Sports are a huge culture in Japan. From early childhood, Japanese people often choose one sport and continue to play throughout the rest of their academic career, well into university, and some even continue to play as adults.
The same can be said for sports fans as well who are very loyal to their favorite teams. This means that when their team rivals another team, their fans also gain rivals—often for life. This breeds a sense of competition and is often good for the sports themselves, so here are some of the biggest sports rivalries in Japan.
Japanese Baseball Rivalries: Yomiuri Giants and Hanshin Tigers
The Yomiuri Giants, based in Tokyo, are the oldest team among current Japanese professional teams. They are also the biggest and most successful team in history, and are compared with the famous New York Yankees of Major League Baseball in the United States. This is why they can almost be seen as the dominant “antagonist” team of the Kanto region who are rivaled mainly by the Hanshin Tigers of Nishinomiya in Hyogo Prefecture.
Tigers fans are known for their dedication, as they can sometimes outnumber fans at the opponent’s arenas during away games. However, the Yomiuri Giants have notorious rules for controlling the behavior of visiting fans, leading to an intense rivalry. If you can see either side of this matchup, it is sure to be lively.
Waseda University and Keio University
Waseda University and Keio University are two of the top universities in Japan. Their rivalry is a long-standing piece of Japanese history that continues today. It all started back in 1903 when the Waseda University baseball team sent a challenge to the more senior Keio University, giving birth to the greatest college rivalry in Japan.
Keio was victorious, but decided that since the Waseda team (who had been only playing for little over a year) put up such a good fight, that they would hold the game every year as a regular match. That proved to be an accurate forecast, as Waseda currently holds more victories over Keio with the score at 230–191. The atmosphere at this game is electric, and even people who didn’t attend either university often go to watch the historic rivalry play out.
Aoyama Gakuin University and Tohoku Gakuin University
Another great collegiate sports rivalry is one between Tokyo’s Aoyama Gakuin University and Tohoku Gakuin University from Sendai. These schools are both Christian in origin and both were founded in 1949. In Japan, it is often the similarity between two organizations that actually leads to strong rivalries.
This rivalry also transcends a competition of just one sport or activity. These schools come together to compete in Aoyama Gakuin University vs. Tohoku Gakuin University General Regular Battle which involves various competitions such as wrestling, tennis, fencing, lacrosse, rugby, and football. There are even cheerleaders and full marching bands present as well. The goal of this annual battle is to bring the schools closer together and promote values that make both schools better, and explains why it has been able to continue for so long.
Football Rivalries: Japan and South Korea
When it comes to Japan and sports rivalries, the biggest one actually unites the country. The biggest sports rivalry in Japan is the one it has with South Korea during major football events. There are other sports to which this rivalry extends, but there is no higher stage than professional football. During the World Cup, you will see bars and izakaya on every street filled to maximum capacity with every Team Japan fan sporting the iconic “samurai blue” jersey.
The two countries have been playing each other officially since 1954. The matchup has come to be known as nikkansen in Japanese and haniljeon in Korean. If you are ever in either country during the World Cup, head to any viewing party and be prepared for some of the most active cheering you can see in Japan.