From the traditional to the contemporary to the downright quirky, if you’re a sports fan visiting Japan, you’ll be spoilt for choice.
Japan is a sporting nation and its fans are among the most passionate anywhere in the world. The chance to attend a sporting event in Japan is definitely not to be missed for the unique atmosphere! While Japanese people have a reputation as being quiet, super polite, and respectful, which is true, they also have a fun and excitable side that is unleashed while watching and appreciating their favourite sports. Attending a live sports event in Japan is a special experience and definitely worth factoring into your travel plans if you’re a sports fan. And with the JR Pass in hand, you could even travel the length and breadth of Japan using the country’s super efficient domestic rail network to watch multiple sports events. In today’s blog, we’ll give you a quick overview of sports in Japan, from the most popular to the quirkiest and most chaotic. All set? Ready, set, go!
Popular Sports in Japan
If you’re a sports lover, you’re in luck. As we said at the top, Japan is a sporting nation and its fans are unique! Alongside this, there are sporting events taking place right across Japan, all year round, meaning there’s something for everyone, from traditional sports like Sumo and Kendo to Japan’s take on Western sports like baseball. Let’s take a look at a dozen of the most popular sports in Japan (including a few more quirky and off-beat choices!). Ready for kick-off? Let’s get started.
Baseball is Japan’s most popular sport and has been for decades. A sport in Japan that only seems to grow in popularity, baseball has been played there since its introduction in 1934. Baseball games in Japan feature crowds of lively and passionate fans chanting and proudly wearing their team colours. It’s an interesting break from the reserved behaviour you’ll usually witness from day to day, which is why it’s such a great addition to any visit. The Nippon Professional League starts up at the end of March, so April is a great time to enjoy the excitement of the baseball season.
Japan’s professional baseball league, their equivalent of Major League Baseball, is called the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB). Locally known in Japan as Pro Yakyu, the NPB is made up of two conferences, the Central League and the Pacific League, each with six teams. Baseball season in Japan runs from March to October, so there’s a good chance you can catch a game unless you’re visiting in winter. There are a few subtle differences in Japanese baseball to American baseball, but nothing that will make following the game difficult. These differences start with technical things like playing with a smaller ball, strike zone and field, and move onto the fact games can end in a tie, which is called after 12 innings if scores are level.
To get the most out of seeing baseball in Japan, you could focus on one of the country’s biggest teams such as Tokyo’s Yomiuri Giants. The Yomiuri Giants play at the Tokyo Dome, the largest roof-covered dome in the world. Besides being a ballpark, Tokyo Dome also has an amusement park, planetarium, and hot spring resort. Essentially you can spend a whole day at the stadium and only part of that day needs to be watching baseball. It’s a win-win! You can find out much more about baseball in Japan by reading A Beginner’s Guide to Japanese Baseball.
Sumo is quintessentially Japanese. Big, bold, steeped in history and tradition, and completely unique. Sumo is so synonymous with Japan, it’s hard to imagine it existing anywhere else and at the same time, it’s also quite a surprising national sport for a country with a reputation for being understated and polite. Sumo wrestling has a proud and ancient history as Japan’s national sport. Carvings of sumo figures have been found that date back as far as the 3rd Century, making the sport well over a thousand years old. However, it wasn’t until the Edo period (1603-1867) that sumo truly became the sport that we recognise today. During this period, a set of rules were created, including 48 legal moves, the elevated circular ring, and stables to train the wrestlers. The opportunity to see two titans collide in the ring is not to be missed. The pre-match rituals alone are an incredible traditional spectacle for fans, particularly international visitors, as well as the unique atmosphere in the arena. There really is no other sport quite like it. Matches are held in stadiums and take place all day from 8am to 6pm. The main matches, featuring the highest ranked sumo, take place in the afternoon. You can watch some of the lower ranked wrestlers in the morning, but the stadium doesn’t tend to fill up until later in the day. Just make sure you’re seated for the main events, as you won’t want to miss those - the atmosphere in the arena will also be at its peak then. Stadiums sell snacks and drinks and it’s also possible to pre-order special bento boxes to enjoy at the event. Attending one of the six grand sumo tournaments - honbasho - is an amazing way to experience this unique sport. The three honbasho in Tokyo are held at the world famous Ryogoku Kokugikan stadium which can seat up to 13,000 spectators. As a bonus tip, attending a match, you can rent English audio commentary head-sets if you’d like a play-by-play account of the action. Read our guide to Sumo in Japan for a comprehensive guide.
3. Winter Sports
Winter Sports are hugely popular in Japan and the nation has hosted the Winter Olympic Games twice - in Sapporo in 1972 and Nagano in 1998. Japan has always done well at these events and winter sports, particularly skiing and ski jumping, have proven extremely popular both professionally and recreationally across the country. For those in the know, Japan has long had a stellar reputation as a ski destination. But why exactly is that the case? Well, it starts with the fact that Japan can receive as much as 15 metres (600 inches) of snowfall during winter. The snow that falls on Japan, caused by wind off Siberia crossing the Sea of Japan, is super light and leads to excellent skiing conditions. With regular snowfall that’s both deep and fine as powder, you’re in for a good time when you hit the slopes. The other great thing about travelling to Japan to ski is the length of the Japanese ski season. Stretching from December right through to early May, that’s a long window for you to plan your snow trip. For the best time to ski in Japan you want to come in January or the beginning of February for perfect conditions. That said, spring skiing in Japan is still very good quality and better suited to those who want to spend time sightseeing in Japan as well. Alongside winter sports, figure skating is also very popular in Japan and regularly attracts big crowds and high viewership on TV.
Soccer, or football as it’s known in the UK and Europe, is another popular sport in Japan. In fact, there is an argument to say that the sport may have originated in Japan as the game Kemari or ‘kickball’ which later evolved into modern day football. Today, Japan’s national football team regularly qualifies and plays in the World Cup tournament - they famously defeated Germany at the 2022 World Cup - and several Japanese born footballers are playing in the Premier League, La Liga, and other prestigious leagues around the world such as Arsenal defender Takehiro Tomiyasu. Alongside this, Japan’s own league, officiated by the JFA (Japan Football Association) is very popular at home too. Soccer regularly attracts a large viewership in Japan, especially international football, with a record 17 million people watching Japan’s game against Spain in the last World Cup.
There have been many exciting twists, turns, and dramatic developments in the history of F1 racing in Japan. The Japanese Grand Prix usually takes place in September-October towards the end of the F1 season (in 2023 it’s taking place in late September - see below for the exact dates) and it has often been the location of a number of memorable championship deciders. Japan holds the record for the most championships being decided with 13 champions crowned in the country over the year (11 at Suzuka). Perhaps most famously, it was where James Hunt was crowned world champion in 1976 over his rival Niki Lauda as dramatised in the film Rush starring Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl. Since 1987, the Japanese Grand Prix has taken place at the famous Suzuka circuit for all but two years. On the other two occasions it was staged at Fuji Speedway. Japan is a great place to watch F1, thanks both to the fantastic Suzuka circuit (more on this below), the beauty and diversity of the country itself, which has so much to offer international visitors, and the fun factor from Japan’s F1 fans. The people of Japan are fanatical about the sports they love, hugely knowledgeable, and throw themselves into being the very best and most enthusiastic spectators they can be.
One of the world’s current pound for pound best boxers and world champions is Japan’s Naoya Inoue. Known as ‘Monster’ Inoue, this incredible fighter is a superstar both in Japan and around the world. In 2023, he stepped up in weight to defeat American champion Stephen Fulton and most recently beat Marlon Tapales by TKO on Boxing Day to unify the division. As a result of this and previous wins, the undefeated KO artist from Japan is considered one of the pound for pound best in the world. In fact, there’s a strong argument to say that Inoue is No.1 alongside America’s welterweight king Terence Crawford. This modern-day success reflects Japan’s proud history in the sport and Inoue follows in the footsteps of Japanese greats such as Masahiko Harada, known as Fighting Harada, who was undisputed bantamweight champion in the 1960s.
7. Cycling & Racing
Japan has four ‘public sports’ and various forms of cycling is one of them. Kōei kyōgi are Japan’s four public sports. They include horse racing, bicycle racing, asphalt speedway motorcycle racing, and Kyōtei (boat racing). They are the only four sports you can legally gamble on in Japan. As a result, they are controlled and regulated by the government using special laws. One of the most famous professional cycling races in the country is The Tour of Japan - an annual race featuring international competitors that was first raced in 1996. The JCF (Japanese Cycling Federation) oversees amateur and professional cycle racing including Japan’s National Road Race Championships and National Time Trial Championships.
8. Martial Arts
Japan has a long and proud history in the martial arts and is famous for having pioneered multiple forms that are now synonymous with the country and its history. The country’s martial arts include Aikido, Takagari (falconry), Iaido, Judo
Jujutsu, Karate, Kendo, Kenjutsu, Kyūdō (Japanese archery), Naginata, and Yabusame, among others. As we can’t profile them all, let’s look at kendo. This sport has its origins in the discipline of kenjutsu, the mastery of swordsmanship practised by samurai for centuries. In the 18th century, core elements of kendo such as the bamboo sword and armour became tools for those training in kenjutsu and the practice grew from there. It’s estimated that around 1.66 million people in Japan practice kendo. Like so many Japanese activities and sports, kendo has also taken off abroad and now counts as many as 6 million participants worldwide. Unlike some other martial arts, kendo is an activity that requires several pieces of essential equipment. These items began as training equipment for samurai to reduce the chance of serious injury during practice.
Being a discipline centred on swordsmanship, you naturally need a sword-like item, which in kendo is the shinai. This bamboo weapon is used to represent the sword and while not sharp like a sword can still hurt on impact. That’s where the bōgu, a set of armour, comes into play. The four main components of bogu are a helmet, gauntlets, a chest guard and protection for the groin and legs. The helmet, known as a men, features a grille facemask, as well as protection for the neck and shoulders. Bouts are the best of three points, with a point awarded for an accurate strike or thrust against one of several scoring targets on their opponent known as datotsu-bui. But it’s not just about making contact, as it’s also the behaviour and form of the kendōka that matter. Points are awarded when a majority of the three referees agree a point has been scored.
While Japan is famous for sumo wrestling and martial arts, it also has many lesser-known traditional sports that have flown under the radar. One of these is Bo-taoshi. A brutal and seemingly chaotic sport featuring teams of 75 people on each side, there’s nothing quite like Bo-taoshi as a sport or as a spectacle. In some ways, bo-taoshi (which translates as ‘topple the pole’) is a mix of capture the flag, rugby, sumo, American football, and martial arts, all in one! While its full origins are much debated, it dates back over a century and has been played by Japan’s National Defence Academy and in schools for decades, although it is less widely played today due to concerns about how dangerous it is. Japanese sports historians believe that bo-taoshi originated as a combination of several other Japanese sports, namely hata tori (capture the flag), sao nobori (pole climbing), and tsuna nobori hata tori (climbing a rope and grabbing a piece of cloth). The game involves a 11.8 metre pole with one team charged with defending it and keeping it standing, with the other team responsible for attacking it and trying to topple it. This battle between two teams of 75 leads to enormous scrums of bodies wrestling and grappling with each other for control of the pole. It is wild, brutal, dangerous, and a unique must-see spectacle. Bo-taoshi players wear soft padded helmets, knee pads, and cups, to protect themselves, but injuries are a regular occurance.
Japan loves marathons and even has its own unique form. Ekiden is a type of ultra-long-distance running race, where a team of runners work together as a relay. The name ekiden comes from the words “station” and “transmit”, taken from an old system of transport that was used to transport government documents. Although there is no standard distance or set number of runners in a team, each runner typically covers at least a half marathon on their own. Even with such long distances, races are normally held in one day, although there are certain special events that last two or three days. Interestingly, ekiden races are usually held in January, meaning these brave runners are performing these impressive feats in the dead of winter. The name and idea of Ekiden comes from the old governmental courier system used in the Edo period. In those times, the course was from Tokyo to Kyoto and covered 508 kilometres. Of course, that was done with horses or stagecoaches and wasn’t exactly a race. As a race, the first ekiden event took place in 1917 and did indeed cover that immense distance from Kyoto to Tokyo. Held to commemorate Tokyo’s 50th anniversary as capital of Japan, the race lasted three days and featured 23 different stages. Since then, the concept has grown in leaps and bounds to become a nationally and even internationally recognised sport.
11. Kyōtei (boat racing)
The word Kyōtei translates very literally as ‘boat race’. Kyōtei dates back to the early 1950s in Japan and describes a specific high-speed powerboat racing sport from Japan - an aquatic F1 - using a form of hydroplane craft. Each race involves six boats, each piloted by a single driver, and three laps around 600-metre to 1,800-metre courses, with spectators betting on the winner by buying tickets called funaken. On race day, there can be up to 12 races in a single day. Unusually for a race, Kyōtei features a flying start rather than a standing start. This means that racers are already moving and have about 100 seconds to fight for the best position before the race officially starts. Racers also take part in a practice race before each race begins too, which can influence how the spectators might bet. The Kyōtei season starts each January and lasts the full year, with an end of year grand prix, in December involving the sport’s top 18 races. Kyōtei is another of Japan’s public sports.
12. Tennis, Golf, Rugby, Basketball
Naturally, other sports such as tennis, golf, rugby, and basketball are also popular in Japan. The country has produced home-grown superstars in each of these sports that have transformed their popularity such as Japanese tennis star and four-time Grand Slam singles champion Naomi Osaka - the first Asian player to be ranked No.1 in the world - and men’s tennis player Kei Nishikori. Similarly in basketball, players like Yuta Tabuse, known as the ‘Michael Jordan of Japan’ and the first Japanese player to play in the NBA, and Takuya Kawamura, have helped grow the sport’s popularity. Japan also hosted the 2019 Rugby World Cup and their national team has gone from strength to strength over the last couple of decades, reaching the quarter finals in 2019. As a result of this sporting success, all of these sports are increasingly popular in Japan.
If you would like to read more about any of the sports featured here then you’ll find comprehensive articles about almost all of them in our blog - with links below. These include:
- For more on motor racing, read our guide to F1 Racing in Japan for everything you need to know.
- On the subject of racing, for something a little different, why not find out more about Kyōtei (boat racing)?
- As we mentioned above, attending a Sumo match is a great way to experience one of Japan’s most traditional sports. Our blog post will give you a comprehensive guide.
- Want to follow in the footsteps of the samurai? Our guide on How To Experience Japanese Martial Art of Kendo will give you a great introduction.
- Read our Guide to the Incredible Sport of Ekiden to find out more about this marathon to end all marathons.