Sports have always been an integral part of Japanese culture. Following the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics, which were due to begin July 24th 2020, we wanted to celebrate Japanese sports and their history. From wrestling (including sumo) sports to contemporary favourites like baseball and basketball, we’ll have a look at popular sports in Japan and examine their varied, intriguing histories.
Top 10 Sports in Japan
1. Sumo (sumō)
Funnily enough, what was once considered the undisputed most popular sport in Japan, is not quite as popular with the younger generation. Sumo was (and probably still is) the first thing that people think of when considering popular sports in Japan, but in recent times the average age of those attending has been well over 50 years old. Sumo wrestling isn’t the big hit that it used to be, although it is still very popular with tourists.
However, this steady decline in the popularity of sumo has really helped promote other sports in Japan. Most come from other countries, and their development is tied deeply to Japan’s rapid industrial and technological growth as a nation.
2. Baseball (yakyū)
of the more popular sports in Japan, especially with a younger audience. When looking at the sheer number of Japanese baseball fans, it’s hard to argue against it being the most popular sport in Japan in modern times. It’s taken a few generations, though! Following its introduction to Japan from the USA in 1872, the popularity of baseball has grown and grown.
Contrary to the relatively laid-back ball games in the United States, baseball games in Japan are a spectacle of song and dance with each player being serenaded with his own original song and explosions of fireworks and jet-balloons.
3. Rugby Union (ragubī)
Rugby union had been gradually growing but took a massive leap forward in popularity following Japan’s win against two-time world champions South Africa at the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Rugby’s popularity in Japan has grown even more since then, especially after Japan hosted the Rugby World Cup in 2019, with the team making it to the quarter-finals.
4. Basketball (basukettobōru)
Basketball is another sport that has always been popular in Japan, but its popularity has significantly increased in recent times. This is in part due to increasing globalisation in general, but there are some more specific factors.
The rise of immensely popular players such as Yuta Tabuse and Takuya Kawamura has really helped with basketball’s growth in Japan. Tabuse played a few matches in the NBA in the US, which cemented his status as the highest-profile Japanese player of all time.
Basketball has slipped into pop culture too, with Slam Dunk being one of the best-selling manga series in history, running from 1990-96. In more modern times, Kuroko’s Basketball has taken up the mantle of being the basketball manga that everyone talks about – especially with its hit adapted anime series. To learn more about Japanese anime and why it is so popular, please take a look at our dedicated blog post.
5. Football / Soccer (sakkā)
In Japan, the sport is much more commonly known as soccer, even though it was introduced to the country by British Navy Commander Archibald Lucius Douglas. Post-war American influence on Japan meant that it was increasingly called sakkā instead of shukyu (literally meaning “kick-ball”).
Japanese teams play in the J. League, the most competitive club tournament in Asia – although it is facing increasing competition from the Chinese Super League.
In terms of international football, the Japanese women’s team have more success, despite missing out on making it to the quarter-finals at the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France. The women’s team have previously won the 2011 World Cup and were runners-up in the 2015 edition, and also earned a silver medal at the London 2012 Olympics.
6. Martial Arts (budō)
There are many different types of martial arts practised in Japan and are still popular sports in Japan today. Traditional martial arts including aikido, judo, kendo and karate are all practised worldwide, thanks to the devotion of those who practise them. Judo in particular since its inclusion into the Olympic Games in 1964, has continued to grow in popularity worldwide.
Puroresu is a shortened word for Japanese pro wrestling, which started to grow in popularity in the early 1950s. The popularity of this Japanese sport grew mainly thanks to Rikidozan; a Korean-Japanese sumo wrestler turned puroresu star who helped give Japan a national hero in a post-war climate clouded in confusion.
In comparison to American pro wrestling, puroresu is much more athletic and focuses less on the backstory of each wrestling persona. This is mainly because most puroresu stars come from a martial arts background.
8. Boxing (bokushingu)
The first major exhibition boxing fight took place in 1887 after the opening of the ports helped introduce the sport from overseas. But, it was Yujiro Watanbe that popularised the sport after training in California from a young age and establishing the Nippon Kento Club in Japan in 1921. Many other boxing associations were established in the years following, until the Japan Pro Boxing Association was established in 2000, solidifying the sport. Although it may be one of the more popular sports in Japan, internationally, it isn’t very well known.
9. Golf (gorufu)
Golf was introduced from the West following the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912). Golf was a sport dominated by ex-pats and Western-educated Japanese players until a course in Tokyo in 1914 introduced it to members of Japan’s upper class. 71 courses opened across the country by 1940 following its growing popularity.
The social class system Japan had once known was disturbed as a result of World War II, introducing the new middle class to the sport, as it became a venue for conducting business. Today, some of the most popular Japanese golfers have started their careers for a young age, like Hideki Matsuyama, who started golfing at the age of 15. The sport is played today by a range of people, all different ages and from different social backgrounds.
10. Tennis (tenisu)
Tennis holds a special place in the hall of fame of Japanese sports, as it gave Japan its very first Olympic medals, won by Ichiya Kumagai at the Antwerp Olympics 1920. In 2015, the sport was given a boost in modern society when Kei Nishikori became the only male Japanese player to be ranked in the single tennis. The popularity of this sport can be seen in modern-day society in the manga series, Prince of Tennis, which has sold over 50 million copies.
So, there you have it, the Top 10 sports in Japan today, all of which have a great history of sporting prowess. Although sumo is generally accepted as the national sport, the popularity of these other sports among modern society is mounting a serious challenge.