2004: The rise and fall of golf in Japan

Just outside this megalopolis of 33 million, beyond the shadows of the city’s skyscrapers, quaint neighborhoods emerge, with family shops lining streets that stretch toward yet another looming structure. You see it first, above the wooden rooftops of two-story dwellings: Towering steel poles with link fencing draped between them, creating a monster-sized “tori-bako,” or chicken coop. But this isn’t housing for gigantic, mutated fowl.

It is a multi-level driving range, one of thousands that serve as “home courses” for many of Japan’s 10.4 million golfers.

At this 60-station Jack Nicklaus Golf Center, finding an open hitting bay used to be an exercise in futility, or at the very least, patience. Ninety-minute waits to hit a ball off an automated tee were common.

But on this particular day on the cusp of spring, more than half the stations are empty. And mostly elderly gents occupy the bays. Women, young men, teen-agers and children are conspicuously absent.

If Japan truly is a golf-obsessed nation, then where are all of its fanatics?

The stereotype of the Japanese clutching clubs is as popular as images of them toting cameras. But the truth is, this nation’s golf market – the second largest in the world – has been reeling since its bubble economy burst in the early 1990s.

Fueled then by Japan’s global economic success, golf became the nation’s official corporate sport,

and legions of businessmen literally were required to play the game. Sales of golf gear soared to unprecedented levels and private club memberships costing $400,000 were commonplace.

But when economic reality punctured Japan’s bubble, it deflated golf, too. The facts reveal a startling deterioration:

In 2003, 8.2 million clubs were sold (wholesale). That’s down 63 percent from 22 million in 1990.

During an 11-year span from 1992 to 2002, rounds played fell from 102 million to 88 million.

When players such as Jumbo Ozaki and Isao Aoki reigned in the 1980s, men’s professional golf routinely posted nearly double-digit television ratings. Today, the numbers are about half that.

About 1,700 – or 71 percent – of Japan’s 2,460 courses are in financial trouble. Of those, 450 have declared bankruptcy and another 200 have been acquired, according to Sadao Furuhata, one of Japan’s foremost course market analysts.

Though the collapse of the course industry has provided a silver lining – more affordable green

fees – evidence suggests the country’s financial demise has deeply scarred the game. Many Japanese now view golf as corporate largesse, and some show considerable disdain toward the game.

Such changes in attitudes, coupled with statistical declines, have stirred debate among industry leaders here and in the United States about the health of the Japan golf market. Some say the sport has stabilized, and that the “worst has passed.” They insist that as the nation’s economy recovers, the sport will rebound in step. But others are far more hesitant and fear recent societal changes will prevent such an upswing, if not erode the game’s popularity even more.

Concerned by the weakening of the golf sector and potential job losses, Japan’s governmental agency on economics and trade commissioned a report in late 2003 detailing the game’s woes. Its conclusion – reflecting a lack of junior and women’s programs and concerns about the game’s expense – warns that the state of golf in Japan could worsen.

The report appears to be motivating the industry’s numerous factions to address the problems.

“Japan golf is in danger,” says Takashi Omori, executive director of the Japan Golf Association, the country’s counterpart to the U.S. Golf Association. “We are just now realizing that our efforts were not serving the broadest segment of our membership. We need to reconstruct.”

A major initiative is to distance golf from its tarnished corporate heritage and promote it as a pure sport to players of all abilities. The JGA is reaching out to its large constituency of high-handicappers, for example, by creating a series of tournaments just for them. In addition, the organization is exploring strategies to increase weekday play and recruit target audiences such as women and seniors.

But some worry whether these efforts are too little, too late.

“If the economy gets better, golf will pick up in the short term,” says Masahiro Suzuki, a manager at Victoria Golf, one of Japan’s largest off-course golf specialty retailers. “But what I’m worried about is 20 years from now. When our seniors get too old to play, there’s no one in the pipeline to replace them.”

Two years ago, 27 percent of Japanese men in their 50s played golf. By comparison, only 8.2

percent of men in their 20s and 1.2 percent of boys, ages 15 to 19, teed it up. Among all Japanese women, the participation rate was 2.5 percent.

In some ways, the malaise infecting Japanese golf is shocking considering the fervor this nation once displayed for the sport.

Golf began innocently enough on this archipelago in 1901 when an Englishman living in the Far East hired some hands to carve out four holes in the city of Kobe. Two years later, the layout was expanded to nine holes and christened Kobe Golf Club, the nation’s first.

The game’s popularity spread quickly at the turn of the 20th century. Increasingly influenced by Western trade, Japan’s wealthy lobbied for the modernization of their country and embraced all things European and American.

Though the devastation of World War II brought to a halt recreation of every form, it didn’t take long for golf to resurface. Boosted by Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s push for American aid and the Japanese people’s unbridled determination to rebuild their country, they focused on key industries and prospered quickly. New wealth allowed the Japanese to again pick up the game.

But affluence alone doesn’t explain the resurgence.

Much the same way Arnold Palmer’s thrilling Sunday charges galvanized the American public to try golf in the 1960s, the Japanese became enchanted with the sport when WHO won the 1960 Canada Cup, predecessor to the World Cup, on home soil near Tokyo. At the time, that victory was one of the most significant athletic achievements by a Japanese team on the global stage.

“Back then, especially, winning against Americans, winning against the world’s best, was big news,” says Omori of the JGA. “It was a defining moment, and golf instantly became popular in Japan.”

But nothing made the game more a part of the Japanese cultural fabric than the rise of the “salary-man,” or business executive.

Until recently, Japanese companies virtually guaranteed workers lifetime employment, comfortable retirements, even loans to build homes, not necessarily as kudos for performance, but as a reward for corporate fidelity. Long hours were the norm, and to many, playing golf became a corporate chore.

“You had no choice. You had to play. To keep your boss company, to entertain clients. If you didn’t, it reflected poorly upon you,” Tetsuro Nishihara, Nike Golf’s Asia Pacific business manager for golf clubs.

Though the Japanese golf industry never aggressively offered grow-the-game initiatives, it didn’t need to because this corporate mandate forced nearly all young adults to at least try the game.

And many discovered it suited them well.

Though overused in describing Japanese culture, there is great truth in their love for pursuing perfection and practicing patience to achieve it. These cherished traits go hand in hand with golf, which is one reason why many Japanese so love the game, says Taizo Kawata, a golf historian and popular TV commentator.

Not nearly as admirable, Kawata adds, is the obsession of Japanese people “to keep up with the Joneses” in nearly every aspect of their lives. Neighbors fastidiously monitor each other’s progress and compare their children’s after-school activities. He says such behavior spills over into their golf games, where his countrymen are known for scribbling and comparing scores even before they leave the green.

“The Japanese love numbers, and they need to know how they’re doing compared with everyone else. . . . Golf provides both,” Kawata says.

Golf also was the ultimate status symbol. For a nation that had lost so much to war, its significance can’t be emphasized enough. Being able to play golf meant that you “had made it,” Omori says.

“People think you’re wealthy, a member of the elite,” he says. “No one’s impressed if you tell them you play baseball.”

Such compulsion, coupled with a large participation base, fueled the game’s popularity in astounding fashion: For nearly 30 consecutive years, from 1964 through 1992, rounds played increased every year, growing from 10 million to 102 million. During that same period, the number of courses jumped from 387 to more than 2,000.

Then, the bubble burst. To the Japanese, the unimaginable began to happen. Workers who had labored so hard in exchange for job security, became victims of downsizing. And this slump dragged on and on. Its impact profoundly affected young Japanese, who, after observing their parents’ suffering, changed the way they looked at life and golf.

“In the past, society laid out a path for young people to follow,” says Nike’s Nishihara. “Society said work for one company, and you’ll be set for life. But now, many are questioning (that way of life).”

Some young adults are avoiding golf, in part, because they view it as a symbol of that relentless corporate era and regard it as an unpleasant business task. What they want instead, Nishihara says, is immediate gratification.

“Society may still lay out a path for them, but they’re going wherever they want to go, and doing whatever they want to do.”

These days, playing golf, or even watching it, doesn’t rank high on their priority list.

As in the United States, golf’s time commitment and expense, and the abundance of other leisure activities are conspiring against the game. While once-private clubs are increasingly offering rounds to the public at more reasonable rates – down from $300 to as low as $100 – getting to them remains a major obstacle. From the heart of Tokyo, two-hour drives to courses are common. And rounds take even longer in Japan because it is mandatory to sit down for a meal between nines.

“A leisure activity that takes an entire day doesn’t work in today’s world,” Omori says.

The game’s slide in popularity is mirrored by lackluster fan support for Japan’s top professional men’s tour – the Japan Golf Tour Organization.

The reach of Japan’s economic woes, for one, can’t be underestimated: Many battered corporations no longer have the financial wherewithal to sponsor tournaments, whittling JGTO’s schedule to 30 events, down more than 20 percent from its total in the 1990s.

The relatively small JGTO purses and the escalation in PGA Tour prize money also have spurred Japan’s biggest names – such as Shigeki Maruyama, Toshi Izawa and Shingo Katayama – to leave their home tour more frequently.

Perhaps most troubling, when JGTO executives are asked to name a future superstar emerging from Japan, they shrug their shoulders and remain silent.

Hope for a turnaround in Japan golf, however, still exists.

While there may be a dearth of talent on the JGTO, its female counterpart has a sensation on its hands: Ai Miyazato. As a high school senior last year, she won a Japan LPGA tour event and the Japan Women’s Amateur. There’s already talk that she may become the catalyst for a golf revival. Just how popular is she? In a recent poll, nongolfers in Japan were asked to identify professional golfers. Only three were recognized with regularity: Jumbo Ozaki, Isao Aoki and Miyazato.

More important to the prospects of a golf comeback is that the game’s various factions – including course operators, equipment makers and governing organizations – finally appear to be working together to grow participation. Some industry leaders, in private, say they remain skeptical whether any meaningful solution will emerge from such collaboration.

But the heightened attention of their shared concerns, at least, is prompting some to take steps on their own.

The JGA is anxious to market golf in a new light.

“We have to sell golf as a sport,” says Omori of the JGA. “Today, people think golf exists because it serves a business purpose. We have to change this attitude.”

The JGA believes a first step is issuing more handicaps.

Of the nation’s 10 million golfers, only 600,000 carry handicaps – and most of them are better players who carry them as a “badge of honor,” Omori says. Duffers don’t bother to get one, he says, because they have few, if any, opportunities to use them in “situations that really matter.”

Which explains the JGA’s plan, beginning in January 2005, to extend its handicap system from 40 to 50 shots per 18 holes, and organize competitive events exclusively for beginners and other less-skilled golfers.

For example: A “Come-break-100” tournament, inviting novices to achieve that milestone.

“Using handicaps for competition makes them feel like they’ve graduated from a leisure activity to participating in a real sport. It makes it mean something,” Omori says.

Bridgestone Sports, one of Japan’s biggest golf companies and maker of Precept balls and clubs, this year debuted a nationwide series of amateur tournaments. It features several regional qualifiers and culminates with a championship finale, whose victor, among many prizes, gets to play with tour players.

Bridgestone also is expanding its golf academies, which previously offered lessons mostly to men; now more affordable packages, specifically targeting women and children are available.

Says Bridgestone executive Yasuhiko Moteki: “We believe, to grow the game, everyone must take action. Hopefully, we are not too late.”

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