Japanese Sports: From Sumo to Soccer

By Taylor Ahlstrom,

No one can deny that sports are a worldwide phenomenon. Baseball may be America’s pastime, but everyone knows that football is truly America’s sport. The large majority of the world is obsessed with the other kind of football, and it seems any country that has been ruled by England can’t get enough cricket. But what about Japanese sports? While sumo wrestling is Japan’s official national sport, it is far from the country’s most popular. So what sport holds the title for “favorite professional sport” in Japan?

If you guessed baseball (野球, yakyū), you’re right. 48% of Japanese people polled in 2013 chose baseball as their favorite sport. Since it was adopted from the United States in 1872 it has continued to grow in popularity. It is both the most played as well as the most watched sport in the country. According to Japan’s National Tourism Organization, “Baseball is so popular in Japan that many fans are surprised to hear that American’s also consider it their national sport.”

japanese sports sumo to soccer
Image credit: japan-guide.com

If you go to a baseball game in Japan, however, you may be surprised to learn it’s a little different than its American counterpart. While you will still find hot dogs and beers, the Japanese take cheering for their teams to a whole new level. In addition to a team’s mascot, you will also find a literal cheer leader to keep the fans pumped up throughout the game. Everyone knows the cheers, so you’d better learn them quickly. Individual players each have their own cheers as well, making sure there is a never dull moment! In this way, Japanese baseball fandom much more closely resembles a European football match than it does American baseball.

Speaking of football, (サッカー, sakka) or soccer to Americans, it comes in as the second most popular sport in Japan. The J. League Division 1 (Jリーグ・ディビジョン1 J Rīgu Dibijon1) is the top division of the Japanese Professional Football League (日本プロサッカーリーグ, Nippon Puro Sakkā Rīgu), founded in 1992. Despite initial popularity, the league suffered throughout the late 90s, leading to its restructuring in 2005. Post 2005, the league much more closely resembles the European football leagues. Since then, attendance at games has remained relatively stable but the percent of Japanese claiming it as “their favorite” has risen from 23% to 36%!

Despite many countries being known for their rowdy soccer fans, violence, and football hooligans, Japanese fans actually have a reputation for being extremely well-mannered. As recent as the 2014 World Cup, Japanese fans made headlines by cleaning up after themselves. Though leaving a place “cleaner than you found it” is customary in Japan, in the Americas and Europe we are accustomed to seeing stadiums scattered with stale popcorn, piled high with empty nacho trays, and littered with empty beer cans when we leave.

japan's favorite sport

So why were the Japanese so polite even after losing the game? In Japan it’s known as 当たり前 (atarimae), which loosely translates as something reasonable, or obvious. It’s just something that is done by everyone so why wouldn’t you do it too? The Japanese take pride in their cleanliness and that applies to even the messiest of football stadiums in Brazil.

Have you ever been to a baseball or football game in Japan? Did you get swept up in the infectious cheering? Did you notice everyone cleaning up after themselves and follow suit? I hope so, because it’s atarimae!

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