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Health & Sports Day

There are many occasions one can think off to take a day off for. Japan, with its numerous festivals and celebrations, are probably one of the countries that can boast a high amount of public holidays and parties each and every year. And of course, given the importance of sport in Japanese culture, it was only a matter of time before both sport and holidays would be combined, resulting in what is known today as the Health and Sports Day.

The day is a national holiday in Japan and occurs every year on the second Monday of October. This particular celebration originated back during the time when Japan played host to the Summer Olympic Games of 1964. On that day in 1964 the Olympic Games were opened for competition and the Japanese were quick to take the date as a reminder of living a healthy and active lifestyle as the Health and Sports Day’s primary purpose is to promote just that. The first Health and Sports day was held just two short years following the 1964 Olympic Games and has been held annually since then. It is interesting to note that during that time, the Olympic Games also began at the beginning of October in an effort to avoid the rain-dominated season Japan is home to in the months prior.

The event is widely celebrated in Japan, especially among the physically active youth. Many schools and colleges use this occasion to host their yearly Sports or Field day, a sports festival hosting all types of different sporting events, ranging from classic track and field to baseball and other ball sports. Some schools even incorporate large-scale school-wide games, such as tug of war wherein hundreds of students pull on the rope per side. Some childhood classics also make appearances here in the forms of three-legged races, jump sack races and even cartwheel races.

Music is provided in some places in Japan via marching or stationary bands. The events also change depending on area of Japan one finds oneself in – in some places Health and Sports Day events will take place within a school, within a neighborhood, sometimes even within an entire town. It is common for local officials to make opening speeches to officially kick the day off in celebration of living a healthy and active lifestyle. Following this, the competitors start stretching and preparing themselves, normally performing a stretching routine which had been developed by the Japanese Government, and is broadcast on the radio and TV,  to enhance flexibility.

First image by tx.english-ch.com

Second image by sportsfeatures.com

 

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Kasagake

Japan has many famous and otherwise well-known traditional forms of sports and martial arts that have become somewhat of a cultural trope associated with the country. Many of these near ancient activities have their roots in the times of the more turbulent parts of Japan’s history, with war and conflict being prominent factors. Given that martial arts, such as Judo and Karate, are generally one-on-one combat forms, it should come as no surprise that with some modifications the martial arts would eventually evolve into forms of competitions.

Of course, there are some of the more traditional Japanese sports that also have their history in warfare, with some of them less commonly known nowadays. Kasagake, occasionally called Kasakake in some parts of the Land of the Rising Sun, is one of those. The term “Kasagake” can literally be translated into “hat shooting.” In its basic sense, Kasagake is a form of archery practised from the back of horse. Similar to its sister sport Yabusame, Kasagake is an extension of the famous Japanese Kyudo. Unlike Yabusame, however, Kasagake is nowadays practised in a less formal setting and generally not in a celebratory context. More variables and skills are used in Kasagake – the most obvious one being that the riders of the horses are constantly in motion while attempting to hit various targets, whereas the more ceremonial sport of Yabusame is confined to only aiming for 3 wooden targets while the horse is stationary.

A similarity both Yabusame and Kasagake share, however, is its shared history, with both variations of horseback archery dating back to the same period, wherein Minamoto no Yoritomo is said to have created the concept as a form of training for his soldiers. Some sources dating back to times even before Yoritomo’s mention the word Kasagake and while one cannot be sure of the exact origin of the sport, it is widely accepted to have been birthed around that time period in Japan regardless.

There are several different forms of Kasagake. Initially, the targets the archers shot at were literally just a bunch of straw hats, which quickly changed into a wooden skeleton, often padded out with straw or cotton to give the target substance, and in some cases, a humanoid shape. The general form of the sport is practised on a so-called horse yard – a path indicated by ropes. The riders ride their horses down the indicated path while shooting at the targets as the horse moves along, with scoring being a mixture of the archer’s accuracy as well as completion time of the course.

First image by city.miura.kanagawa.jp

Second image by David Calhoun on flickr.com

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Yabusame

Japan is a country with a very diverse background in terms of tradition and culture – a background that is also reflected in the country’s forms of sport. An interesting aspect of Japanese culture is that the many popular sports of ancient times have a few characteristics in common with each other. The most common denominator across the traditional Japanese sports is that they tend to have their roots in some form of combat. Many of the traditional sports are martial-arts centric, as evidenced by the abundance of Japanese styles in this form of athleticism – Sumo wrestling, Judo and Aikido just to name a few. One can attribute this to such activities being inherently competitive, with one party winning over another through higher level of ability, and given that much of Japan’s history involves war and conflict, the connection between fighting and friendly competition can be easily made.

Yabusame is one of the numerous traditional competitive sports based on a form of conflict. In its most basic sense, Yabusame is archery performed from the back of a horse, and can by extension be seen as a form of Kyudo, the Japanese form of archery. In its competitive form, an archer is mounted on the back of a horse and has to ride along a path while firing arrows at targets. In most cases, the archers will be firing special arrows with a head akin to the shape of a turnip, trying to hit the wooden targets located at different intervals and ranges. Standard in this case are three targets for the archer to aim for.

The sport has a long and convoluted history behind it. Its origins lie in the Kamakura Period, around 1200 AD. The first Shogun of Kamakura, Minamoto no Yoritomo, felt appalled by the lack of skill his samurai warriors seemed to display with any weapon other than a katana, especially with ranged weaponry. He quickly combined horseback riding and archery into a disciplined form of practise for his warriors – and it was taken so seriously to a point where warriors who failed in this discipline committed Seppuku – an ancient form of ritualistic suicide done in order to die an honorable death, or regain honor in some cases.

This form of practise quickly gave birth to a rather cruel sport –  inuoumono, wherein the archers on the horses would fire their arrows at dogs. It was only through the intervention of Buddhists priests that saw them using padded arrows to avoid unnecessary death and animal cruelty. Nowadays, Yabusame isn’t very common anymore. It is normally only seen during festivals and in those cases, around temples and shrines, especially in the Kamakura and Kyoto regions.

First image by archerytoronto.blogspot.com

Second image by conoce-japon.com

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Albirex Niigata

The top level of national competition in the sport of Football in Japan is called the J. League, standing for Japan Professional Football League, belonging to the Asian Football Confederation. For those familiar with the sport, the J. League is comparable to Germany’s Bundesliga or the UK’s English Premier League. Similar to those leagues, the J. League is comprised of a set amount of professional teams competing each season for the title, and is generally regarded as one of the most successful football leagues in Asia.

Naturally, competition is at an all-time high in such an environment, with the lower ranked clubs fighting to avoid relegation, and the clubs from the lower tiered divisions doing their utmost to enter the prestigious league.

Albirex Niigata is one of the 18 teams participating in the J. League’s Division 1 and is historically one of the youngest teams at that, having joined only in 1999. Prior to their promotion into the first division, commonly referred to as J1, the team was among the strongest of the Division 2. It was during 2003, in the time as a Division 2 team, that Albirex Niigata managed to set a record for having the highest average amount of supporters attending each game, managing to pull a crowd of over 30,000 per game. In 2005, during their second year of being a part of the J1 after successfully being promoted, the club managed to set a Japanese record by averaging a crowd of over 40,000 supports in attendance per game on average.

The team is well known for the fighting spirit, being one of the teams that developed rather rapidly. It only took the team 4 years after joining the J. League’s second division, after quickly climbing the ranks of the regional leagues, to become a top-tier team competing in the toughest football league the country has to offer. Especially around the years 2001 and 2002 is where many fans attribute significant changes and development of the team, managing a transformation from a somewhat small, formerly amateur-level team into what it is today.

Albirex Niigata stems from the towns of Niigata and Seiro, with Niigata being a huge city of almost 1 million locals and Seiro being a small community of only around 14,000 citizens living nearby. The team calls the Denka Big Swan Stadium their home court with its capacity of just over 42,000 seats being tested every time the team plays a match in their home town.

First image by zimbio.com

Second image by goal.com

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Shooto

Many combat sports have taken their places in Japanese culture, many of which come in the form of martial arts which have been part of Japan’s history for many centuries. Interestingly enough, the Japanese have also taken a liking to many of the western sports, with some of them being the most popular ones throughout the nation. Among those, the Japanese have also picked up martial arts and full-contact sports created by other cultures, including but not limited to Boxing, wrestling and rugby. One of the modern Japanese martial arts is Shooto, or rather an adapted form of shoot wrestling. Shooto is a somewhat mixed form of combat, stemming from the 1970s, a time wherein Japanese show wrestlers, akin to those of the American WWE, tried to implement more and more realistic, full-contact moves into their performances in order to nurture a higher level of excitement and attract bigger crowds. The term to “shoot” stemmed from wrestling, when an unscripted event occurred unexpectedly. Unlike shoot wrestling, which is essentially a different type of show-wrestling, Shooto has evolved into its own niche in the martial arts industry and can be considered its own mixed martial arts fighting system and competition. So far, Shooto can be considered fairly young, having been created in only 1985 by a former Japanese professional wrestler with extensive background in shoot wrestling. However, he was unsatisfied with wrestling and set out to create a far more realistic and dynamic sport, resulting in the birth of Shooto, with the emphasis on there being no scripted or otherwise predetermined results to any of the fights. A Shooto match fought between two competitors is won either by knock-out, submission or referee decision, with legal moves and attacks being close to identical of other mixed martial arts competitions, such as UFC, with actions such as biting being illegal. Shooto fighters are classified into classes, with D being the lowest amateur rank and A being the elite professional level. Each class has a few additional rules, such as there being no allowed striking while on the ground in the D-Class.  In Japan, Shooto competitors start out as either D or C rank and attend different tournaments held all over the country’s gyms. Several regional championships are held frequently, allowing fighters to gain experience and build reputation for themselves. Once they feel ready they may enter the annual All-Japan Amateur Championship, where they can become eligible to apply for a Class-B license and start fighting at a professional level.

First image by sherdog.com Second image by susumug.com

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Japan Sumo Association

Historically, Sumo wrestling is one of the most important and prolific sports of Japanese culture and heritage, and generally considered a sport exclusive to only Japan – not surprising given the sport’s nature and the required lifestyle a professional competitor is forced to live. Sumo is also a sport that embodies several virtues which are highly valued in Japanese culture, such as strength, perseverance and honor. Given the prolific nature of the sport, it also comes as one of the more heavily regulated ones in the Land of the Rising Sun. Sumo Wrestling in Japan is overseen by the Japan Sumo Association, the governing body of the sport in its entirety, acting on behalf of the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. The association is the cornerstone of the sport as the entire livelihood of the sport is dependent on it – whether one is directly involved as a competitor or referee, or indirectly as an assistant, usher, costume and make-up artist – the Sumo Association is responsible for the paying of those people. The organization is headed by elders, many of which are former referees or fighters, with their headquarters being located in one of Tokyo’s districts. There is also much interesting history associated with the organization of the sport. All the way back during the Edo period, Sumo Wrestling was a sport primarily organized for the sake of raising funds to be used in the construction of infrastructure, with historically important Shoguns and warlords such as Tokugawa Ieyasu being of the firm belief that the only purpose of Sumo should be to aid the ruling class economically by attracting large, paying, crowds. The competitors would receive a share of the revenue generated during these charitable events, and this form of organized charity Sumo is referred to as “kanjin sumo.” To become a member of the Sumo Association, one must either purchase or somehow else obtain a share of it. Due to there being only 105 shares outstanding at any time, the value of them is high and thus regulated too – only a former wrestler can purchase one, and in order to do so, he must have achieved a certain rank in Sumo skill categories. An interesting facet is that each of the 105 shares have a name associated with them, and that the person owning the share will be known in the Sumo world by that name. Many exclusive rights come with being a member of the organization, including the right to open or own a training stable, providing a consistent economic backbone for the sport. First image by thejakartapost.com Second image by japan-guide.com

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Life As A Sumo Wrestler

Sumo is an interesting sport, especially when viewed from a non-native Japanese perspective. The sport is historically and culturally one of the cornerstones of Japanese competitive sport, having much history associated with it and its development. However, Sumo Wrestling is far from being like any other ordinary sport. The sport is heavily regulated by the Japan Sumo Association and while that isn’t detrimental, one might consider the highly prescribed way of living a shocking factor. Sumo isn’t like most other sports wherein one can simply purchase the required equipment, get some friends together, join a team and play –  far from it actually. There are many restrictions placed on professional Sumo competitors by the Japan Sumo Association. First and foremost, the most notable thing for a spectator is the sheer size of a Sumo wrestler. While there are no formal weight and size restrictions in the sport, in order to even consider competing at a level one must accumulated to a certain size – which for one, isn’t healthy, and two, isn’t cheap either to maintain. When one enters the world of pro Sumo wrestling, one is required to let one’s hair grow and have it styled in the way that had been traditional during the Edo period, one of the golden times when it comes to Sumo. In addition to that is the necessity for the wrestlers to wear the traditional outfits when in public, making it extremely easy to identify a Sumo wrestler –  as well as making it a difficulty for many Sumo wrestlers to live a healthy social life involving those outside the Sumo industry. Wrestlers generally live in so-called stables, wherein they’ll spend most of their time training, doing chores, maintaining their diet – all in order of rank and seniority. Only the senior members are normally permitted to leave the stable together with their sponsors while the juniors remain there to either be educated or relax. Once a wrestler reaches a rank high enough, or gets married, they are permitted to stay in their own accommodations, however overall most tend to stay in the dormitories. The main problems with the lifestyle, despite the dedication to the sport and the potential glory one can achieve, become evident when a wrestler retires. Sumo wrestlers have a significantly shorter life expectancy than ordinary people, often due to a very high chance of developing diabetes. In addition to that is the relatively low amount of base salary fighters receive, especially when young and without sponsors. Wrestlers receive bonuses six times a year depending on their accumulated performances in the major tournaments, allowing the best fighters to live comfortably while motivating the less skilled ones to improve.

First image by forlivingstrong.com Second image by openplac.es