From sumō to skateboarding: popular sports in Japan

By Tao
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Grafik mit beliebten traditionellen und modernen Sportarten in Japan.

Sports are a huge part of life in Japan. It’s so important that there’s even a public holiday each year to promote sports and an active lifestyle.

From centuries-old traditional sports to modern sports exploding in popularity, you can find it all in Japan. Read on to learn more about some of the most popular sports in Japan.

Person in white track suit running in park

What is Sports Day in Japan?

The second Monday of October each year is Health and Sports Day, or Taiiku no Hi 体育の日, in Japan. This day was created to commemorate the 1964 Summer Olympic Games, which were held in Tokyo, with the aim of promoting an active lifestyle for a healthy body and mind.

On this day, many businesses and schools hold Sports Day events (undōkai 運動会). These usually involve races like obstacle courses, tug-o-war, relays, three-legged races, and the like. Undōkai is a big deal, particularly with schools, which usually hold opening ceremonies that involve speeches, mascots, and closing ceremonies. 

Top sports in Japan

From traditional activities to contemporary favorites, there are a variety of sports that keep Japanese people active and entertained. Here are a few of the most popular sports in Japan.

Sumo wrestling match

Sumō 相撲

Japan’s national sport is deeply steeped in religion and traditions. Sumo originated as a performance to entertain Shintō 神道 gods and still retains many Shintō rituals. These rituals include the referee’s dressing as a Shintō priest and the purification ritual of throwing salt into the ring to get rid of evil spirits.

Today, Japan is the only country where sumō is practiced professionally. Learn more about the ancient sport in our article here.

Martial arts 

There are a number of interesting and unique martial arts practiced as sports in Japan. They stem from samurai warrior traditions and were used to teach samurai combat skills. The physical aspect of martial arts is only the start though – they also require mental and spiritual training and discipline.

Note the Japanese words for martial arts are budō 武道, or the “way” of martial arts, and bujutsu 武術, the “science” or “technique” of martial arts. “Budō” is described as referring to the philosophical and personal growth aspect, while “bujutsu” focuses on how to defeat the opponent. 

Here are a handful of different types of martial arts practiced in Japan.

People practicing martial arts, some of the popular sports in Japan.

Karate 空手

Perhaps the most well-known form of martial arts in the West, karate originates from Okinawa 沖縄 in the southwest of Japan. “Kara” means “empty” and “te” means hand, which reflects the weaponless nature of the martial art. Within the practice of karate are different styles, all combining kicks, punches, and strikes, with speed, rhythm, and balance.

Karate is now an official Olympic sport, that debuted at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Jūjutsu 柔術 and jūdō 柔道

Jūjutsu is an ancient martial art and is the basis on which some modern forms of martial arts are built. The name means “gentle technique” and the focus is to use the opponent’s force against themselves. It involves grappling, strikes, throwing, choke holds and takedowns. 

Jūdō is jūjutsu’s modern-day descendant. It was created in 1882 by Kanō Jigorō 嘉納 治五郎, who was an educator and athlete. He was a student of jūjutsu and incorporated many aspects of it into jūdō. However, jūdō has more of a focus on throwing. It became the first Japanese martial art to become an Olympic sport, debuting in 1964. 

Kyūdō 弓道

Translated as “way of the bow”, kyūdō is Japanese archery. It has a long history and was a huge part of samurai culture. These days, the martial art is practiced for spiritual discipline, focus, and to achieve “truth, goodness, and beauty” (shinzenbi 真善美).

Kendō 剣道

Rooted in swords used by samurai, kendō means “way of the sword”. Instead of using actual swords, modern kendō utilizes bamboo swords and practitioners wear protective gear. Balance is important in kendō – not just mental and spiritual balance, but physical balance too. For example, when striking an opponent, you need to be balanced and not fall over in order for the strike to count.

Read more about another martial art style in our article about a student’s experience practicing aikido 合気道.

Baseball 

Yakyū 野球 came to Japan from the United States during the Meiji Period (Meiji jidai 明治時代) (1868-1912). It’s gained immense popularity, now being the most watched and played sport in the country. 

Watching a professional baseball game in Japan live is a thrilling experience. Fans of each team show up with team colors, and cheer and sing throughout the whole game, which sends an electric energy throughout the stadium. Even if you’re not into the sport, you’ll find yourself drawn into the vibrant and passionate support shown by the audience. 

Football/Soccer

Soccer (sakkā サッカー) is among the most popular sports in Japan, second only after baseball. It came to the country in the 1870s, not long after the foundation of the Football Association in London in 1863. 

Figure skating 

Figure skating (figyasukēto フィギュアスケート) in Japan dates back to the 1920s and the country has a history of prominent and successful skating icons. Well before current superstar Hanyū Yuzuru 羽生 結弦, there was Satō Nobuo 佐藤 信夫 – a 10-time Japanese national champion – and Itō Midori 伊藤みどり, who, in 1988, became the first woman to land the demanding triple Axel jump in international competition. 

Popular up-and-coming sports in Japan

The sports mentioned so far are well-established with long histories and traditions in Japan. But there are also many “modern” sports that are becoming more and more popular amongst the masses. 

Skateboarding (​​Sukētobōdo スケートボード)

Once considered a counterculture activity in Japan, skateboarding’s popularity is soaring at the moment. This surge in interest and acceptance of this sport was spurred by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, where five Japanese athletes won medals – including two golds. The Tokyo 2020 games were the first to include skateboarding as a sport. 

Surfing (Sāfin サーフィン)

Being an island nation, it’s little surprise that modern-day surfing has been growing in popularity in Japan. It first came to Japan in the 1960s by American servicemen, who were based at military bases in Japan during the Vietnam War. Surfing also made its Olympic debut at the Tokyo 2020 games. 

Sport climbing (Supōtsukuraimingu スポーツクライミング)

Traditional climbing started gaining popularity in Japan in the 1970s and in recent years, Japan has been one of the fastest-growing countries when it comes to sport climbing. Japanese climbers enjoy easy access to several climbing and bouldering gyms, as well as natural rock faces – unsurprising given that over 70% of the country is made up of mountains!

Sport climbing also debuted as an Olympic sport at the Tokyo 2020 games. 

Pick up a sport in Japan

Taking up a sport is a great way to do something you love – or learn a new skill – and make friends as a foreigner in Japan. It’s also a great way to learn and practice Japanese!

If you’re curious about how to learn Japanese in Japan, get in touch – our team will be happy to help. 

Enjoy this article? Read more about Japanese culture, language, society, and life on our blog.

Share this article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *