Sport plays an important role in the fabric of modern Japanese life. From an early age, children join school teams, instilling a sense of pride, hard work, and dedication. Although modern sports like baseball, badminton, tennis, and soccer are popular, Japan is perhaps best known for sports with an older and more traditional profile.
Of all the martial arts in Japan, Judo is perhaps the one that has spread most successfully worldwide. The essence lies in the speed, subtlety, and ability to use the opponent’s size and strength against themselves.
Judo is practiced recreationally and professionally; Epic fighting is one of the best moments of all the Olympic Games. Judo means ‘soft way’ and was created by a man named Kano Jigoro in 1882. The inspiration for judo stemmed from the bullying Jigoro witnessed in the Middle English boarding school he attended in Tokyo, when he was only fourteen years old.
Jigoro wanted to be trained in the art of jiu-jitsu, an ancient form of self-defense favored by samurai. Although finding a teacher was difficult, he eventually studied with two teachers before founding his own school and dojo at the Eisho-ji Temple in Tokyo, and from there judo was created.
After debuting as an Olympian at the 1964 Tokyo Games, judo returns to Nippon Budokan as one of the most anticipated sports of the Tokyo 2021 Olympics..
Japan’s de facto national sport (although this is not an official state) is the captivating and sometimes bewildering spectacle.
Deeply rooted in Japan’s culture, sumo has a history of more than 1,500 years. Legend has it that the survival of the Japanese people was balanced by the result of a sumo match between the gods, and in fact sumo originated as a form of Shinto ritual. Although it has become a professional sport, the elements of these rituals remain evident, from the use of salt to purify the ring, to the sanctuary-like ceiling that hangs above.
Sumo, or basho, tournaments take place every two months in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka and are a really great way to spend the day. Although the previous antics are strict and formalized, the fights are a spectacular stain of meat, noise, and power as two giant men try to push, pull, or hit each other out of the ring, or on any part of their body other than the sole of their Giant feet.
Although it is essentially Japanese, in recent times the number of foreign fighters has gradually increased and an increasing number of non-Japanese stand out in this sport and in the complex set of cultural traditions that it entails. Grab a bento lunchbox, grab a beer, and cheer on the crowd as they gather their favorite rikishi for victory!
The furious and loud sport of kendo is perhaps the oldest martial art in Japan and combines power, skill and bravery.
Kendo could be broadly described as ‘Japanese fences’, although ‘swords’ are nowadays made from four substantial bamboo slats, generally linked by leather straps. Its origins lie in the Kamakura period (1185-1333) with samurai, who needed to practice fencing.
They established ‘kenjutsu’ schools for this purpose and, with the influence of Zen Buddhism, acquired a rather spiritual as well as physical essence. Over time, swords were replaced by bamboo staves, and thick, protective body armor was introduced. Today kendo is practiced throughout Japan and is a sport for all ages.
Although arguably one of the most famous martial arts in the world, the beginnings of karate are a bit misty. Often regarded as Japanese, the earliest history of karate is said to have originated as far away as the Indian Subcontinent.
From there it went to China, where it was developed and refined. Chinese merchants brought these combat skills to the Ryukyu Islands as early as the 14th century. Now incorporated in what is known as Okinawa, the southernmost prefecture in Japan, the Ryukyus were once an independent kingdom with a completely different culture than Japan. It was here that karate as we know it today developed.
Various styles of these martial arts were practiced for hundreds of years, and karate was not properly introduced to mainland Japan until the early 1900s. The term Karate originally meant ‘Tang hand’ or ‘Chinese hand’, but after World War II the name (and character) was changed to mean ’empty hand’, which is also pronounced ‘karate’ – an effort to develop Art in a Japanese style. Consequently, karate presents a largely unarmed combat with a spectacular variety of punches and blocks delivered by the fists, feet, legs and arms.
Aikido is sometimes loosely translated as ‘the way of the harmonious spirit’. It is a less overtly aggressive martial art that focuses on defense by redirecting the attacker’s power and energy, with the ideal result that neither the attacked nor the attacker is harmed.
Aikido was founded in the 1920s by Ueshiba Morihei. Morihei was born in Tanabe, located in the south of the Kii peninsula. This is a remote and beautiful region south of Kyoto and Osaka and a place of great spiritual importance. This sense of spirituality was infused into the essence of aikido, as were aspects of Japanese dance, Shinto, Buddhism, karate, and kendo.
It’s not just about sumo!
It may be the more traditional sports that Japan thinks of, and certainly sumo, karate, and kendo have many participants and followers, but like many aspects of Japanese culture, there is a lot of modern influence along with more historical aspects. .
The undisputed king of team sports in Japan is baseball, introduced by an American in the late 1800s. Although they were happy to compete in a foreign sport, the Japanese wanted it to have a clearly Japanese name, which is why most other world sports are known for an approximation of their English name, for example, tenisu, sakkaa, and basukettoboru (¿ Did you get all of them?), baseball is known as yakyu, which means field ball.
Kids hook youngsters with baseball in Japan, even elementary schools have their own team, always in full team colors. High school competition for venues is fierce, with top teams fighting live on national television in Japan’s high school tournament, played in one of the largest stadiums in the country, seating 50,000 fans. They scream.
Professional baseball has a massive audience in Japan, with at least one game seemingly happening almost every night of the week from spring through fall, when the season ends with play-offs and armchair fans across the country. Are glued to their screens.
But perhaps the greatest respect is reserved for the handful of Japanese baseball players who practice their trade in the United States Major League, such as Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui. Every step, swing, and movement of these heroes was closely followed by fans back home.
Many football fans of a certain age will remember English Gary Lineker, who ended his career with Nagoya Grampus Eight in the early 1990s, but the J-League may have escaped his memory ever since. However, both J1 and J2 (the two divisions) remain strong, with teams with colorful names like frequent champions Kashima Antlers (Kashima
Although not as popular as baseball, soccer has a large following, and the focus on teamwork resonates strongly with the Japanese psyche. The national team, the ‘Samurai Blue’, has fans rush to the bar after work to watch them compete in the Asian Cup, or (with mixed success) the FIFA World Cup, especially as joint hosts in 2002 with Korea. .
What else? Well, Japan has a handful of top-notch golfers, both male and female, and hitting the fairways (or even the driving range) is a welcome break from the stress of commercial life for many city wage earners. Volleyball is taken very seriously, with the highly ranked women’s national team, and swimming is also a popular pastime, with the Japanese Olympic team taking home 11 swimming medals at the 2012 games in London, the most received in Any individual event.
Add figure skating (Japan has several world champions), wrestling, rugby (Japan to host the 2019 World Cup) horse racing (one of the few legal forms of gambling in Japan) and various forms of sports from Motor, and has a rich mosaic of sports. Rest assured that although baseball and soccer dominate the last few pages, there is a sport for almost everyone if you scratch below the surface.
With such an aging population, one should not overlook the sports preferred by the elderly in Japan. Walk through the suburbs of any town or city early in the morning and you will likely see a game of gateball (a relaxed sport similar to croquet), and on the field fishermen head to the lakes and rivers. Even less strenuous (and almost to qualify for inclusion under this theme!) Are popular board games like shogi (Japanese chess) and go (a form of checkers / checkers).
And finally, no discussion of sport in Japan would be complete without a mention of pachinko. Huge arcades with striking neon signs house row upon row of noisy vertical pinball machines, in front of which sit rows upon rows of motionless (and emotionless) individuals, all waiting and waiting for the balls to fall into place