Sports in Japan - Golf, Formula 1, Horse Racing, Winter Sports

Golf | Horse Racing | F1 Motor Racing | Winter Sports


Golf was introduced to Japan at the beginning of the 20th century, and it has become both hugely popular and a huge business. There are an estimated 12 million amateur golfers in Japan as well as around 3,500 professionals and well over 100 professional tournaments a year. Membership at some of the more prestigious golf clubs can run into the billions of yen but during the bubble economy of the late 1980's, new clubs were opening everywhere. A set of expensive golf clubs remains one of the most obvious status symbols.

Related content: check out our many profiles of Japan's top sports stars.

Aoki Isao (1942- ) was one of the first professional Japanese golfers to make an impression abroad. He turned professional at the age of 22 and went on to win over 50 tournaments in Japan. He also won several tournaments overseas, including the Hawaiian Open, European Open and Pacific Open but never a Major. He was active on the US Senior Tour for several years before, at the ripe old age of 57, he announced a return to the Japanese Tour in 2000.

Ozaki Masashi (1947- ), usually called 'Jumbo' Ozaki, is the most accomplished player ever in Japanese golf, having won over 90 tournaments and frequently topping the money rankings. The eldest of three golfing brothers, Ozaki has tried his luck abroad many times. But without the laid-back, chain-smoking style he gets away with in Japan, he never achieved much success, winning only a couple of minor tournaments. (for more, see the Sports Stars section)

Other male Japanese golfers to have begun to make a mark in recent years on the US PGA tour are Maruyama Shigeki and Katayama Shingo.

Okamoto Ayako (1951- ) is the most successful Japanese woman golfer. She earned a place in The Guinness Book of Records in 1979 when she won the Japan Ladies' Professional Golf Championship with a three-round score of 17-under par. At the age of 30, she joined the US LPGA tour where she won 17 tournaments between 1981 and 1992. In 1987, she became the LPGA's 15th millionaire and won the Player of the Year Award.

Among the upcoming ladies' golfers are Fukushima Ayako (1973- ) and Miyazato Ai (1985-). As a pro in Japan, Fukushima won 13 tournaments, including 2 majors, and twice topped the JLPGA money rankings. She joined the LPGA in 1999 and won a tournament in her first season. Miyazato's popularity boomed in 2003 when she won a pro event as an amateur and while still in high school. She won five times in her rookie JLPGA season in 2004. She and partner Kitada Rui won the inaugural Women's World Cup of Golf in 2005. The same year, she became the youngest player to win a Japanese major, taking the Open Championship.

Jumbo Ozaki

Jumbo Ozaki

Okamoto Ayako

Okamoto Ayako

Mejiro Bright

Mejiro Bright Winner of the Emperor's Cup, 1998

Horse Racing

Although 'keiba' (horse racing) was part of Shinto religious ceremonies as far back as the 8th century, it didn't become a gambling sport until the idea was introduced by Western residents of Yokohama in the mid 1800's. In 1954, the JRA (Japan Racing association) was established to govern the sport under government supervision. The standard of the racetracks, training farms, jockey schools and other facilities run by the JRA are among the highest in the world. The purchase of top-class stallions and mares from Europe and North America has ensured that Japanese horses can also compete on level terms with the world's best. There are 10 JRA-run racetracks throughout the country.

Among the big races held every year are the Emperor's Cup (Tenno Sho) in October and the Japan Cup in November. The Japan Cup is an invitational race and attracts horses from around the world. There is intense media coverage of these big races and some of the winning horses over the years have achieved legendary status. Betting turnover is huge, with winners sharing the total amount bet minus a percentage for the racetrack. The JRA pays a percentage of its earnings into the National Treasury and also gives some to social welfare projects.

Formula One Motor Racing

Formula One motor racing is popular in Japan and the country has its own Grand Prix, held at the Suzuka circuit every autumn since 1987. But Japan has never produced any drivers of note and no Japanese has ever won a Grand Prix. The Honda team is in its third stint in the sport. The most successful drivers have been Suzuki Aguri and Katayama Ukyo (1963- ). Katayama made his F1 debut with the Larosse team in 1992 and had almost 100 starts in his career. The top foreign drivers are very popular and one, Jean Alesi, even married one of Japan's top model/actresses, Goto Kumiko.

Suzuka Circuit

Suzuka Circuit

Funaki Kazuki

Funaki Kazuki in the Nagano Olympics, 1998

Winter Sports

Although largely a mountainous country, Japan had no real winter sports until they were introduced from the West in the 20th century. But in recent years, the number of skiers and ski resorts has increased rapidly. The advent of snowboarding started another boom in winter sports in the 1990's. These phenomena can perhaps be linked to the fact that the Winter Olympics have been held in Japan twice, in Sapporo in 1972 and Nagano in 1998. Since their first gold medal in the 1972 games, Japanese athletes have occasionally dominated their sports, particularly the ski-jumping and skating events.

The first Winter Olympics to be held in Asia took place in Sapporo, Hokkaido in February 1972. Japan won its first gold medal when Kasaya Yukio took first place in the 70-meter ski jump. Japan also won the silver and bronze in the event. In the 1992 games in Albertville in France, Ito Midori won Japan's first medal in figure skating, a silver. Again on home turf at the 1998 Nagano Games, Japanese athletes won 10 medals, including gold in the team ski-jump event.

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