As with any culture, sport in Japan play a major role in its society and the country’s entertainment industry. As such, it’s natural for visitors to wander and explore a little more of the country’s diverse offering of sports. Below, we take a look at some of the most popular sports in Japan, as well as give you the rundown on tournament dates, and where you can watch them.
While it may surprise some, Japan actually has a flourishing sports scene, thanks largely to its very diverse landscapes. The country features ideal settings to pursue both the traditional palette featuring football, golf, and baseball, as well as a wide range of winter sports. It also features some unique sports which, although they haven’t caught on much in the rest of the world, are wildly popular in Japan.
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Although regarded by many as an exotic, far-away realm of wonder, Japanese culture actually bears many similarities to our own Western society. When it comes to sports, Japanese fans enjoy a broad range of “classics”, such as football and basketball. In fact, together with baseball, these are the only three sports to actually feature a professional league in Japan.
Football / Soccer (サッカー)
Japan has made this adopted Western sport more than a leisurely pastime. As evidenced by Japan’s fierce showdown with Croatia in the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Japan actually boasts a strong national football team to match any of those in Europe and South America.
Interestingly enough, it was another FIFA championship that sparked the nation’s interest in the sport. Some readers may remember that back in 2002, Japan co-hosted its own FIFA World Cup together with neighboring Korea, and that saw a surge in interest both for local, and national teams.
Although the current football frenzy in Japan was kindled in the early 2000s, the sport originally arrived in the country back in the 1800s. Where some version of ball-kicking had existed for centuries, this modern take on the sport sent a buzz through Japanese society. In the early 1900s, Japan got its own national football team, the Samurai Blue, and today boasts numerous skilled players of the sport.
The Japanese football scene actually boasts a host of impressive superstars, most notably Kunishige Kamamoto. Most famous for his one-club-man spiel (he was with Yanmar Diesel for 17 years), Kamamoto holds the national record for most goals scored, with a whopping 80.
Where to watch?
If you want to catch Samurai Blue, Japan’s national team, in action, you’ll have to check the schedule for the next AFC Asian Cup or the next FIFA World Cup. Set to be hosted in Qatar, like the current World Cup, the AFC Asian Cup will reportedly be moved from the summer of 2023 to the early winter of 2024.
Alternatively, you can opt for a game in Japan’s J1 League, taking place from February to November.
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Arguably, basketball isn’t one of the most popular sports in Japan as, say, football or baseball. Nevertheless, it is among the very few sports that have their very own national league, making it pretty popular. Japan’s national men’s basketball league is known simply as “the B. League”.
Japan’s national basketball team has proven its mettle several times, most notably during the FIBA Asia Championships, one of the most prestigious international cups in basketball. Japan’s national team won the basketball championship twice in recent decades, standing out as one of the most skillful teams of players in Asia and Oceania.
One telltale sign of the sport’s growing popularity in Japan is the increasing number of anime and manga series, such as Slam Dunk and Kuroko’s Basketball that have been cropping up.
Yuta Tabuse made history as the first Japanese man to appear in an NBA game. Nicknamed the “Michael Jordan of Japan” as a young man, Tabuse holds an HPI of 34.00 and is currently playing for Utsunomiya Brex of the B.League.
Where to watch?
Not only are the B. League multiple-time champions of the FIBA Asia Cup, but next year, in 2023, Japan is set to be one of the championship’s hosts. For the 2023 cup, Japan will be sharing hosting duties with the Philippines and Indonesia. So if you’re planning a trip to Japan in 2023, check the schedule for the FIBA Asia Cup, and see if you can make it to one of their live events at the stadium.
If catching the FIBA Cup isn’t feasible, then don’t worry, there are still plenty of opportunities to catch any one of Japan’s talented basketball teams. T B. League’s basketball season typically starts in September and lasts until late spring.
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Baseball (野球 / やきゅう)
Another traditional Western sport that has been making waves among Japanese sports fans is baseball. Known as yakyū among locals, baseball originally came to Japan during the Meiji Period (1868-1912) and was, of course, imported from the United States. Although it was initially popular mostly among amateur and college sports teams, the sport amassed incredible popularity over the years.
Not only has baseball become the single most popular and most-watched sport in Japan, but the fervor with which fans worship their favorite players rivals that of American fans. Much like American children, many elementary school students in Japan are encouraged to take up baseball. And during baseball seasons, ardent sports fans line some of the country’s largest stadiums to cheer on their favorite team.
One major way in which the sport differs from its American counterpart is the level of festivity awarded to each individual player. Whereas American baseball is generally laid back, Japanese games are an occasion for fireworks and light shows, with each player having their very own theme song.
Given the sport’s insane popularity, many of the best baseball players are actually currently batting abroad. Such is the case of Kenta Maeda who, after an impressive 8-year run with the Hiroshima Carps recently signed a contract with the L.A. Dodgers.
Where to watch?
Japan’s official baseball season runs from March (or February, if you count training games) all the way through October. Games can be attended most days of the week, with the notable exception of Mondays. Alternatively, if sitting courtside isn’t your thing, most season games are broadcast live on national television.
Whether you’re an avid golfer, practice it as a hobby, or even just enjoy spectating the occasional match, Japan won’t disappoint you. Japan is filled with golf courses, many of them spread across the country’s mountainous areas (like Mt. Fuji or Okinawa). Of course, if you’re visiting snowy regions during winter, you may not be able to indulge in a golf game, as courses will be closed. However, golf is pretty much a year-round sport in most of the country’s warmer regions.
Tip: Beware, though, that not many caddies or golf resort staff will speak English, so you may have a little trouble with your initial reservation. You may also want to brush up on Japanese golf course etiquette before a match.
Professional Japanese golf is not without its superstar athletes. Perhaps the most famous Japanese golf player of all time, Ryo Ishikawa made his debut in the public eye, winning his very first professional tournament at only 15.
Where to watch?
If you’re not only a keen player but also an observer of the sport, there’s no better opportunity than the Japan Golf Tour. Founded in 1973 and held yearly, the Japan Golf Tour is the third most impressive tournament of its kind, after America’s own PGA Tour and the European Tour.
Of all the sports in Japan, tennis actually holds a lot of national importance in Japan, as it was its very first Olympic medal won at the Summer Olympics in 1920. At the time, tennis had been played in Japan for around three decades, first being introduced at the end of the 19th century. Though, interestingly enough, when tennis first arrived in Japan, it wasn’t seen so much as a competitive sport, as it was a chance for physical exercise.
Later, of course, it grew into the competition we know today, and rose to critical popular acclaim, with many Japanese tennis players ranking among the best in the world.
Few names spring to mind as easily as Kei Nishikori, when discussing Japan’s best tennis players. Beating international greats like Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, Nishikori earned the title of the world’s 4th best tennis player in his prime, and still ranks as one of Japan’s legendary tennis players.
Where to watch?
If you’re keen on seeing some prime Japanese tennis, there’s no better option than the annual Japan Open, hosted in Tokyo. The international competition, held in October, draws some of the best tennis players on the planet and is conveniently located at the beautiful Ariake Coliseum, near Odaiba, one of Tokyo’s many tourist attractions.
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While Japan has adopted many international sports into its fold, the country also hosts yearly competitions of more traditional Japanese sports. Perhaps not as well-known, these can be a wonderful chance to immerse yourself in Japanese culture.
Sumo (相撲 / すも)
This unique Japanese style of wrestling is known, around the world, as Japan’s national sport, albeit not its most famous. Sumo carries an interesting background. Originating in ancient times, sumo actually began life as a form of honoring the Shinto deities and retains a lot of religious symbolism to this day. The customary practice of purifying the ring before a match with salt, for instance, is from the sport’s ancient origins. If you're not sure which of the many sports in Japan to check out in person - this one is a big recommend!
The rules of sumo are fairly simple, making it easy for foreigners to follow along – the players are only allowed to touch the floor with the soles of their feet. The first player to touch the floor of the dohyo (土俵, ring) with any other body part or to exit the dohyo loses.
Japan’s sumo Hall of Fame stretches far back in time, with many names coming to mind. Futabayama, who holds the record with a whopping 69 victories, is hailed by many as sumo’s undefeated champion (having set the record in the 1930s).
Where to watch?
If you’re bent on seeing a sumo tournament during your visit, you’re in luck, as there are several around the year. Three important sumo tournaments are held annually in Tokyo in January, May, and September. There are also major tournaments every year in Osaka (March), Nagoya (July), and Fukuoka (November).
If none of these suit your schedule, you can always attend an exhibition tournament, or keep an eye peeled for university tournaments.
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Judo (柔道 / じゅうど)
Judo is more than a popular national pastime. In the years since its creation, in 1892, judo has risen to become a popular martial art practiced worldwide, as well as an Olympic discipline, in its own right.
Judo, which literally translates as “the gentle way”, features a heavy focus on grappling, striking, and throwing, but also falling, and prizes strategy and supple movements over strength. Observing a judo match is fascinating, as the complex movement sequences are more like a dance than an actual fight.
Over the years, there have been so many talented judo players that remain in international memory, such as Yasuhiro Yamashita, 1984’s 19-year-old supreme champion. Yet none more so than Kanō Jigorō, the father of judo and pioneer of the black-and-white belt system. Kanō Jigorō was not only a judo master but also pioneered the introduction of judo in schools in the early 20th century, contributing to judo’s public prominence.
Where to watch?
While judo matches are played yearly across Japan, there’s no better place to watch one than at the Kodokan in Tokyo. Founded by none other than Jigorō himself, the Kodokan is Japan’s greatest judo school to this day, as well as the host of the yearly Japan Judo Championships (in April).
Hakone Ekiden (箱根駅伝 / はこねえきでん)
Ekiden, for short, is a marathon-style event unlike any other you’ve seen before. Only going back about a hundred years or so, Ekiden is wildly popular in Japan, and features yearly competitions for many Japanese universities.
To the untrained eye, the basics of Ekiden might sound strikingly similar to a mere running marathon. Except, there is one notable difference. Although Ekiden tracks can stretch up to 100 km, they don’t pit runners against one another. Instead, each runner is supposed to do their bit, and when they’re done, pass the Tasuki (襷/たすき, “sash”) to the next runner. Thus, the entire group of runners forms one team that competes to finish the race together.
Since Ekiden is a team sport, it’s difficult and unfair to single out specific runners as the “best”. However, the Ekiden is largely a university marathon, and some universities have stood out across competitions, like the Ekiden team from Meiji University and Waseda University, both located in Japan’s capital.
Where to watch?
The annual competition is held on the 2nd and 3rd days of January, to mark the new year, and is seen as a national event. 21 universities compete to cover the >100 km distance and take home the prize.
The first day of the race begins in Tokyo and covers a 107.5 km distance to Hakone (Kanagawa Prefecture). The race is completed on the second day after runners make their way back to Tokyo across a 109.6 km distance.
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Aikido (合気道 / あいきどう)
Another of the well-known sports in Japan, or rather, a martial art that has conquered the entire globe - aikido is similar in many ways to judo. The guiding principle of aikido is that rather than meet an attack with even more force, one ought to use their wits, as well as the attacker’s own force against them.
Because of that, aikido is a mesmerizing spectator sport, as it blends stillness, strategy, and quick reactions, rather than relying on brute force.
Normally, aikido masters are known for their cool composure, as well as their efforts to promote aikido principles off the mat. Morihei Ueshiba is remembered not only as the founder of this beautiful sport but also as one of its great masters, as is his son, Kissomaru Ueshiba.
Although not of Japanese origins, American actor Steven Seagal, who began his aikido training at the age of 9 and went on to impart aikido wisdom to Chuck Norris, and Sean Connery, deserves a special mention here.
Where to watch?
As a sport centered around mental balance, aikido doesn’t formally recognize competitions. However, one can check the website of the Aikikai Foundation for demonstrations and meet-ups.
Winter Sports & Activities
Japan is home to some wonderful mountainous areas that make for excellent tourist destinations, but also a great backdrop for winter sports. If you are visiting Japan during the winter, you may want to stop by and attend one of the below competitions. And if you get tired of the cold, you can combine attendance at one of these competitions with a quick dip in a healing onsen (温泉, hot spring).
Officially, skiing season kicks off in December, and lasts until March, or even April, depending on where you are. As much as it’s fun to watch, skiing is a participation sport, and Japan is recognized worldwide as a stellar skiing destination, boasting clean high-quality snow, and smooth slopes.
A strong concentration of ski resorts can be found in the north, in Hokkaido. While there are no ski resorts directly in Tokyo, there are several skiing destinations near the capital, including Mt. Fuji, which allows for a fun day trip.
The winner of the 1992 Ski Flying World Championships and the 1999 Nordic Tournament, Noriaki Kasai is arguably Japan’s most well-known skier. The Japanese ski jumper, who has broken several records in his career, is presently the holder of not one, but two Guinness World Records for most individual starts in all World Cup disciplines.
Where to watch?
If you’re planning on sitting back and enjoying a ski competition while in Japan, there are many smaller skiing competitions across the winter months. By far the most famous, however, is the Sapporo International Ski Marathon.
Held annually in the town of Sapporo, in the Hokkaido region, the Marathon has been going strong for a little over 40 years. Inspired by a similar event in Norway, the first Sapporo Ski Marathon took place on the exact tracks of the Sapporo Olympic Winter Games. However, the tracks have been expanded since then.
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Although snowboarding doesn’t have the same long tradition in Japan that skiing does, it has been growing in popularity in recent years, particularly among young people. For tourists interested in a little snowboarding, you can check out the same winter resorts in Hokkaido, Kyushu, and other mountainous destinations, as you would for skiing.
Since snowboarding is a fairly newer sport in Japan, it doesn’t have as many famous figures as skiing. However, people like Yasuo Aiuchi and Raibu Katayama stand out. Aiuchi, who made professional ranking at the age of 21, is known for his deft snowboarding tricks, while Katayama impressed the jury at the 2018 Winter Olympics with his moves.
Where to watch?
Snowboarding may not enjoy the huge popularity of other winter sports. However, if you’re keen on seeing some cool moves (on top of practicing your own), a great place to watch some slopestyle competitions is Hanazono Park, in Hokkaido.
Finally, snowshoeing may be a bit of an odd fish to foreign travelers, but well worth a try while you’re in Japan. While snowshoeing is, at best, an individual or small-group sport, it’s an excellent chance for getting some physical exercise during the cold months.
If you haven’t got the dexterity or the courage to try skiing or snowboarding, but still want to visit some of Japan’s most stunning winter resorts, you can rent (or buy) a pair of snowshoes. You just strap these devices on top of any show, and set off, plowing through the snow.
Snowshoes let you practice your balance, and give you a proper workout, all while exploring Japan’s snow-filled mountainous regions in a safer, more fun way. Since it’s not really a “sport” in Japan, it doesn’t get any famous players or competitions to attend, but it’s definitely one of the country's most innovative (unofficial) winter sports!
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There you have it, sports in Japan fans! There is certainly no shortage of fan-favorites and a few unique to Japan that you can enjoy while you're visiting the Land of the Rising Sun! We've seen Japan making more of a name for themselves in recent years with players being recruited to major leagues in the US so there's no better time to get a head start and check out the home grounds of some of these amazing players!
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