Is Japan Tomorrow’s Sporting Superpower?
By Andrew Mentock
A growing number of Japanese athletes are becoming household names. Naomi Osaka was the highest-paid female athlete in the world in 2020 and has been making headlines for promoting mental health. Japanese baseball player Shohei Ohtani is accomplishing feats Major League Baseball hasn’t seen since a young Babe Ruth, excelling as a starting pitcher and leading the league in home runs.
Osaka and Ohtani, however, are just the beginning. Japan today stands on the cusp of being a global sporting superpower. As the Paralympic Games draw to a close this weekend following a summer of spectacle from Tokyo, we profile the young Japanese athletes taking the world by storm on sports’ biggest stages.
HITTING THE LINKS
It was of monumental significance when 29-year-old Hideki Matsuyama, the former No. 2 player in the world, won the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia, last spring, becoming the first Japanese golfer to win a men’s major golf championship. Matsuyama followed up his Masters performance with a fourth-place finish at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Given Japan’s decades-long fascination with golf, such a historic win could unlock as much as $600 million for Matsuyama. “[The Masters win] was definitely amazing news and some of the biggest news that we have ever had, particularly in the world of golf here in Japan,” Hiroshi Yamanaka, managing director of the Japan Golf Association, tells OZY.
Women in the Sport
A week before Matsuyama’s historic Masters victory in April, 17-year-old Tsubasa Kajitani conquered the same golf course when she won the Augusta National Women’s Amateur tournament. While her win didn’t make global headlines, it does signify the success of yet another Japanese female golfer on the international stage. At the professional level, Nasa Hataoka has recorded four Ladies Professional Golf Association tour wins since 2018, plus a second-place finish at the prestigious U.S. Women’s Open this year. At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Mone Inami, who competes in the Japan LPGA, took home silver in women’s golf. “I actually had tears in my eyes at the presentation ceremony for the female competition, looking at Inami winning the silver medal and seeing the national flag of Japan,” Yamanaka tells OZY.
Return to Popularity?
In 2017, half of Asia’s golf courses were located in Japan, but many were starting to close due to waning national interest. That’s changing. Thanks in part to the recent international success of Japanese golfers, it appears the game is once again growing in popularity. “COVID-19 and our players’ performances [has led to] about a 10% increase in the number of golfers, which is about 600,000 people, who started playing golf within a year or so,” Yamanaka tells OZY. In his opinion, much of this rise is due to women taking up the game, especially after the Tokyo Olympics encouraged Japanese golf clubs to be more inclusive for women.
In commanding fashion, six Japan-born athletes left Tokyo with Olympic skateboarding medals, half the total number available. This included gold medals in men’s and women’s street for 22-year-old Yuto Horigome and Momiji Nishiya, then 13 years old and one of the youngest Olympic gold medalists ever. Japan also took two medals in the women’s park event, with the third claimed by 13-year-old bronze medalist Sky Brown, who was competing for Great Britain but was born in Miyazaki, Japan. “This was an amazing summer to watch Japanese skateboarders plant their flag on the world stage,” Brandon Graham, an ESPN X Games broadcaster, tells OZY. “But I think they’ve clearly been in the lab for the last couple of years getting ready for this opportunity.”
Overcoming Negative Stigma
In the U.S., skateboarding will always bear a countercultural element. That said, the popularity of Tony Hawk in the early 2000s, his video games and nationally televised events such as the X Games pushed the sport into the mainstream long before it became an Olympic sport in 2020. But throughout much of Japan, skateboarding is still frowned upon, and its participants stigmatized as unruly or misfits. “I do think it’s more difficult for people that want to skateboard in Japan compared to overseas,” said Aori Nishimura, one of several Japanese Olympic skateboarders who resides in the United States. Post-Olympics, maybe the sport can finally come out of the shadows.
A Deficit in the Skatepark Arms Race
In May, there were fewer than 250 skateparks in Japan, a paltry figure for the nation’s nearly 126 million citizens to share. Compare that to the U.S., which may have two and a half times the population but also has about 3,500 skateparks. Now, Japan’s Olympic skateboarders are hoping that their success will encourage their country to catch up. “It makes it that much more impressive that the Japanese skaters don’t necessarily have all of the facilities that we do here [in America], and can’t even necessarily skate as freely as maybe we as Americans get to or take for granted,” Graham tells OZY. “The fact that they’re able to turn into these contest powerhouses, I think it’s spectacular.”
Men’s Rugby Union
Japan shocked followers of rugby union at the 2015 World Cup in England by handing two-time champion South Africa a late 34-32 defeat. This marked the first World Cup win for Japan, known as the Brave Blossoms, since 1991. The momentum carried over into 2019, when Japan hosted the Rugby World Cup and went undefeated in its pool — beating the world’s No. 1-ranked side, Ireland — to earn a quarterfinal berth. In that game, South Africa exacted revenge by taking down Japan 26-3. Several key contributors from the Brave Blossoms’ 2019 roster could return for the 2023 World Cup in France, and they’re accustomed to overachieving in past performances.
Unlike in the men’s game, the rest of the world has yet to catch up to the success being achieved by the USA Basketball Women’s National team. Despite not having a single player currently attached to a Women’s National Basketball Association team, could Japan be a future Olympic threat to the U.S.? You betcha. Japan medaled for the first time ever, winning silver at the Tokyo Olympics. “We knew that Japan wasn’t messing around,” said Diana Taurasi, a guard for the U.S. and one of the most decorated Olympians ever, after defeating Japan in the gold medal game. In the 3×3 basketball competition, the Japanese women’s team failed to reach the podium but gave the U.S., the eventual gold medal winner, its lone Olympic defeat in an earlier game.
Japan has never qualified for a World Cup in men’s or women’s cricket, but that could soon change thanks to a recent focus on young talent. “We invested heavily in youth, at the expense of other people — our national teams haven’t had a full-time coach for the last four or five years because we wanted to put our focus on development,” Alan Curr of the Japan Cricket Association said last year. Thus far, this has translated into some success, with Japan qualifying for the Men’s U19 World Cup in 2020. Behind soccer, cricket is the second most popular sport in the world. In the future, Japan hopes at least to be a factor.
2022 BEIJING WINTER GAMES
Will Snowboarding Success Mirror Skateboarding?
After taking a multiyear hiatus from snowboarding and competing in skateboarding at the Tokyo Games, Ayumu Hirano is returning to the sport that made him a star, at the ripe age of 22. He won back-to-back Olympic silver medals in the men’s halfpipe snowboarding event in 2014 and 2018. With Shaun White nearing the end of his career, Hirano would be the presumptive favorite at the 2022 Winter Olympics in February in Beijing if not for another Japanese superstar: 19-year-old Yūto Totsuka, the reigning world champion. On the women’s side, Japan failed to win a single snowboarding medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics, but Miyabi Onitsuka, Kokomo Murase, Reira Iwabuchi, Kurumi Imai and Haruna Matsumoto have each medaled in their respective snowboarding events at the X Games in Aspen since 2020.
Yuzuru Hanyu is on the brink of history. After winning back-to-back Olympic gold medals in 2014 and 2018, the 26-year-old could become the first male singles figure skater to three-peat in an Olympics since 1928. But in addition to reigning world champion Nathan Chen, Hanyu has stiff competition from his fellow countrymen: At the 2021 World Figure Skating Championships in March, Hanyu finished third overall, one spot behind then-17-year-old Yuma Kagiyama, also of Japan. Shoma Uno, the 2018 Olympic silver medalist in South Korea, finished in fourth and has long dreamed of defeating Hanyu. With three spots waiting in the men’s singles competition in Beijing, could Japan actually sweep the podium?
Women’s Ice Hockey
As the host nation, Japan was one of six Olympic qualifiers in women’s ice hockey in 1998, the year the sport made its Olympic debut in Nagano. But Japan’s team failed to qualify for each of the next three Games before the country finally began investing in women’s ice hockey. Japan still hasn’t reached a podium at a tournament outside of Asia, but it is coming off sixth-place finishes at both the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics and at the 2021 International Ice Hockey Federation’s Women’s World Championship in August. Now, it’s aiming for the podium in Beijing. Even if Japan’s competitors fall short in February, the future is bright: The Japan women’s ice hockey team won gold over Sweden at the Lausanne 2020 Youth Olympic Games.
- Andrew Mentock, OZY Author Contact Andrew Mentock