Sport in Japanese society

A brief introduction to soccer in Japan

Soccer claims its birthplace to be in England.  And while the English empire encompassed a vast majority of the world in the late 19th century, Japan was not under this sphere of influence.  Rather, while the rest of the world was being exposed to football because of the English colonial expansion, Japan remained in much isolation to this phenomenon.  After World War II, under the occupation of the Americans, the popularity of baseball, the national sport of America, began to flourish.  Baseball continues to be a hugely popular sport in Japan. However, this trend is starting to change.  A survey in 1992 stated that 31.4% of Japanese people wanted to attend a J-League soccer game, in comparison to 33.5% of respondents who wanted to attend a baseball game.1 This narrowing gap in the popularity of these respective sports has favored soccer within the past ten years, especially with the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) World Cup that was jointly organized by Japan and Korea in 2002.

Kamari, a game borrowed from the Chinese bares a huge resemblance to the modern game of soccer we see today. This game had been played in Japan since the 2nd century till the late19th century.  What is popularly known as soccer, or football in most countries, has only recently made its presence felt in Japan.  Played more frequently at the start of the post-war period, its popularity slowly began to take flight after the 1960’s.

An amateur league was set up in 1965.  While this league was mainly composed of company-sponsored teams, it sowed the first seeds of interests in this sport.  At the 1986 Olympics, the Japanese national soccer team won the bronze medal.  This initially garnered much interest in the sport, however, its popularity soon died down. A few more success in the Asian international arena, including the Asian Cup championship in 1992, fostered more interest in the sport.  However, the biggest contribution to the popularity of soccer in Japan was the launch of the J-league in 1993, Japan’s first professional soccer league.  Sponsored by large corporations and spurred on by a massive marketing campaign, soccer has since become one of the most (if not the most) played and watched sport in Japan. The original J-league was composed of 10 teams, each located in large population centers in Japan.3 In the 11 years since its creation it has since expanded to include 2 divisions J1 and J2, with 18 teams in J1 and 12 teams in J2.   Most of these teams are sponsored by local companies such as Cosmo Petrochemical and NKK, as well as Japanese multinational companies, such as Hitachi, Fujitsu and Yamaha, to name a few.

The J-league in many ways mirrors the European football leagues, with junior feeder teams and training programs for young children.  The J-league academy has recently been set up to promote ‘the sound mental and physical growth of children through sport and social engagement, tailored specifically to the needs of Japanese society’.4  They seek to become a noticeable presence in the community.  These soccer teams also aim to foster a “city” identity amongst its population, and promote inter-city rivalry.  Such local “belongingness” and class and group solidarity is also reminiscent of what happens with European football teams.  ‘Teams created in the league hope to foster regional rivalries and a sense of pride in the area’.

Japanese soccer playing style is developed much like all other industries in Japan, imitation first then innovations and improvements. Thus, since Japanese soccer still has a relatively short history in Japan, their playing and training style still emphasizes drills over creativity.  While some Japanese players have excelled and have been exported to the coveted football clubs in Europe, there is a large influx of foreign player into the J-league over an export of local talent abroad.  However, to prevent a total takeover of the J-league by foreign talent, the league has also implemented a rule that only allows each team to have five foreign players on the roster, and only two are allowed to play at any one time on the field.  This measure ensures a higher quality of play whilst not neglecting homegrown talents.6
Internationally, Japan has steadily climbing up the world ranking.  Japan’s first FIFA World Cup appearance was in 1998. Four years later, as the co-host, the Japanese national team managed to qualify for the round of 16 – a phenomenal achievement considering their dismal performance four years prior.

Marketing and the consumer culture have really helped soccer build its popularity in recent years.  Merchandise such as soccer jerseys are taking over baseball jerseys. The flamboyant characters of certain players, not to mention their boyish good looks, have helped sell soccer in Japan.  Players such as Junichi Inamoto and Shinji Ono, have developed a substantial world wide fan base following the world cup in 2002. Socially, the popularity of soccer can also be attributed to the cultural preference of team sports as well the cultivation of character-building and socially integrative aspects of this sport.

With the current trend unlikely to die down, soccer’s popularity is sure to remain if not soar to greater heights.  Riding on its current success at the 2002 World Cup, Japan aims to be a “top 10 team” within the next 10 years.

A brief introduction to baseball in Japan

Baseball has become a popular sport in many countries including Latin America, Canada, Japan and elsewhere. This sport was first introduced into Japan by American teachers and professors in the 1870s (Meiji restoration). During the early years, baseball was played rigidly with the notion of it being a “teaching tool”, whereby the players strengthened themselves mentally and physically as if it was a form of martial arts. Baseball was played as an amateur sport initially, primarily limited to high school and college games. Soon, baseball became so established that the amateurs thought of playing the sport for money profane. In 1936, the first professional baseball league was born, including the giants and six other new teams: Osaka Tigers, Hankyu, Dai Tokyo, Nagoya Kinko, Nagoya and the Tokyo Senators. Most of these ball clubs were sponsored either by newspapers (Yomiuri) hoping to boost their circulation or train lines (the Tigers and Hankyu) seeking to increase travel on their lines to their team’s home ballpark.

Through the years, several other teams came into being, merged with other ball clubs or quietly folded. With each league consisting of six teams, there are currently 2 leagues in Japan, the Central League and the Pacific League.

Teams have nicknames like in the States, but instead of being called by their cities, they are called by their corporate owners.

Japanese baseball is played pretty much the same way as the American baseball. Two teams, consisting of nine or ten players each, play the game on a large field. During the course of the game, the two teams alternate between batting (offensive play) and fielding (defensive play). The object of the game is to score more runs than the opposing team. Generally, a run is scored when a batter hits the ball with the bat and runs safely around four bases, starting from home plate. The fielders try to catch the batted ball and halt the runner’s progress to prevent the runner from reaching a base safely.

However, there are differences between the Japan baseball and American baseball. The first major distinction between them is that a Japanese game can end in a tie, whereas an American game goes on until the tie is broken. With the influence of Confucians value of maintaining a harmonious balance, teams avoid humiliating opponents either by running up big scores in a game or by winning their league by an immodest number of games8, thus each play is not as aggressive as compared to an American play. A typical Japanese baseball player is more loyal to his team, perhaps partly because of the stricter free-agent system in Japan in which a player needs to play 9 years of baseball in order to become a free agent. Indeed, the larger ideological forces at work in the Japanese society influence these differences that we see in the Japanese way of play.

The collective group mentality

The relationship between the coach and the players differs between the Japanese and the American. Japanese coaches are treated with much respect and a certain distance has to be kept between the players and the coach. This is unlike the situation in America where coaches and players speak on almost the same level, in friendlier terms. Methods of training differ as well. They have very few off days and that they require the players to practice more and prepare more through watching video and familiarizing themselves with scouting reports. The Japanese rely less on natural ability and more on trained skill, believing in a singular best way of batting. Despite having a smaller-built as compared to their foreign counterparts, many Japanese firmly believe they can eventually catch up with enough training and determination. Coaches frequently claimed that if their players didn’t bleed, they weren’t practicing hard enough9. This constitutes the reason why the training of a Japanese baseball league is a whole year round affair instead of seasonal training sessions. Indeed, baseball is a game that requires much skills and strength, and what is exclusive about Japanese baseball is that it is a game ruled by traditions and customs as well.

It is interesting to see how the Japanese have taken foreign sports and made it their own. Indeed, it is the larger ideological forces at work in the Japanese society that influences these variations we see in the Japanese way of play. Therefore, this paper is not so much interested in the sports per se but rather the larger social issues and what they reveal about the Japanese psyche, culture and norms. Through the different issues we will be looking at, namely the consumption of sports, the individual versus collective approach to sports, gendered differences in the participation of sports and the internationalism and nationalism of Japanese sports, we will show how Confucian ideologies of group harmony, subordination to a higher authority, hierarchy, loyalty (to name a few) are so pervasive, even in the domain of sports. Finally, we will also examine some of the reasons for the decline in popularity of traditional sports like Sumo in contrast to the rise in popularity of soccer in recent years. For the purposes of this paper, we will be narrowing our focus to soccer and baseball because they remain two of the most well loved sports in Japan.

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Consumerism is a term used to describe the effects of equating personal happiness with purchasing material possessions and consumption.10 Here we will discuss how the Japanese derive happiness through different forms of consumption of sports that are popular in Japan.

With the establishment of J. League, the Japanese started to consume soccer. Their various business operations include merchandises bearing the logo marks for example, of the J.League, J.League clubs and the Japan National Team. ‘The products are sold nationwide in partnership with the Japan Football Association through the official outlets, mainly in the J.League home towns.’

Apart from this, J. League also manages Still Photos. Another J.League’s ‘affiliate, J.League Photo, Inc., is entrusted with supervision of still photographs taken of the J.League’s official matches and other events. The company lends photographs for news and commercial uses, produces and sells official products such as J.League calendars and player cards. It also maintains a library of more than 900,000 photographs shot by official photographers since the league kicked off in 1993.’

In Japan, baseball is one of the most popular team sports. Just like soccer, many companies produce baseball merchandises like gloves, bats, caps, jerseys and trading cards. Apart from merchandises, professional ‘baseball games are broadcast live on television several times per week during the season. Baseball being Japan’s ‘unofficial national sport’ enjoys a nationwide following, from schoolgirls, to the emperor, whose dignified presence at a game in 1959 lent this upstart sport regal approval. The game is so popular in Japan that ‘the nation’s television stations plot the year’s broadcast schedules around baseball seasons, and viewers can see at least one baseball game nearly every night.’ The television station also broadcast nightly baseball highlights. Apart from this, there are also five major sports dailies, which report the game for the devoted fans.

From this consumption pattern we can see the Japanese collective identity and nationalistic spirit surfacing. It’s not surprising to see the fans support their favorite team with all their heart. They provide economic support by purchasing team merchandise, and then donning them to matches to show support. This is not only shown individually but also collectively, when all the fans are seen in the same attire through the stadium. Fans also show support in others ways like buying the tickets to attend matches religiously. Not only is support shown to the professional leagues but also the various school teams- the professionals of the future.

In a way, the consumption of sports provides a common identity for the Japanese. This is further emphasized, as the J. League was not sold as a business opportunity but ‘as a community project.’ The authorities were supportive as they saw it as a chance to re-forge local identity around a common ambition and soccer was seen as possible ‘social glue’ in a globalizing country, the antidote to revive the once strong but waning Japanese ‘communual identity.’

Consumerism was also linked to the revitalization Sumo. The period after the Second World War saw many sumo super-stars opting to retire. As a result, ‘sumo was almost totally ignored by the Japanese.’ In the 1970s, along with consumerism, the popularity of manga grew. Manga featured sumo wrestlers in their stories as central characters. Thus, from baseball heroes, the limelight turned to the sumo wrestlers. This brought about the revitalization of the sport. Along with modern technology, manga also started to appear in both book form and on television, ensuring the place of the sport in modern popular culture. Hence, we can see how effective a tool manga (a form of mass media production) was in bringing Sumo back.

Along with Japan’s rapid technological advancement, “sports stimulation games” like “APBA Japanese Baseball” was also designed for the fans’ consumption and leisure. This is a “baseball simulation game that has been sold since 1951.  In 1993, APBA produced a computer version, known as Broadcast Blast, which allows people to program seasons from any league.  Since then, a number of die-hard Japanese baseball fans have produced seasons from past Japanese seasons. Using “APBA Broadcast Blast”, one can replay an entire season (a Japan Series) or play all-time great teams against each other.”

Apart from all these, soccer, the sport itself was “sold” to the Japanese in a very popular marketing strategy used in the world of consumerism – the shinhatsubai strategy. This is a strategy adopted when an existing product is advertised as being ‘newly updated and repackaged’ and hence ‘on sale.’20 It is very commonly used by companies and is commonly seen in supermarkets for all sorts of products. This was the same strategy used by the J. League when they tried to remarket soccer to Japanese. Although soccer was not a new sport, it was no longer popular in the 1990s and the authorities involved had to find a way to get the Japanese consume the sport again. Hence the sport went through a shinhatsubai transformation. This strategy actually helped J. League attract new consumers while retaining the old ones. By remarketing and “selling” soccer, the J. League actually ‘re-invent(ed)’ the culture of soccer and thus forged “a new cultural identity”21 amongst the soccer fans.

Indeed, we see how marketing and consumerism are effective strategies used to promote sports in contemporary Japan. In Japan, just like in the West, the consumption of sports merchandizes and goods is inextricably linked to support for the club and players. On top of that, Japan as a nation is known for its rocket- high consumption rates, not only for sporting merchandizes but also a whole host of other things from kawaii items(e.g. Hello Kitty) to all kinds of electronic gadgets. This particular nature of the Japanese works in favor for those with a vested interest in the promotion of the sports, benefiting both capitalists and sports enthusiasts alike.

The Japanese consume sports in three ways (the first two are related to consumerism) – by consuming sports merchandizes, by going to support soccer matches and lastly, in playing the sports itself. We will look at the Japanese’ mindset seen in their way of playing soccer and baseball.

Individualism of the West versus Collective mindset in Japanese sports

Traditional Japanese sports like Sumo and Judo have seen a decline in the number of participants who would be willing to learn the art of wrestling and fighting. On the other hand, sports like football have become very popular, both among the fans and also among those who will be willing to take it up as a sport.
Baseball and football, which both originated from America, are very popular in Japan. The matches are very well attended, and players are treated like national heroes. Their popularity is contrasted against that of sports like swimming and running, which are seen as more individualistic sports. There are some reasons as to why baseball and football are so well received. Firstly, both sports are team games. The players work towards a common goal and all players are needed for the team to function. Indeed, the Japanese view of life stresses group identity and people are always identified with their social affiliations like their company, family, and right down to the football club they support. Rather than having own individual identities, the Japanese embrace a collective identity. A football or baseball star may be outstanding, but ultimately, his identity is closely related to his team. Soccer and baseball promote group bonding and do not threaten group solidarity. Just as a coach remarked, “Football is a sport in which the system is formed through the proper merging of individuals. A strong sense of bonding is necessary for the team to work.”22 These characteristics of the game make them very suitable for the Japanese to accept as they fit in perfectly with their socialization patterns.

The Japanese are known for their blatant “borrowing” of ideas from other cultures and localizing them to suit their own needs. The same can be said for sports. Even though baseball and football are American sports, the Japanese have quite a unique way of approaching the game. Their “Samurai style” of playing emphasizes three spirits – the spirit of sacrifice, cooperation and competition. The spirit of sacrifice demands the player be totally committed and loyal to his team (churetsu muhi), putting the greater interest of the team above his individual interest. This is akin to the Samurai putting the interest of his ie and the honor of his lord over and above his very own, serving his Lord till his death. Indeed, this loyalty and commitment will result in self-sacrifice within a certain plan, always acting for the greatest good of the team. This mindset of sacrifice will demand that players be willing to undergo rigorous “hell-like” training, forgoing sleep and time to improve themselves for the betterment of the team.

The spirit of cooperation is a very important component of sports in Japan. In football, a whole team works together and overcomes all odds to score a goal. This is very appealing to the Japanese, as they have been socialized since young about the importance of cooperation where each member in the society plays a different role to achieve stability and harmony for the progress of the country.

Japanese view the world in terms of uchi and soto. Uchi being members of the inside and soto being those on the outside. Children are socialized to differentiate between those belonging to the close network of the family and the outsiders. Similarly, the Japanese spirit of competition also operates on the principles of uchi and soto. The notion of “our” team versus “their” team and “our” club versus “their” club is very strong. Because of this strong uchi and soto ideology, the government has been successful in using these sports as a national unifier, even stirring up patriotic feelings among its people.

The Japanese mindset has inevitably affected the way they play sports. Former Japanese national coach Phillippe Troussier has called them traditional and cultural inhibitions. He said that it had an effect in “keeping his players from realizing their full potential and the fans from demanding greatness.”23 These traditional and cultural inhibitions are that of hierarchy and the need to preserve group harmony. There is a rigid system of authority, values and hierarchy in Japanese high school baseball. For instance, first year students are regulated to tend equipment, shout encouragement to the team and do the chores. They are not allowed to play in first team even though they may be talented. This kind of environment can be rather stifling.

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The next kind of inhibition very much influenced by the Confucian ideology is that of the need to preserve group harmony. There is an emphasis on the avoidance of conflict, which results in people not willing to speak up and voice their true thoughts and emotions (tatemae). Phillippe Troussier has pointed out that his soccer players try not to be too outstanding and they reserve their own comments to themselves. They are reluctant to make individual decisions. This is because the collective social environment of Japan does not permit them to do so.24 Apart from being governed by the tatemae-honne ideology, the Japanese people also govern their lives around the uchi-soto ideology. The uchi is a “whole” in which individuals are parts. What the individual says and does is grounded in this relationship. The uchi member is not free to “do his or her thing” because each must always take into account what he does in relation to the “whole” of the uchi. Indeed, just as the Japanese saying “the nail that sticks out must be hammered down”, the Japanese who dares to be different will face societal pressures and social sanctions to conform right back to social norms. However, this is rarely the case as Japanese are conformist and they have a whole host of social commitments and affiliations to tie them down.

French football coach Philippe Troussier challenged and broke many cultural norms in Japan. He got his players to speak up, communicate more, express themselves, make individual decisions and even went to the extent of ignoring the seniority based system by firing “old guards” who played the world cup in France. However, the results he brought about for the Japanese team was stunning. He led the team to draw against Belgium and win Russia and Tunisia. This is truly remarkable as it has been a long time since an Asian team defeated a European one. Therefore, this proves a point that the Japanese are in no way inferior to the West and perhaps all that is needed is an effort to get them to break out of the herd mentality and to ease some of the social pressures that weigh them down. And indeed, this has been happening, albeit at a slow pace. This is seen in the export of outstanding players like IHidetoshi Nakata to coveted football clubs in Europe.
Indeed, in and through sports, we see the Japanese traditional way of doing things being challenged. Another aspect where changes have been taking place is in gender roles.

Gender Roles in Sports

In a society that stereotypes women as being the more domesticated gender, sports seems to have little relevance to them in Japan. The ideal women are perceived to be kawaii (cute) and slim, thus leading them to refrain from developing muscles by doing sports. Despite all these, in Japan today, the proportion of women involved in sports is about 67%, which is comparable to 77% for men. This shows that many women are participating in sports at all levels and sports are no longer a male-dominated field. Also, in popular westernized sports such as baseball and soccer, women sports associations are set up for them to have equal chances to enjoy the same sports their male counterparts do. For example, the Japanese Baseball Federation has authorized the Women’s Baseball Association of Japan and three other organizations at different educational levels to support women in baseball.

Similarly, in soccer the Japan Football Association (JFA) is placing more importance in women soccer by reforming the “Adult Women’s National Championship” in 2003. In particular, JFA has plans of developing the Women National Team with the strong belief that “Japanese football will not develop without the development of women’s football.” The women team has even represented Japan in the 2004 Athens Olympic quarterfinals. In other sports as well, the nation’s hopes are pinned on sportswomen. For example, the 2003 World Championships of Freestyle Wrestling saw the triumphant moment of Japanese women wrestlers winning gold medals in five out of the seven weight classes.

In addition, measures aimed at encouraging more women in sports are also attempted at the educational level. For example, in 1989, both the schoolgirls and boys have the same curriculum for physical education in school. Formerly the girls only learnt how to dance during physical educational lessons but now, they can learn the sports at the same lesson as boys. However, while statistics and evidences have shown that women in Japan are actively involved and contributing to sports activities and competitions, the general stigma of women doing sports is still inherent. This is reflected in more traditional sports such as Sumo wrestling. Maybe because of the religious connection to the sport, women are considered to be “impure” and are forbidden in the Dohyo (ring) or near Sumo wrestlers especially before the match, as it is believed that contact with a woman will make the wrestlers weak and cause them to lose their powers.

Although this discrimination is fading with time and there is a trend towards the increasing number of women in sports, the attention given to women doing sports as compared to men is still lagging behind. For example, among the four national teams for soccer, there is only one women team. In addition, the societal perception of women in sports is associated with the antithesis of the docile and reserved Japanese women. This perception may have also carried over to the unreceptive attitude of some schools teaching sports in accepting women trainees. For example, three out of the five women wrestlers who had competed in the 2003 World Championships of Freestyle Wrestling learnt the sports from their fathers and not from specialized women wrestling clubs.

Not only that, women are also rather underrepresented in the leadership positions in sports. For instance, in 1996, only 25% of the 6000 trainers responsible for local sports groups are made up of women.30 The soccer coaches for the national teams are also all predominantly male. This shows that although women can be capable of performing well in sports, they still lack the power and authority to coach others. Perhaps this is attributed to the subservient role that women are expected to adopt in Japanese society so directing and guiding how others are supposed to act in a field dominated by men will not be encouraged.

Although some discrimination and discrepancies still persist, the fact that women have progressed from being a spectator to an active participant over the years reflects an increasing emphasis placed on developing and training them to be the nation’s future hope of glory. Perhaps the popularity of women doing sports can influence society’s stereotypes of them and open a new definition of women as independent, determined and strong.

Japan has been seen and thought of as a closed country. Its population is one of the most homogenous with very few immigrants comparatively. Critics have even gone as far to call the Japanese people xenophobic and anti-foreigners. Indeed, though it is inevitable that many people (not just the Japanese) do discrimate against foreigners in varying degrees, we shall see how this is made more pronounced in the Japanese society because of the ideology of uchi and soto, powerful ideologies the Japanese have been socialized with and have come to see their world as.

Internationalism vs nationalism of Japanese sports

The issue of internationalization and nationalism is at best seen by the treatment of foreigners or Gaijin as they are known. This is especially so when one looks at the presence or the lack of presence of foreigners in Japanese national sports such as Sumo and Baseball. Although, there may have been prominent foreigners such as Chad Akebono and Jesse Kuhala, the real issue here is not so much the availability or the number of foreigners, but rather the perception that the Japanese society have of these foreign players which in turn thus affects the number of foreign players in an exclusive sports such as Baseball and Sumo wrestling.

Despite the world becoming more integrated and the fact that barriers such as distance and time are being overcome, it is seen that globalization has not really made much progress into the cultural aspects of the Japanese society. For a fact, there still exists this xenophobic mentality- Nihonjiron whereby the Japanese do see themselves as a collective whole against the others which perhaps goes back to the uchi –soto mentality of “us” against “the others”. Nevertheless, this is not to say that the Japanese society is against or anti-foreigners, rather it is more likely the case of a fear that, ‘by the influx of the foreigners and their influence, it could lead to the dilution or weakening of the Japanese society.’31 Therefore, it is not impossible to see that in national sports such as baseball and sumo, the Japanese are still the ones leading and on top. This attitude is also seen by the fact that any team can only have 3 foreign players in its roster. In fact, Leon Lee quite sums it up by saying that, “We’re mercenaries, pure and simple. Our job is to do well and let the Japanese players have the glory and take the blame when things go bad.”

In addition, it is seen that, there is perhaps a changing scenario in Japan whereby you have more foreign players and more foreign Sumo wrestlers too. However, the point to note has to be whether, if it is really an altruistic move or a decision based on self-interest? In fact, have the Japanese really changed their mindset? Well, perhaps it may be difficult to define the answer, but judging from the example of Jesse Kuhala’s rise to the Sumo world as compared to a fellow sumo wrestler who was hated and deemed a threat- Samoan born Salevoa Atisanoe, there are perhaps certain conditions that have to be kept in mind.

For a fact, Jesse is and was never a threat to the stability of the sumo world. Having started out slow and from the bottom, it was his dedication and commitment to excel which brought him the admiration of his peers and fans alike. In addition, he ensured that he complied with the Japanese standards and never tried to dominate the scene unlike Salevoa whose rise to prominence and to the top was just too controversial and too quick to the point that he aroused the anger and resentment of the Japanese fans and media alike.

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Therefore, looking at the case study above, it is seen that the criteria for a foreigner in a national sport such as Baseball and Sumo wrestling is undeniably more demanding. To succeed in Japan, there has to be certain guidelines that one has to comply to and the essential thing is undeniably to be un- threatening and un-dominating. This is inevitably a prerequisite given the fact that the Japanese do regard themselves different from the world and do attach meanings to the things that they do, be it in terms of work or sports. In addition, it emphasizes that the Japanese have to be on top no matter what.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that the Japanese are indeed highly proud of their culture and themselves and are keen to prevent the dilution of the Japanese society, it is undeniable to say that it is only a matter of time before Japan has to face the reality that they have to open up to the foreigners. It may be hard to accept the reality but nonetheless, reality is such that barriers have to be broken and walls that once sought to protect can no longer stay up.

Therefore, while the treatment of the foreign players highlights the question of how international and nationalistic Japan should and ought to be, it is beyond a doubt that there has to be a change in mindset, it is seen that with the last World Cup hosted by both Japan and South Korea, this is perhaps the start to a road of reforming their mindset and for this matter, only time can be the deciding factor.

We have been discussing about the changes taking place in Japanese sports. Indeed, these changes are not just taking place in the sports arena but also in the other aspects of Japanese society. For instance, the notion of lifetime employment (something that has been so characteristic of the Japanese company for the longest time) has been scrapped and replaced with the Western notion of the survival of the fittest. In the recent years, traditional sports like sumo and judo have declined in popularity and authorities fear that it might altogether lose significance in the Japanese society as the youth of Japan embrace Western cultures and “Western” sports.

Changes in the consumption patterns of sports: traditional versus modern sports

Sports are an indispensable part of the Japanese way of life. Modern sports in Japan began in the early 1870s with the establishment of the school system. Traditional sports would include sumo, kendo (Japanese stick fencing), aikido (Japanese martial art), judo and kyudo (archery). However, with the introduction of western influences in Japan during the Meiji Restoration, popular sports like baseball and soccer were introduced into the Japanese society. It is without a doubt that baseball and soccer are the most popular sports in Japan right now.

With the rise of globalization and popular sports in Japan, traditional sports are now facing a major decline in participation and status. Take for instance, Sumo. Sumo has a history of 1500 years but it no longer attracts audiences and athletes like the way it used to in the past. Rather, the Japanese are being attracted to popular sports and are uncomfortable with the religious ties of Sumo. Compared to modern popular sports, sumo consists of a lot of religious rituals that the young see as being burdensome. As such, it no longer appeals to the younger Japanese. Nowadays, in most sumo matches, the main spectators would be the elderly. The decline of sumo was evident when baseball surpassed sumo as Japan’s most popular sport in 1995.

This decline in the popularity of Sumo could be due to the attitudes perceived by the Japanese leaders towards Shintoism after World War II. To them, Shintoism had stoked Japan’s militarism. From a divine being, the emperor was demoted to a status of a mortal. Furthermore, Sumo was removed from the national curriculum. Even till now, the Ministry of Education does not provide public funding even though it claims that it is not against Sumo. “Nowadays it’s difficult to promote a sport where the participants are basically naked,” says a ministry spokesman. “But if kids want to wrestle, that’s fine with us.”

In contrast, baseball and soccer have risen in popularity. Another sport catching up on the ranks is golf. Baseball has immense popularity in Japan. The rise of the popularity of baseball can be attributed to media coverage, marketing and also the success stories of Japanese baseball players in the United States like Ichiro Suzuki, Nomo Hideo and Hideki Matsui.

Tantamount to the popularity of baseball is soccer. Soccer began gaining popularity in Japan in the 1990s with the establishment of the J League. Subsequently, it rose in popularity when the Japanese national team qualified for the World Cup in 1998 despite not winning a single match. Eventually, the Japanese national team was in the last 16 of the World Cup in 2002 and currently, Japan’s national team ranks 18th in the world. The abilities of Japanese soccer players have also been recognized with Nakata Hidetoshi, Nanami Hiroshi and Jo Shoji playing in the league games of Europe.

The decline of traditional sports in Japan is mainly due to its religious affiliations and rituals. Sumo requires a lot of religious rituals before the start of a game and the ending of a game. It is also largely centered on Japanese players and does not welcome foreigners in their game. In contrast, there are foreign players participating in the soccer and baseball leagues in Japan. These two sports also require none of the rituals in traditional sports and have no religious affiliations. The games attract the young because they are played at a fast pace. Media coverage, marketing and success stories in the various fields have also portrayed a positive attitude in these two sports. Soccer and baseball has a large merchandise outlet with its products of jerseys, caps and other commercial goods.

The decline of traditional sports and emerging popularity of modern sports can also be due to the rise of globalization. With the exposure to more popular sports and western influence, the young in Japan are more affluent and is less pursuing of religious rituals. If efforts are not made to revive the traditional sports of Japan, then it will slowly phase out and be taken over by the emerging popular sports. But as of right now, baseball and soccer look set to be the sport of the moment.


With the introduction of modern sports into Japan, the Japanese has become more receptive of foreigners and women as well. Through synchronized cheering from the excited spectators donning jerseys of their favorite teams, sports definitely do foster a sense of belonging among the Japanese, promoting nationalism and collective spirit through the participation of the sports. Modern sports have gained much popularity through the years, even overtaking the traditional sports. The contributing factors to the rising popularity of the modern sports include globalization, extensive media coverage on modern sports and the marketing strategies. Consequently, traditional sports faced the danger of being phased out.

Like all other industries in Japan where development goes through the “first imitation then innovations and improvements” process, the playing style of modern sports like baseball and soccer goes through the same changes as well. Japanese elements can be spotted in these sports. Like the samurai style of playing that emphasizes the 3 spirits: the spirit of sacrifice, cooperation and competition. Also within a team, there exists an age-based hierarchy and individual decisions are frowned upon so as to maintain a harmonious balance and induce a collective social environment.

After looking at the different aspects of sports, we can see that sports has become an integral part in Japan today, influencing and reinforcing the different aspects of the Japanese society. Modern sports have allowed the Japanese society to be more receptive of the foreigners. Perhaps, the participation of women in sports can eventually release the Japanese women from the stigmatized image of a domesticated figure. From the declining of traditional sports as opposed to the emergence of modern sports, we can see a change in the mindset of the Japanese youths as compared to the past. Through the channel of sports, as cultures and values are exchanged between Japan and the outside world, Japan might ultimately be molded into a more individualistic society rather than a collective one.


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7. Watts, “Soccer shinhatsubai: What are Japanese consumers making of the J. League?”, p.181
9. Statler, Oliver, “Sports: Baseball” in All Japan: the catalogue of everything Japanese, Bromley, Kent : Columbia Books.
10. Watts, Jonathan, “Soccer shinhatsubai: What are Japanese consumers making of the J. League?” in The Worlds of Japanese Popular Culture: Gender, Shifting Boundaries and Global Cultures, Cambridge University Press.
11. Masao, Yamaguchi, “Sumo in the Popular Culture of Contemporary Japan” in The Worlds of Japanese Popular Culture: Gender, Shifting Boundaries and Global Cultures, Cambridge University Press.
13. Minoru Kiyota & Sawamura Hiroshi, Japanese Martial Arts and American Sports: The Historical and Cultural background in Teaching Methods, Research Institute of Education Systems Nihon University
15. Survey conducted by the Management and Coordination Agency in 1997. (1999) What is Women’s Sports? Internet:
16. Women’s International Baseball Association. Internet :
17. Message from JFA President, Saburo Kawabuchi. Japan Football association Internet:
18. Pinning a Nation’s Hopes. Japanese Women Dominate Wrestling Meet (2003) Internet:
19. T. J. Pempel, “Contemporary Japanese Athletics: Window on the Cultural Roots of Nationalism Internationalism” in Linhart, Sepp and Sabine Fruhstuck, 1998, “The Culture of Japan as Seen through its Leisure”, State University of New York Press
20. ibid
22. “Wrestle Mania”,

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About the author

Nadia Petrova

I'm running this blog because I love Japanese culture, especially the art of geisha. When I was a little girl, I used to dream of becoming a geisha myself. In my spare time, I enjoy watching good anime and reading some manga.

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