Photo:See-ming Lee on Flickr

A Year of Sport: Looking Ahead to Japan’s 2016 Sporting Calendar

To say that Japan is crazy about sports is something of an understatement.

Walk past any public park in Japan and on any given day you will see men and women, boys and girls of all ages, shapes and sizes playing the sports they love.

Whether its high school boys playing baseball, young women playing tennis or badminton, or even senior citizens enjoying a leisurely game of boules, Japan certainly isn’t short on diversity when it comes to sports.

This diversity also carries over from participatory sports into spectator sports too. Even as I write this, at the midway point of the first month of the year, already I am marking off dates in my calendar of all the sporting events I want to take in this year.

So, please join me as we take a tour of some of the sporting highlights we can look forward to in Japan in 2016.

1) Sumo

Photo : Edward Dalmulder on Flickr

Japan’s national sport has endured something of a torrid time in recent years. Drug abuse allegations, fake injury scandals and even the death of a wrestler as a result of bullying at the hands of his stable master. However, things are looking up in the Sumo wrestling world once again, as the sport enters something of a renaissance.

The seemingly invincible Yokozuna, Hakuho will bid to extend his world record 35 Emperor’s Cup victories this year. However, some commentators are speculating that after such an illustrious career, the Mongolian master is finally beginning to show a few cracks in his armour. Likewise his compatriot Harumafuji, who has set himself apart as second only to Hakuho in the current standings is also beginning to slow a little.

This has given Japanese fans hope that the foreign stranglehold on Sumo’s upper echelons could finally be broken. Japan hasn’t produced a locally born tournament champion in more than a decade, owing largely to the dominance of the now retired Asashoryu and more recently Hakuho and Harumafuji.

One wrestler to look out for this year the highly promising Kotoshogiku. Having already surged through the ranks, to become an Ozeki (second rank below Yokozuna), the Fukuoka-born fighter carved a niche for himself as the latest challenger to the throne.

He has already delivered on his early promise by defeating both Hakuho and Harumafuji in the past year. Can he hold his nerve and secure an Emperor’s Cup? Only time will tell.

2) The J-League

Photo : 5th Luna on Flickr

March brings with it not only the promise of spring time, but also the beginning of another enthralling season of Japanese professional football. Sorry my American friends, what you call soccer the rest of the world knows as football, not that bizarre cross between rugby and American Gladiators that you choose to call football.

Anyway, unlike the grossly over-rated and over-hyped English Premier League, The J-League has a long standing record of producing different winners each season. In recent times Gamba Osaka, Sanfreece Hiroshima and Urawa Reds have all reached the top. It remains to be seen who will be next seasons’ champions come November, but one thing is for sure it certainly won’t be dull.

For Japanese players there is the added incentive of the ongoing World Cup qualifying campaign, with the next global tourney only 2 years away.

Japan disappointed at the last World Cup, meekly fading out at the group stages with only 1 point from three games. So, if any new talent and step up and light up the domestic football scene this season, then an international call up is a distinct possibility.

Certainly if Japan is to have any hope of going further in the next world cup then they will need to move beyond their over-dependence on talismanic frontman Keisuke Honda and to a lesser extent former Manchester United midfielder Shinji Kagawa.

The 2016 European Championships will also bring a renewed interest in football to Japan. Japan may have as much chance of winning that tournament as Scotland do, given the fact that they are obviously ineligible, but nonetheless across the nation millions of fervent football fans will stay up long into the night to see Europe’s finest, and England, fight it out for tournament glory.

3) The return of Mao Asada and the emergence of a new challenger

Photo : Scazon on Flickr

Rated by many as one of the all-time greats of figure skating, Mao Asada has, at the tender age of 25 already ascended to 3rd place on the all-time tournament rankings. However, after a prolonged injury lay-off many commentators started to wonder if she would ever once again reach the heights that saw her claim 3 world championships and an Olympic silver medal. However, she returned with a renewed vigour and a new coaching regimen last year and rounded off a successful 2015 with victory at the China Open. Can she reclaim the form that propelled her to the top of the world rankings and finally work towards claiming that elusive Olympic Gold Medal? Hopefully 2016 will see Mao Asada reach new heights in her already illustrious career.

However, if Asada is to recover her crown she will have to face off against a new rival from within Japan.
Rika Hongo has moved slowly but surely up the domestic rankings since her tournament debut 3 years ago. Now 19, the Sendai native surged into the spotlight last year with a silver medal showing at the Japan Championships. She followed this up at the end of 2015 by placing 2nd in the China Open, just narrowly losing out to Asada.

Whoever ends up dominating on the ice this year, the future of Japanese figure skating is looking very bright indeed.

4) Baseball

Photo : nozatomo on Flickr

On a more personal note, perhaps 2016 will be the year when I final get to take in a baseball game. On 3 separate occasions in the past I have tried, and failed to watch a game due to bad weather. Despite the protestations of my American and indeed some of my Japanese friends, baseball is a sport in which I still struggle to maintain any interest.

However, I will give it a try and if nothing else hoping I will enjoy the big game atmosphere.

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