Sports are of great importance to characterizing a country. Global events such as the olympics and the World Cup have gathered tremendous attention for decades, cementing itself in the mind of the people as a noble stage to showcase their home country. Japan is often known as a strong athletic nation in many sports, finishing top 16 in the World Cup for two consecutive tournaments, winning the WBC while beating USA in the finals, leading in total gold medals won in Judo in the olympics, and so on. The following will explain Japan’s passion to sports through its history and current activities within communities.
There will be two posts on this topic. This post will focus on any ball game, whereas the second post will elaborate more on the martial arts and other sports non-related to ball sports.
Baseball has a long history in Japan, dating back to 1872 when the sport was introduced to the country. Since then, it has been the most popular sport in Japan. Over the course of 20 years, Japanese baseball has exponentially improved in terms of skill, knowledge, physicality, and tactics, allowing dozens of Japanese players to play in the MLB. Shohei Ohtani, the current Japanese sensation who’s regarded as the best baseball player in the world, won the first MVP in the major leagues as a Japanese player. Baseball is often known as the toughest sport to play, due to its cultural emphasis on discipline and courtesy. It is often the case that baseball teams in Japan strongly inherit the traditional Japanese manners and lifestyle, as they are often taught to show brimming respect to anyone. In the summer, the largest high school baseball tournament called “Koshien” is a major event to watch. It consists of the winners of each prefecture’s winners. Countless high school players dream of stepping foot on the Koshien stadium, which can be observed by the teams in the tournament bringing back the dirt of the stadium to their hometown.
Baseball Anime: Ace of Diamond, Major
Soccer’s popularity falls right after baseball. Its upbringing is relatively recent; the professional league in Japan known as the “J League” was made in 1991. Advancing into their first World Cup in 1998, Japan has made steady progress in presenting themselves as a strong force in the world of soccer. Most famously, their World Cup run in the first round, defeating Spain and Germany, both very strong European teams with a recent World Cup title, promoted Japan from a dark horse to a real threat. Notable successful players are Kaoru Mitoma, who plays for Brighton, and Junichi Inamoto, who plays for Arsenal. Many young children are fascinated by the performance of the Japanese national team, however the popularity of the J league seems to be declining. This may be the result of good players being able to travel abroad easily, therefore not much talent is left int eh country. On the other hand, women’s soccer has held a consistent growing population of fans.
Soccer Anime: Inazuma 11, Blue Lock
Basketball is another sport where its popularity has spiked in recent years. With the impact Rui Hashimura, the first Japanese player ever to be drafted as the first pick, is giving to the NBA and its fans, basketball seems to be catching major attention within the country. Interestingly, many of the top YouTubers in Japan played basketball when they were in middle school or high school, therefore basketball content is quite prevalent online. Just a few days ago, the Japanese national basketball team qualified for the Paris Olympics in 2024.
Fun fact: Japanese basketball players can often be seen wearing volleyball shoes
Basketball Anime: Kuroko no Basket, Slam Dunk
Badminton is the most popular sport for elementary schoolers. With Asia dominating badminton in the world stage, Japan is no different when it comes to passionately playing badminton. The biggest reason for its popularity is because of how easy it is to play; all that is required is two rackets and a shuttlecock, which are both very lightweight and easy to carry. It is also a staple sport in gym class. Due to China winning more than half of the gold medals in badminton, Japan along with Indonesia, Denmark, and South Korea have consistently produced competitors in the olympics.
Table tennis is also very popular in Japan. Ping pong tables can be found in hotels, recreational buildings, etc. Similar to badminton, this Asia-dominated sport is also taken very seriously, and because of how safe it is and how easy it is to pick up, it is also a staple sport in gym class. Similar to badminton, China is by far the most dominant force in this sport, holding 32 of the 37 gold medals. Japan is in third with 8 total medals earned.
Volleyball is another strong sport in Japan. Although they haven’t been able to win Olympic medals since the first gold they won back in 1972, Japan is still regarded as a very strong nation, often praised for the tactics they use to make up their physical disadvantage. Volleyball was one of the sports where females were able to perform and engross just as well as males, which was revolutionary in a comparatively patriarchal society like Japan where women usually don’t have much say against men.
Volleyball Anime: Haikyu
Tennis is a favorite for many people. With Kei Nishikori’s legendary wins against the best players in the world such as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic, and Naomi Osaka beating Serena Williams in the US Open 2018 and Australia Open 2021, Japan has left a mark in tennis. Again like badminton and table tennis, tennis is regarded as an easy sport to pick up to get a little bit of exercise.
Golf, just like any other country, is a principal sport for business. So many adults love to golf on the weekends; the number of golf courses is not confined by the size of the country. In the 2020 Olympics, Mone Izumi won Japan’s first medal in golf. In the past decades, golf used to be an exclusive sport, due to its limited service and available golf courses.