null Daniel Krieger wrote in the New York Times, “At the Judo championships in Tokyo in September 2010, Japanese women came away with their best tally ever: 13 medals, 6 of which were gold. The achievement reflects a wider trend in Japan of growing success in women’s elite competitive sports. In 2008, the women’s softball team won its first Olympic gold medal when it beat the undefeated Team U.S.A. at the Beijing Games. The women’s national baseball team has won the past two World Cups, and last month, the Nadeshiko soccer team became the first in Asia to win a World Cup. [Source: Daniel Krieger, New York Times, August 21, 2011]

“The rise of Japanese women in sports over recent decades has often been in games that used to be the domain of men, like golf, wrestling and marathon running, which women were excluded from in the Olympics until 1984...Milestones include the first women’s track event in the 1928 Olympics, when a Japanese woman, Kinue Hitomi, won a silver medal. Then, in 1964, the women’s Olympic volleyball team beat Russia to win a gold medal...Two years ago, Eri Yoshida became the first woman drafted by a men’s professional baseball team..”

“The development of Japan’s female athletes in recent decades is such that, in the first decade of the 21st century, they have outperformed Japanese men, winning 46 Olympic medals to the men’s 37" At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, women won five of Japan’s nine gold medals. “And high-profile female athletes, like Ai-chan, the table tennis prodigy, and the golf star Ai Miyazoto, are major sports celebrities.”

Robin Kietlinski, the author of “Japanese Women and Sport: Beyond Baseball and Sumo“, which traces their evolution in sport to the turn of the 20th century, told the New York Times, “It was in a lot of ways political because Japan wanted to be seen as strong, and sports became a heavily publicized and visible stage on which they could prove to the world they were leaders in Asia and able to hold their own against the West.” Kietlinski is a visiting research scholar at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University in New York.

As Olympic athletes women are embraced as much as the men. “Nationality trumps gender,” Lee Thompson, a professor of the sociology of sports at Waseda University in Tokyo,” told the New York Times. “When Japanese women compete on the international stage, people don’t think of them as female athletes, but rather Japanese athletes representing Japan.” He added that “it’s easier to get return for your buck in women’s sports because globally they aren’t as developed as men’s sports.”

Increased Support for Women’s Sports in Japan

Daniel Krieger wrote in the New York Times,”But there is still a ways to go when it comes to equality in sports, both in Japan and around the world. “Wherever in the world you look, the general picture would be that sports is still fairly much a male preserve,” said John Horne, professor of sport and sociology at the University of Central Lancashire in England. “And women are much more marginal in the public arena in terms of media coverage, commercial development and opportunities to work as professional athletes.” [Source: Daniel Krieger, New York Times, August 21, 2011]

“The way forward, he said, is not only to get more women involved in sport as players and coaches, but also into more influential positions in organizations like FIFA and the International Olympic Committee, where their numbers are few. But despite the shortcomings, the global trend is toward a growing female presence in previously male-dominated sports. And nowadays women in Japan can box, play rugby and even sumo wrestle, from which they used to be barred.”

Financial support for women athletes is often inferior to that for men. After Japan's victory in the Women's World Cup soccer tournament the government said it was likely to double the funding for programs to nurture top women athletes. The government has also judged that giving greater support to women athletes will help Japan secure more medals at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics and other sports events. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, August 9, 2011]

The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry intends to heighten research and development regarding training methods specific to women athletes, and employ specialists to help women athletes return to competition after giving birth or rearing children. "Since the lineup of athletes for women's events at the Olympics is relatively thin compared with the men's, supporting women athletes likely will increase the number of medals for Japan," a government official said.

"It's important that top-level women athletes work actively to prevent girls from moving away from sports," said Kan Suzuki, senior vice minister of education, culture, sports and technology. In last year's national physical fitness test, more than 30 percent of girls in the second year of middle school said they spent less than 60 minutes a week on sport activities, not counting physical eduction classes. The corresponding figure among boys was about 9 percent.

Eri Yoshida, Female Pro Baseball Pitcher

Eri Yoshida, the teenage female knuckleballer, began playing for the Chico Outlaws of the independent Golden Baseball League in April 2010. She performed respectably in her debut, throwing to some former Major Leaguers. She pitched three innings, giving up four runs on four hits and hit an RBI single in her only at bat in a 8-6 win over Tijuana. She hit one batter in a 47-pitch outing.

Yoshida was the first woman to play pro baseball in the United States since American Ila Borders did in 2000 when she appeared in a game against Tijuana in May 2001. The U.S. Baseball Hall of Fame collected the jersey and ball used by Yoshida in her debut. Yoshida said her goal is to make it the Major Leagues.

Yoshida is only 1.55 centimeters tall and weighs only 51 kilograms but she throws a mean side-armed knuckleball. She first made headlines when she became the first female pro player in Japan, pitching for the Kobe Cruise 9 in the Kansai Independent League. She also pitched for the Yuma Scorpions in the Arizona Winter league.

Yoshida’s presence has boosted the fortune of the Chio Outlaws and the Golden Baseball League, which was founded in 2004. Since her arrival fan attendance and merchandise sales has increased markedly not only for the Outlaws but for other teams in the league. Her No.2 shirt is a hot seller mostly among “little girls.” Not everyone is enthusiastic about her though. Some have dismissed her as a circus, novelty act. She finished the season 0-4. [Source: Reuters Life!]

In November 2008, when she was a 16-year-old high school student, Yoshida was signed by an independent league team, Kobe 9 Cruise, making her the first woman with the opportunity to play professional baseball in Japan. Yoshida, whose main pitch is a side armed knuckleball, was selected in the ninth round of the amateur draft. She was the first woman drafted by a men’s professional baseball team.

Japanese Women’s Olympic Wrestling

Japan arguably has the best women’s wrestlers in the world. At the 2004 Olympics, Japanese women medaled in all four of the women’s weight divisions. They won two gold medals and one silver medal and one bronze medal.

The medalists included the sisters Kaori Icho, who won a gold medal in the 63-kilogram division, and her led sister Chiharu who won a silver medal in the 48 kilogram class. Kyoko Hamaguchi, one of the most famous wrestlers in Japan, won a bronze in the 72 kilogram division. Saori Yoshida won the other gold. All four of the Japanese women were world champions coming into the Olympics.

Hamaguchi won the last of her five world tittles in 2003. She was coached by her father, who was a famous professional wrestler known as “Animal” Hamaguchi. Hamaguchi and her father are fixtures of Japanese television. She only managed to get a bronze in 2004 partly because she was screwed by a scoring error. She also won a bronze medal in the 72-kilogram division at the Olympics in Beijing in 2008. At age 30 she was happy with her achievement. In 2004 she was very disappointed.

Hitomi Sakamoto was another fine wrestler. She never made it the Olympics but won her sixth world title in October 2008 in the 51 kilogram class and retired . She was deprived of an Olympics spot in 2004 by knee surgery and in 2008 by an altering of the weight classes that worked to her disadvantage. Her sister Makiko is also a world class wrestler.

In September 2011, Hitomi Obara (formally known by her maiden name Hitomi Sakamoto) won her 8th world championship, successfully defending her 48-kilogram crowm in Istanbul.

Women’s Judo in Japan

At the Judo championships in Tokyo in September 2010, Japanese women came away with their best tally ever: 13 medals, 6 of which were gold. The achievement reflects a wider trend in Japan of growing success in women’s elite competitive sports. The rise of Japanese women in sports over recent decades has often been in games that used to be the domain of men. The women on Team Japan, six of whom have top world rankings in their divisions, owe their success in part to those who pushed through the gender barrier. [Source: Daniel Krieger, New York Times, August 21, 2011]

“In Japan, judo was considered a sport for men only,” said Kaori Yamaguchi, the pioneer who won that lone silver medal back in 1980 and who is now a professor at the University of Tsukuba in eastern Japan. But as it gained ground in the West, the International Judo Federation caved in to pressure from countries like Britain and France, who demanded a women’s world championships. “Foreign judoka all had a strong will to fight,” said Yamaguchi, using the collective term for judo fighters.

Many Japanese were concerned that judo — a sport created in Japan — would come to be dominated in the women’s category by non-Japanese fighters. “The women’s section of the sport was being stolen by foreigners,” said Mark Law, author of “The Pyjama Game: A Journey into Judo.”The looming likelihood of a women’s Olympic event, Law said, prompted officials to give way, and before long a Japanese women’s team was being readied with access to the best coaches in the world.

Yamaguchi became the first Japanese woman to win a world championship title in 1984, and when women’s judo first appeared at the Olympics, in Seoul four years later as a demonstration sport, she took a silver medal. A role model for the next generation, she also inspired a popular manga cartoon called “Yawara! A Fashionable Judo Girl,” about a girl whose grandfather urges her to master judo and win a gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Ryoko Tamura

Ryoko Tamura, a 4' 9" judo world champion known to her fans as "Yawara-chan," is one of Japan's best known athletes. She carried the flag for Japan in the opening ceremonies the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta and has appeared in numerous television commercials, often tossing men several times her size, and inspired Yawara-chan manga and cartoon character who always wears a lucky ribbon in her hair and overcomes greats odd to reach the top.

Daniel Krieger wrote in the New York Times, “Tamura won seven world titles, two Olympic gold medals, and obliterated the stereotype of the subservient Japanese wife by continuing her career after marriage and taking her last title after giving birth. Last year, she won a seat in the upper house of Parliament and began a second career in politics. “I forged the path of women’s judo,” said Kaori Yamaguchi, the first Japanese woman to win an Olympic medal “and Yawara-chan made it broader.” Tamura’s exciting style and colorful personality led to a judo boom in the 1990s, Yamaguchi said, out of which judo clubs and tournaments for girls emerged, laying the groundwork for their ascent. [Source: Daniel Krieger, New York Times, August 21, 2011]

Tamaru competes in the 48 kilograms division, the lightest of the seven women’s weight divisions. She hates winning on points. "I always want to win on ippon." she said. Before bouts she gets herself psyched up listening to J-pop groups like Chage & Asska, Misato Watanabe and Yuki Koyanagi.

College-Level Female American Football Player in Japan

In November 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “It was unusual enough that when Masayo Kushida got her first look at football, she decided she wanted to give the sport a try. What really makes her stand out is that she now plays a position that assures maximum contact. Kushida played on the defensive line for the Kyoto Seika University Gawks when she made history last month by becoming the first woman to appear in a Kansai Collegiate League game. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, November 8, 2012]

Kushida, a 1.64-meter, 75-kilogram sophomore, held her own in the game against Osaka International College. Fears of Kushida getting injured were somewhat mitigated by the fact that Kyoto Seika plays deep in the Kanto League's third division. Because the four schools in Block G have few players, games are played six a side.

Kushida often played against boys while growing up, participating in swimming and karate. At Shonan Kokadai Fuzoku High School in Kanagawa Prefecture, she played on the team's rubber-ball baseball team, batting fifth and playing third base. After entering Kyoto Seika, Kushida observed a football practice and, attracted by the power of the game, decided to join the team. League officials, given the level of competition, determined that she had the size and athletic ability to play with the men and approved her participation. However, what would have been Kushida's first season ended prematurely when she suffered a fractured collar bone the day before the first game. This season, she put the disappointment behind and, determined to be physically ready, practiced with one of the few women's club teams in the country, the Wildcats.

The Wildcats will form the base for Japan's national team at next summer's Women's World Cup in Canada, and Kushida plans to make that trip. Originally a wide receiver, she moved to the defensive line three months ago. As she hits as hard as anyone on the field, Kushida lets out a scream of exertion. "I want to knock over the opposing linemen and get a quarterback sack," Kushida said. Kushida, who is studying manga production, hopes to become a manga editor after graduating, with a dream of producing a football comic.

Japanese Women’s Soccer League

About 230 players belong to the nine teams of the women's top national soccer league, Plenus Nadeshiko League, but most are amateurs. National team captain Homare Sawa and a few others are professionals. The league's key sponsor is Plenus Co. Amateur players have to work for a living and many have part-time jobs. They turn out for practice sessions in the evenings and sometimes quite late at night. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, August 3, 2011]

The team that offers the most favorable conditions is INAC Kobe Leonessa, which has seven national players, including Sawa, more than any other team. It attracts many local sponsors by setting the minimum contribution at 50,000 yen. Established in 2006, the team's sponsorship program is supported by 85 companies, including hotels and restaurants. The contributions account for roughly half of the team's annual operating expenses of about 100 million yen.

Last year, four players, including Sawa and Shinobu Ono, another national team player, moved to INAC from NTV Beleza to seek better playing conditions. Only Sawa, Ono and two South Korean players have signed contracts with the team as professional players, but 18 other players have been hired by sponsor companies that give them preferential treatment so they can concentrate on playing soccer. Unlike at other teams, all INAC players can practice in the daytime.

INAC is the only team that has been able to provide such favorable conditions. Out of 22 women playing for Okayama Yunogo Belle, a team based in Okayama Prefecture, only Aya Miyama is a professional soccer player. Her teammates work at such jobs as cashier at a local supermarket and receptionist at a hot spring hotel. Only Miyama and Miho Fukumoto are national team members, but Fukumoto works at a prefectural athletic association and can only train in the evening.

All 30 players on JEF United Ichihara Chiba Ladies' team, including national team member Karina Maruyama, are amateurs. The team, based in Chiba Prefecture, starts its two-hour practice session at 7 p.m. However, some team members occasionally arrive late because of their jobs. One team member returns home after midnight, and another has to wake up at 5 a.m. to avoid being late for work.

Japanese Women’s National Soccer Team

The Japan national women's soccer team is officially nicknamed the Nadeshiko. A “nadeshiko” is a pink, frilled carnation said to symbolize the ideals of Japanese womanhood. The team has performed solidly yet quietly over the years but was largely little known internationally until they won the women's World Cup in July, when they surprised everyone by beating the world’s best teams — including the United States, Germany and Sweden — and helped lift their homeland which was still reeling from March 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

Daniel Krieger wrote in the New York Times, “The national team’s success can be traced back to the birth of a women’s soccer league in 1989, but it has been a rough ride, said Elise Edwards, an anthropologist at Butler University in Indianapolis who is writing a book about women’s soccer in Japan and who played for the Nikko Securities Dream Ladies in the league’s early days. After losing corporate sponsorship in the late 1990s, the league nearly folded. Since then, finances have been scarce and most players receive little if any compensation.” [Source: Daniel Krieger, New York Times, August 21, 2011]

After abysmal showings at the first few women’s World Cups, the Japan Football Association decided to invest more in the women’s national team, Edwards said. Results came fast. The women made it to the quarterfinals at the 2007 World Cup — where they lost to defending champion Germany 2-1 and lost to England but beat Argentina — and came in fourth in the 2008 Olympics. But even so, financing has been “really slow coming,” Edwards said. “The Japanese men aren’t anywhere close to where the women are now, but the J.F.A. is still more interested in men’s soccer.” That is now changing . Since the World Cup victory, attendance at women’s League games has been at a record high, and the sports ministry has announced it will increase funds for women’s soccer.

There isn’t much of a women’s professional soccer league in Japan. Some female Japanese players play in professionla leagues in the United States and France.

Japan Wins Women’s Soccer World Cup

Japan won women's World Cup in July 2011, upseting the Americans in the final in Frankfurt 3-1 on penalty kicks, after coming from behind twice in a 2-2 tie. Not bad for Japan's first appearance in the final of a major tournament, especially considering it hadn't beaten the Americans in their first 25 meetings, including a pair of 2-0 losses in warm-up games a month before the World Cup. It was also the first World Cup title won by an Asian country. [Source: Nancy Armour, AP, July 18, 2011]

The American scored first in regulation play. The Americans squandered countless chances before Abby Wambach scored in the 104th minute of overtime to give the U.S. a 2-1 lead. But Homare Sawa, flicked in a corner kick in the 117th to tie it. It was the fifth goal of the tournament for Sawa, who led all scorers in her fifth World Cup.

"We ran and ran," Sawa said. "We were exhausted, but we kept running." "The players were patient. They wanted to win this game," Sasaki said. "I think it's because of that the Americans scored only two goals." Feisty goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori made many critical saves. Chirping and yelling, AP reported, she showed no fear as she faced the Americans. Never mind that she is just under 5-foot-7, and the goal is 8 feet high and 24 feet across.”

In the penalty shoot out, NBC's Anne Thompson reported ‘Shannon Boxx took the first U.S. shot, and it banged off Kaihori's right leg as she dove. After Miyama made her penalty, Lloyd stepped up and sent her shot soaring over the crossbar. As the crowd gasped, Lloyd covered her mouth in dismay. After Kaihori's impressive two-handed save on a shot by Tobin Heath, Mizuho Sakaguchi converted Japan's third kick. One more, and Japan would win the title. Wambach made her penalty kick, but Saki Kumagai buried hers and the rest of the Japanese players raced onto the field.” "This is a team effort," Kaihori said. "In the penalty shootout I just had to believe in myself and I was very confident."

The final set the record for tweets per second, eclipsing the wedding of Prince William and Kate and the death of Osama bin Laden. The exciting climax drew 7,196 tweets per second, according to Twitter. Paraguay's penalty shootout win over Brazil in a Copa America quarterfinal later the same day came close to beating it with 7,166. President Barack Obama was a fan, taking to Twitter on Sunday morning to wish the team well and again after the loss. "Couldn't be prouder of the women of (hashtag) USWNT after a hard-fought game. Congratulations to Japan, Women's World Cup Champions."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Yomiuri Shimbun, Daily Yomiuri, Japan Times, Mainichi Shimbun, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated January 2013

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