The three most popular and visible professional sports in Japan are baseball, J-League soccer and sumo. Other popular individual participatory sports, in some cases seasonal, include angling, volleyball, long-distance running, cycling, horse racing, motorsport, athletics, tennis, table tennis, badminton, bush-walking, trekking, mountaineering, ice skating, swimming, skiing, tennis, golf, kendō, kyūdō, (archery), judo, boxing, rugby union, basketball, handball and pro wrestling (puroresu).
A look at the medals tally of recent Olympics shows at the highest international level Japan is prominent in few sports, judo and the marathon being notable exceptions, women usually performing better than men.
Although highly successful professional sports people are as much a subject of admiration and adulation as in any other country, and worthwhile financial rewards can be achieved, only a small proportion of those with any potential in a sport are able to pursue it as a career. The main reason for this is that with the seniority-based employment system, still common in most companies, anyone who wants a chance of establishing a business career with good prospects must start their working life at the same time as others, straight after graduation from university.
A break of even one year can place a person, especially a male, at a disadvantage in securing a job, as being a year older they’ll have to be paid a salary higher than the other, younger, applicants, while starting at the same level as them, an unpalatable prospect for most employers. Otherwise an aspiring sportsman would need a private source of funds, such as family, or be employer-sponsored, in which case the sponsor would largely control their career. This partly explains why Japanese female athletes are more likely to reach the top internationally than men.
First introduced in Japan from the United States in the early 1870s, baseball was for much of the 20th century the most popular sport in Japan, first set up professionally in 1934. It soon became known as yakyu, a word introduced when hostilities with America commenced in 1941 and the use and teaching of English was banned.
There are two professional leagues, the Central League and Pacific League, and an end of year play-off in the Japan Series decides which is the top team nationally. Baseball stars become popular product endorsers in the media, some going on to become coaches or commentators. Whilst the standard of pro-baseball in Japan doesn’t come up to that in America, over the past two decades a small number Japanese pitchers and batters have achieved success in the US Major League.
High school baseball (kōkō yakyu) also achieves prominence during summer when a national competition is held, keeping large numbers of mothers and grandparents glued to the television for the duration of the competition. This competition is a popular recruiting ground for teams in the two national Leagues.