There are times in Japan when it’s easy to forget about certain sports that are big back home. “They’re just not played here,” you might assume — but invariably they are. Cricket, snooker and darts are huge where I come from (England) — and, sure enough, Japan plays in the cricket World Cup, has a snooker league and recently enjoyed a darts boom. Over the last few decades, squash, which barely missed the cut for inclusion in the 2012 Olympic Games, has also earned a strong domestic following.
For those who don’t know the game, squash is similar to racquetball. It’s played inside an oblong box with the lines drawn along the walls, and players use a small squishy ball. The idea is to prevent your opponent from being able to return the ball by adjusting its speed and hitting it at angles. Squash requires sharp reflexes and lots of stamina.
As a casual activity, squash is surprisingly popular. According to Ron Tanno, a top 10 player in Japan (formerly No. 2) and a member of the Japan Squash Association, there are about 100,000 players across the country. But with only around 450 courts nationwide, it’s not easy to get a game. Around two-thirds of Japan’s courts can be found in the Kanto area, but most are in private clubs where access is often limited.
Names such as Jonah Barrington, Geoff Hunt, Jahangir Khan and Jansher Kahn have inspired awe among even casual followers of squash, yet they are relatively unknown in places such as Japan. There probably aren’t that many people who have heard of Chinatsu Matsui either, but Japan’s number one player — the first to reach a World Tour final — has helped give squash some of the exposure it needs.
Tanno, formerly with Lehman Brothers in Tokyo, is making his own efforts to expand the game. Two years ago, he took over a hotel on the west coast of the Boso Peninsula in Chiba and installed three glass-backed squash courts. Later this year, he will open a squash center in a shopping mall in Omiya. Both facilities are open to the public.
In March, Tanno’s Sunset Breeze Hotel will host the Magic Open, one of Japan’s ranking tournaments, which are staged approximately every two months. Since the demise of the Japan Open as a professional tour event, the country no longer attracts the sport’s best.
Tanno, who learned the game from his Australian father, was a member of the Keio University team, which had around 130 members but no practice facilities.
“The universities don’t have their own courts, so they have to borrow from private clubs, which isn’t always easy,” Tanno says. “As a result, the university squash clubs have to restrict membership.”
The World Squash Federation and the Japan Squash Association are hoping that the sport will finally make it into the Olympics in 2016, when Tokyo could host the summer Games. If Japan could copy countries such as Britain and even South Korea in providing access for the general public, we could be in for a squash boom.
Where to play
Several private gyms around the city offer squash courts. SQ-Cube (www.sq-cube.com) in Yokohama is a dedicated facility with eight courts and a small fitness area. Several area branches of Central Fitness Club (www.central.co.jp), including the one in Jiyugaoka, maintain courts. A bit further out, Sunset Breeze Hotel (www.sunsetbreeze-hota.com) in Hota, Chiba, offers several sports activities for guests, including squash.
For a more extensive list, see the English website of the Japan Squash Association (www.squash-japan.com).
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today