A Closer Look at Japanese Sporting Culture
When you think of sport in Japan, semi-naked giants wrestling each other in a small ring is probably the first thing that springs to mind, but sports culture is so much more than Sumo and plays a big part in Japanese national identity.
In the minds of those in the west, Japan is probably best known for its automotive industry, its advanced technology which powers the world’s gadgets and for giving us the joys of Japanese cuisine which is celebrated right here in our sushi bar in Manchester.
However, the nation also has a rich sporting heritage like no other, one that combines traditional Japanese sports with an increasing surge in interest in those the rest of us in the West are familiar with.
In this article we will explore the history of sports in Japan and how even modern Japanese sports have been informed by the nation’s long history of traditions.
Tethered to Ceremony and Tradition
People in the Far East love martial arts and sumo, but contemporary sports like baseball, football and basketball have also risen to the top of Japanese culture. Where Japanese sporting identity perhaps differs from our own though, is the entwining of athletic prowess with that of the mind and spirit.
Sport is one of the biggest ways in which the Japanese express both themselves and their society. The pursuit of excellence in traditional sports like Kendo, Sumo and martial arts combine a requirement for mental focus, powered emotional control and physical exertion.
These outpourings of pure human spirit have transcended the old sports to find their way into modern Japanese athletic pursuits, ensuring that sporting culture in Japan is like no other in the world.
Sumo is deeply entwined with religion in Japan. The origins of this truly unique form of wrestling lie in Shinto, the traditional religion of the country. It is believed that sumo wrestling originally began as a means of worshipping the ancient Shinto gods. Sumo has a history dating back 1,500 years.
Archaeologists have found drawings of Sumo-like figures in cave paintings. It is believed that the ancient Japanese used Sumo as a means of imploring the gods to bless the people with a bountiful harvest. As the sport developed, it increasingly became as much a form of entertainment as a way of paying respect to the spirits named Kami, who are believed to be elements of nature.
Even today, Sumo is practised while following religious traditions. Sumo tournaments are grand affairs and there are only half a dozen major events each year. The contests last for 15 days and follow strict and formalised pre-match rituals.
The bouts themselves are a mesh of intense wrestling with power and noise. Each man attempts to force the other out of the ring by almost any means necessary other than using their feet. Sumo is simply a pure display of man against man and tournaments are a true spectacle.
Kendo is a noisy, furious sport and may well be the oldest of Japan’s martial arts. Essentially, the sport is akin to fencing and originated with the Samurai who needed to practise their sword skills.
The sport became increasingly formalised as the military set up “kenjutso” schools to train their warriors. Combining influences from Zen and Buddhism, Kendo is as much a spiritual pursuit as it is as physical one.
As Kendo developed, swords became fashioned from bamboo staves and thick body armour began to be worn. Points are scored as a result of an accurate strike on the opponent and the winner is the first to score three.
Other Martial Arts
Karate is perhaps the best known of Japan’s martial arts and is now practised around the world. Karate’s origins are not entirely known, but some believe it originated on the Indian subcontinent before becoming adopted in China. It is thought that Chinese traders brought the art to Japan.
Despite being deeply rooted in the Japanese subconscious, Karate was not fully introduced to mainland Japan until the early 20th century. The term Karate was adopted to translate as ‘empty hand’, as the sport is defined by unarmed hand-to-hand combat.
Judo rivals Karate as being the most famous of the Japanese martial arts, one which requires speed and subtlety to overcome an opponent. Many of us will be familiar with Judo from watching bouts at the Olympic Games.
Judo means ‘gentle way’ and was actually created by one man, Kano Jigoro, who developed the sport in the 1880s. Jigoro was interested in the older martial art of Jiu-jitsu but became disillusioned with the teaching he received, which prompted him to found his own school from where Judo developed.
There are scores of other martial arts practised in Japan, including Aikido and Kickboxing. Many follow a belt system with different colours denoting skill and achievement, with black belt being the pinnacle.
Baseball attracts a huge following in Japan and was introduced by the Americans in the 1900s. Wholly adopted as their own sport, baseball has become known by its Japanese term ‘yakyu’ which means field ball.
Schools widely introduce children to baseball and the professional game attracts huge numbers of followers both in the country’s stadiums and on TV. The very best Japanese baseball players are lured to America and many people in Japan avidly follow US baseball teams.
Football has enjoyed a renewed surge in interest in Japan, thanks to the national team doing well at the 2018 World Cup. The J-League is one of the biggest football leagues in the world and has come a long way since Gary Lineker inspired hoards to follow the sport in the 1990s.
The Japanese also love golf and have several top players performing in the world’s biggest tours. Basketball, swimming, athletics and horse racing are also popular.
So, the next time you think of Japan, perhaps you won’t just think of Sushi, compact cars or space-aged gadgets. But if you do think of food, you should visit either or sushi bars in Liverpool or Manchester to satiate your longing for the very best of Japanese cuisine.