendance, viewership and media coverage would increase as a result.

Currently the Japanese national team, nicknamed The Samurai Blue, is one of the dominant squads in the Asian soccer scene, with Japan often qualifying for the World Cup. Despite having little success on the world’s biggest stage, the support from Japanese fans is unwavering. Of course much of the success of their team is owed to the dedication of the athletes, coaches, staffs and sponsors, but it is undeniable the impact foreign countries had on the development of soccer in Japan. From a British man born in Quebec bringing the sport via the navy, to foreign leagues stealing talent away forcing administrative changes to top level competition in Japan.

Some of the Japanese national team members at the 2018 World Cup.

Baseball

Baseball has had quite an interesting rise to fame within Japan. From the pastime of American soldiers occupying Japan, to the most successful of Japanese sports leagues in the Nippon Baseball League. Many may assume there is wide-spread resentment directed towards the United States following World War II from the Japanese. This simply isn’t the case for the majority of the population. Of course there is no doubt some would hold strong feelings towards the United States, but there is actually a lot of respect directed towards them. Japan felt that following World War II America could have enforced their belief system upon Japan and taken away many of its unique cultural elements. There were indeed reforms to the school system, including removing Kendo as stated above and removing the oaths pledged to the emperor for students, but much of it remained. What was one of the changes enforced by the Americans was the additional support for Baseball in schools.

A Tokyo Giants game being played in Tokyo Dome.

Now don’t get it twisted, baseball was not forced into popularity post-World War II. It actually came to Japan during the Meiji period when an influx of foreigners, especially Americans, were making their way to Japan. Baseball began to be introduced to schools in 1872 by American, Horace Wilson. This would lead to professional teams being created no more than six years later. The ultimate explosion in popularity for the sport was not caused solely by the Americans but also by the Japanese media who on two specific occasions caused national fascination of the sport to skyrocket in the late 19th and early 20th century.

A country club established in 1868 called the Yokohama Country & Athletic Club was exclusive to only foreigners. This of course created some tension in Yokohama as many were critical of new foreigners receiving luxury treatment unavailable to Japanese natives. Knowing that many of the members were Americans and baseball to be one of their iconic sports, a Japanese prep school for The University of Tokyo, Ichiko Highschool challenged the club to a match in 1891. It would take five years for the match to finally take place and the high school students went on to win 29–4. The Japanese press would make this one of the most prolific stories of the year, dubbing the students heroes of Japan. With the obvious tension between the two nations due to America forcing shukoku (closed door policy) to be ended, many Japanese saw this as a victory, regardless of the actual significance. The club wanted to save face and issued another challenge to a less experienced high school and went on to lose once again, this time 32–9. The media would taunt the Americans for the loss. This would drastically increase the participation in baseball in schools with already established programs and helped create new programs in less populated prefectures. It is important to note that the members of these clubs were by no means professional athletes and the YC & AC club did win the third contest after drafting local soldiers from the navy, but even then it was a narrow victory.

Baseball teams would go professional in the 1920s with some success coming in the mid 1930s. This was in large part due to one of Japan’s professional teams holding a match against the American All-Star Team, featuring some of the biggest stars at the time. However there was no actual professional league infrastructure until 1936, when the “Greater Japan Tokyo Baseball Club” was formed and established the Japanese Baseball League. It would grow quite large in popularity and by 1950 the league was renamed to Nippon Professional Baseball. During this time it was split into the two divisions we see today. They are the Pacific League and Central League. Following each division’s individual playoffs, the winners face off for the Japan Series.

Hiroshima Carps uniforms.

The rules are very similar to those of the MLB, but there are some differences. The size of some things are smaller, such as the baseballs, stadiums and strike zones. The officiating is done in much the same way its American counterpart. Not only are the technical aspects of the game similar but the aesthetics are as well. While not all teams share logo similarities, quite a few do, such as the Tokyo Giants. Perhaps the most notable is the Hiroshima Carps similarity to the Cincinnati Reds.

While the NPB is no doubt the powerhouse behind the widespread popularity of the sport, with top athletes making millions of dollars, the amateur scene cannot go unnoticed. As said before the educational system’s athletic departments post-World War II saw increased support for baseball. As such, not only are the high school championships nationally televised, the Japanese national team for the little league series is a constant presence at the global stage. The Japanese team is the reigning defending champions and has the second most wins of all time with eleven.

It has for a while been at these world stages where a nation with such a strong nationalistic history has found its biggest support. When a Japanese team or athlete has the chance to represent the country on a global stage, they do so aware of the number of viewers back home that are cheering them on. One such obvious stage is the Olympic Games, in which Japan has excelled. Recently there have been surprising results like in the 4x100 relay in Rio, or less surprising, almost expected results with back to back gold medalists in Yuzuru Hanyu in figure skating and Kohei Uchimura in gymnastics. The first time Japanese athletes competed at the Olympics, was in the 1912 Stockholm games. Originally it was not planned by the Japanese government to participate, but due to a foreigner reaching out, they showed up.

Olympics

The Japanese Olympic teams have been able to capture medals in many sports ranging from figure skating to relay, with the most coming in Judo. The Japanese did not participate in the first of the modern day Olympics in 1896, held in Athens. They did not make and appearance for 16 years until the 1912 Summer Olympics, which took place in Stockholm, Sweden.

At first Japan didn’t actually plan on attending the Olympics as much of their concern was on modernizing the country after the Meiji Restoration. It wasn’t until Kristian Hellstrom reached out to the Japanese government inquiring about their participation. The original goal was the make the Olympics a global event and the fact no country from Asia had participated in them was a major blemish.

Japan agreed but had a fear of being embarrassed for a few reasons. First they had absolutely no knowledge of the Olympic Games as they had no experience in them and the media coverage was not readily available in Japanese. The second issue was that the athletes they had in the country were not necessarily training in those events specific to the games and thus would be at a distinct disadvantage. Ultimately the government decided they should take part in the event as it would help establish themselves a modern global presence.

A old photo of Kano Jigorō, first Japanese Olympic Committee leader.

The man put in charge was actually one of the most influential people in Japanese athletics. Kanō Jigorō was selected to be the representative for Japan on the International Olympic Committee. One of the main reasons Jigorō sama was selected was due to some of his prior knowledge on the Olympic Games. Jigorō was the founder of modern day judo which was actually created to be a style of wrestling more similar to the style of Ancient Greece.

Jigorō would decide to send two individuals to the games. They were Mishima Yahiko and Kanakuri Shizo. He, however, got no actual funding from the Ministry of Education which was put in charge by the government. Ultimately Jigorō had to set up his own organization to send the two athletes. Mishima Yahiko had a respectable showing in his events, getting to the semi-finals in the 400 meters, but he ultimately did not place. Kanakuri Shizo would actually abandon his spot in the marathon and head home, not notifying officials. Jigorō would go on to continue as head of the Japanese Olympic Committee until 1938, a year before the war broke out.

Japan has taken part in almost all of the Olympic games to date. The exceptions being during the 1948 Olympics, post World War II and in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, as part of the American boycott of the USSR. Japan’s team has been incredibly successful with a total of 497 medals. They have become quite successful in a handful of sports with the most medals in Judo, while becoming powerful leaders among gymnastics and figure skating.

With upcoming international sports events coming to Japan in the next few years, the eyes of many sports fans will be on Japan. With the 2019 Rugby World Cup and 2020 Tokyo summer Olympic and Paralympic Games, Japan will undoubtedly be linked to sports culture globally. It should be remembered that behind these large scale media events is a rich history of Japanese athletics and sports culture that will truly appreciate the spectacle of 2020. The means by which it has gotten this point, from religion to feudal history to foreigners, bely a truly complex and interesting development in Japan’s already unique culture.

I am currently living in Hachioji city writing articles on the Japanese sports culture, the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. If you would like to get in touch you can reach me at Shotarohmoore@hotmail.com.

Shotaro Honda Moore

Written by

A writer and photographer living in Hachioji, Japan. Creating articles about the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics, 2022 Beijing Olympics and other interests.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade