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What are the 5 most popular sports in Japan?

Baseball? Sumo? Or maybe rugby? Japan is surely a sports-loving nation! Let’s take a closer look at their favourite disciplines.

Japan has a rich sporting history, but before we look at the most popular sports, here are a few interesting facts about this island located in the Northwest Pacific Ocean.

What are the most popular sports in Japan?

First, some facts about the country itself:

1. Japan has a population of over 126.4 million people.
2. Tokyo is the most populated city in the world.
3. There is said to be more pets than children.
4. They have people who are hired to push you inside trains during packed rush hours.
5. And of course, they love sport!

Here’s a list of the 5 most popular sports in Japan. Let’s go!

1. Baseball

This sport has grown over the years to become the most popular sport in the country. In fact, many Japanese fans are surprised to learn that Americans also considers it their national sport.

But did you know that there are some differences between Japanese and American baseball? The Japanese ball is smaller, as are the playing field and strike zone. The Japanese league also limits games during the regular season to 12 innings and 15 for playoff games.

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Baseball was introduced into Japan in 1872, but it was 64 years before a fully professional league was created in 1936. This league has evolved into the Nippon Professional Baseball league and consists of 12 teams.

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The present champions are the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks. As well as the pro league, Japan also has vibrant minor, semi-pro and university leagues that compete at a very high level. They can also boast of a fan base of around 27 million!

2. Football

There are not many countries where football (soccer) will not appear in the top five. It is considered to be the world’s most popular sport and enjoyed by billions of people all over the planet. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Japan is also a football-crazy nation.

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Their men’s national team first took part in the World Cup in 1998, and they have participated in every World Cup since. They will also tell you that they have made the last 16 on three occasions. The Women’s National Football team have also impressed on the world stage. Winning the competition in 2011 and reaching the final again four years later, where they lost to the USA.

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On the domestic front, they also have a strong set-up, The Japan Professional Football Leagues, also known as the J Leagues. There are three leagues, J League, J League 2 and J League 3. The top-tier consists of 20 teams and the current champions are the Kawasaki Frontale. These days, the high level of football in Japan means you will find many Japanese stars playing outside the country. Including the likes of Eiji Kawashima (Belgium), Akihiro Ienaga (Spain), Yuto Nagatomo (Italy) and Shinji Okazaki, just to name a few.

3. Sumo

If you are talking about Japanese sport, you have to mention sumo! It’s their national sport and has been contested for centuries. The first professional tournaments began in Tokyo in 1684. The sport is still a recreational pastime unique to the country, although the professional side is now very popular.

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A sumo contest is quite simple! Two very large wrestlers do battle. The aim is to push each other out of the ring or force their opponent to touch the ground with any part of their body, other than their feet. The matches are fast-paced and often very short in duration, rarely lasting longer than seconds. Every year there are six major tournaments throughout the country, each lasting 15 days. The most successful wrestlers enjoy great fame and adulation from an enthusiastic nation. But the life of a sumo wrestler is said to be very tough. They live in stables of up to 15 wrestlers where they eat, sleep and train. The lifestyle is very regimented and disciplined. To prove the point, I am going to leave you with this amazing fact. Yokozuna is the highest rank in sumo and to date, just 72 competitors have attained this status, since it was first awarded in the late 1700s!


4. Rugby Union

In an ever-changing landscape, you may be surprised to find out that Rugby Union has worked its way into the mainstream of Japanese sport. It was already growing steadily but took off in popularity, following Japan’s massive win against two-time world champions South Africa (32-34) at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

I remember watching this game and thinking – wow! It is possibly the biggest upset in the history of this competition. After that shock win, they went on to host the 2019 Rugby World Cup, where the nation cheered them on to the quarter-finals. But it was here that the South Africans had their revenge when they ran out the easy winners with a scoreline of 3-26. Nevertheless, it was a very successful competition for the host nation. On the domestic scene, the 'Top League’ is the highest level of professional Rugby Union in the country. The competition was created in 2003 and has helped bring the sport to many new fans and players alike. The league is made up of 16 teams and the current champions are the Kobelco Steelers.

5. Basketball

The truth is that after the four already mentioned, there are a few sports that could claim to occupy this spot. Some may disagree, but I’ve gone for basketball! It’s always been popular in Japan, but a growing audience of young fans has really added to the popularity.

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This growth has been aided, by the rise of immensely popular players such as Yuta Tabuse and Takuya Kawamura. Some will know that Kawamura played in the NBA for short time. This elevated him to the highest-profiled Japanese player of all time. The B League is the top men’s basketball league in Japan. Formed in 2016, as a result of a merger between the National Basketball League and the Japan Basketball Association. The League consists of 47 teams across three divisions and the current B League champions are Alvark Tokyo. They do love their sport in the Land of the Rising Sun!

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