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Professional sports in Japan - statistics & facts

Japan has a rich cultural legacy in terms of sports, especially in martial arts. Disciplines such as Sumo, Judo, Karate, Kendo, and Aikido have been popularized around the world. These sports also enjoy steady followership domestically. Sumo events receive ample media attention, and the televised bouts are highly anticipated by their domestic viewers. However, Japan’s most popular sports disciplines are team sports, such as baseball and soccer. The best-established professional leagues are the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league for baseball, and the J. League, which is divided into J1, J2, J3, for soccer. Baseball and soccer are highly competitive and intensely televised. Professional sports serve many purposes for different stakeholders. They can be a source of inspiration and a form of entertainment for some, or a means to make a living for others. Watching professional sports matches is a common form of entertainment in Japan, be it live at the venue or from an electronic device.

 What is Japan’s “national” sport? 

Japan has no officially recognized “national” sport. Unofficially, traditionalists have argued for Sumo, as the sport has a long history, and its origins lie in Shintoism, Japan’s indigenous religion. While Sumo has remained popular and is without a doubt a sports media staple, many argue that baseball is Japan’s true “national” sport. This is because in various measurable aspects, including sports participation numbers, size of its fandom, the share of live spectators at venues, and the share of people watching on the TV or the internet, baseball ranks first among professional sports in Japan. Additionally, Japan’s national baseball team and Japan’s professional baseball league enjoy a great reputation internationally.

 What are the characteristics of Japan’s professional sports environment? 

  Japan’s professional sports environment features traditional elements, as well as foreign influences. The various martial arts disciplines are a classic example of the traditional elements present in Japan’s sports environment. However, some of the most prominent professional sports at present, such as soccer and baseball, were introduced to Japan by the end of the 19th century during the Meiji period (1868 – 1912). It was the age of change and en masse cultural assimilation for Japan, and the period in which foreign cultural imports began to challenge the supremacy of tradition in various areas of society. American occupation after World War II was another influence for the sports world. Japan’s current professional baseball league was inaugurated in 1950, while the J. League had its inaugural season in 1993. Both sports are arguably more popular than traditional disciplines at present.
An aspect shared by many other countries in the world is male dominance in professional sports. Baseball in Japan is no exception to this. Indeed, there is a professional women’s baseball league in Japan. However, only a few teams are competing in it, and in general, the league can not be compared in magnitude to the male version. There is no professional women’s soccer league yet in Japan, but there are plans to establish it in the autumn of 2021. Steps towards gender equality in the above-mentioned sports are being made, but at present, the gender gap regarding athletes in Japan’s most popular professional sports is huge. Nevertheless, there are also some positive examples to be mentioned. Besides being the best-paid athlete hailing from Japan, Naomi Osaka is also one of the most acclaimed sports personalities in her country. Sports climbing is a more niche example of gender equality in Japanese sport. There is hardly any discrepancy between female and male athletes in terms of opportunities to train and compete, the fan’s focal point of attention, or athlete remuneration.

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Professional sports in Japan

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