I’ve been in Japan since mid June due to DMUGlobal and Meisei University in Tokyo and the first thing you realise is that sports is a fundamental part of society here. On the monorail, there are adverts for Baseball games lining the walls and ceilings, on the trains there are football advertisements and highlights playing on screens on the walls. Sports is a priority here and it’s not hidden away.
The amount of sporting facilities across Tokyo is just a foresight into how much people here love sports. I’ve seen basketball courts, tennis courts, futsal courts and even a batting cage, all on top of buildings! The density of the city means that sports get facilities across the city, wherever they can, including on buildings and the floodplains of the Asa river.
Now I understand that most major cities have some of this in one form or another, but nothing on this level of availability. Baseball is the most popular western sport here, by a long shot, the amount of dedication by a lot of the people I have met here has been similar to that of football. The closest thing to it by popularity is Basketball. Football, whilst loved in Japan, is not as popular as it may seem due to the Japanese football league only being created in 1992. However they have recently attracted some big stars to the league, including former German international Lukas Podolski. However the popularity of sports does not undermine the passion and enthusiasm the crowd have for them or their teams. In the UK, when a team is losing or they’re facing a lesser opponent, the crowd gets quiet or doesn’t show in such big numbers. Every match I tried to get a ticket for was fully booked and the ones I did see were full and not once did the energy stop or the noise die down, no matter the score or the opponent.
The way Universities treat sports is also different. At DMU you train maybe 2-3 times a week and fitness probably twice a week in the academic year. Some universities have some of their players train nearly every day, even when the academic year has finished. If you are in a team sport, a lot of pressure is put on you to attend everything the team do, no matter if you are failing the academic side of university. I even got told people drop out of university simply because they felt like they were letting the team down by missing training sessions to catch up on work or not playing well. That to me is insanity that they would leave uni as they felt like they had no other option.
Japan are also hosting the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Olympic Games. Whilst Japan are not ready yet, many of the stadiums around Tokyo look like they could host a number of events and I think this is why so many universities are pushing their sports players so hard. The exposure the university would get if they had an Olympian, especially if they won a medal, would be astronomical. Japan got a record number of medals in 2016, with a total of 41 (including 12 golds). Therefore the pressure is on for them to break the record again, in their home country. Therefore pushing the next generation of players is their way of trying to produce Olympians. But pushing Baseball players to be the best in the country is their way of getting the reputation of producing consistently high quality players who end up playing for the likes of the Yomiuri Giants and the Yakult Swallows.
Sport is looked at more as a marketing tool than in the UK where we see it as a form of entertainment. Of course there is still a lot of entertainment value to get from sports in Japan, they took America’s idea of Baseball and made it more of a show then a match. It is meant to be more about that than the sport itself but it is still entertaining. But the more commercial purpose of the sports are more apparent as each university wants to boost their name, each company wants to be seen as the one with a winning team.
Whist sports are recreational, there seems to be very few non-competitive sports in Japan as almost everything has some form of league or competition. That’s great, there’s an end goal and what you work towards but there seems to be very little focus on enjoying it compared to being competitive. I like when my team wins, I like when I do well but sometimes you want to be able to relax and not worry about being perfect. I’m sure the culture still exists in Japan but it is not as common to see as it is in the UK. But weirdly enough, they do not have a ‘Varsity’ style event for universities and colleges as far as I could find out. Students at Meisei University didn’t understand the idea of facing one university in every sport in a short time-span.
As the Olympics and the Rugby World Cup draw nearer, I expect a lot more emphasis to be put on the sports in the country. Companies and universities will want their names to be shown across the world, but hopefully without sacrificing why the people love them. The actual games themselves are the reason people come but money can make some events more about the sponsors than the sport. Some sporting events have got more and more about companies than the sport, the Super Bowl being one. Japan has an amazing sporting culture even if most of it is owned by companies, but this doesn’t make them less enjoyable. The crowds are fantastic and love the game, they are enthusiastic and a game, no matter what sport or who’s playing, always feels lively and energetic.