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Sports in Japan – the Highs, the Lows, the Competition

It’s fair to say I always have and probably always will be a big sports fan. 

Over time I’ve noticed a number of patterns in the way people here in Japan approach sports. 

Why Does Japan Often Rank So High in Sports?

Photo by KOICHI NISHINO on Wikimedia Commons.

So why is it that Japan continues to progress in so many sports whilst other nations like Scotland seemingly backpedal?

Primarily, I think it comes down to the schooling system. Sports and indeed physical activity in general are such an integral part of school life here in Japan, especially from junior high school onwards. Kids play sports for their “club activities” every day after school and sometimes before school as well. With additional training sessions and tournaments often taking place on weekends and holidays, you’ll find that most Japanese junior high school kids have a training timetable comparable to many professional athletes!

There is also a deeper meaning in all of this, I believe. The determination not just to perform, but to excel, is so heavily engrained in the conscience of Japanese society, and it perhaps is best manifested in sporting performance. 

From the moment they decide to try their hand at something, Japanese people have a tendency to strive to be the best. This is reflected not only in sports but in Japan’s outstanding levels of hospitality, scientific innovation, professionalism and determination. 

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Japan has adopted a unique playing style that seeks to blend the pace, sturdiness and agility of the Japan-born players, with the grit and physical power of the larger, foreign-born players. 

Soccer

Photo by Wankichi67 on Wikimedia Commons

In Scotland when I was growing up, our approach to sports was all too often somewhat myopic. Basically we played soccer. If you weren’t good enough to play soccer for the school team then maybe you’d be able to try your hand at something else, but “the beautiful game” as it so often called, always came first. 

Today, Japan has one of the best soccer teams in the world in men's and women's teams. It has grown especially popular among young people.

However, this is only part of the picture. Whilst Japan has indeed made significant progress in the likes of soccer in recent times, rugby deserves a mention.

Rugby

Photo by 江戸村のとくぞう on Wikimedia Commons.

So, how come Japan has emerged as a rugby nation? After all, isn’t rugby, by its very nature, a sport reliant on height, weight and physical power?

If you watch Japan’s rugby team you will notice two major features. Firstly, their team contains a number of nationalized Japanese, in other words players who may not have been born in Japan, but like me have come to call this country their home. The same approach has worked very well for Belgium in the soccer world recently, with their team’s strength being greatly augmented with a number of players of coming over from Northern Africa and attaining Belgian passports. 

In rugby union, Japan’s progress over an incredibly short space of time, just one or two years, has been incredible. As host of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Japan was recognized as probably the strongest nation in Asia, but still nowhere near the level of all the high ranking European and Southern Hemisphere nations like Scotland, France and Ireland from the North and the powerhouses of South Africa, New Zealand and Australia from the South. 

Success at the rugby world cup has proven very hard to come by for Japan. In more than a dozen previous attempts going into last year’s tournament they had yet to win a game at the tournament. 

It will be interesting to see what progress Japan continues to make in rugby and indeed the sports world as a whole over the next few years. This could be the start of something big.

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