Squash poised for a breakthrough in Japan

By Fred Varcoe

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

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good article! I enjoy squash and would like to play when I go back to Japan in the near future.. thanks JT

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I've never understood why it is not popular here. Tennis is huge here and takes up so much space. With the limited space here, this game is perfect. I hope it does grow un popularity as I would love to start playing again.

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I thought this was going to be about a vegetable. Or a drink. Both called 'squash.' Disappointed.

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I haven't played squash yet but I play racquetball at least once a week. Great game! Pretty hard to find gear here in Japan. Hope to play squash at some point.

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Squash is popular here, but the 9 court Cote a Cote centre in Yokohama closed down a couple of years ago, it had hosted many of Japan's big tournaments. Renaissance and Central Fitness chains both have a number of courts around the country, and tournaments are held regularly. Coaching is popular, but is rather turgid, with complicated hit and run patterns for groups of players, rather than one-on-one coaching to actually play the game.

I've been playing nearly 20 years here, and as a senior player in the club, it is always good to see the young players come in, and encourage them. It's quite easy to reserve a court, and those Japanese who do play are generally more individual and out-going than the average Watanabe or Sato-sans.

Ron Tanno is well-respected amongst the squash community, and I hope his squash centres succeed. Good to see something positive come out of Lehmans too!

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Would love to be able to play either squash or racquet ball here in Japan because I am too old and too infirm to be able to go out and give blood (play rugby) like I did as a young fella.

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I love squash! I hope it gets a serious bounce. Also hope rowing can someday make a splash here.

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Wanderlust how can you claim it is popular when clubs are limited in number? Might seem popular if you head to a place that as courts but I knwo of only two places in Kansai that have courts and they are very expensive to join.

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Kansai....there are 6 clubs in Osaka, 5 in Kyoto, 9 in Hyogo..... Most of them are regular fitness clubs with squash courts - typical joining fee is 5,000 Yen, with monthly fees of 4,000 to 10,000 Yen, depending on your membership level. If you call that expensive, just try joining a golf or tennis club!

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Any type of sports becomes popular in Japan when some Japanese player does slightly well (read, above mediocre) in an international event or the girls are good-looking. All of a sudden, there was this curling mania. And then there was archery after the 2004 Olympics. After 2008 Beijing, all of a sudden fencing became hot. I'm waiting for some Japanese to do well in tiddly-winks. Now men's tennis is hot. Can the people or media here become interested in sports without focusing on a Japanese sportsperson?

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Wasn't beach volleyball poised for a breakthrough too, until the Japanese female duo lost in the Olympics?

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pukey> its not just a Japanese thing that the media and the people who follow it, are attracted to home success. Its part of being proud of your nation doing well - you need to ask yourself that same question about your own country and their sports - can your media be interested in a sport without national success?.

F1 has become big news (more widespread in terms of media coverage) back in the UK because of lewis Hamilton...whys that? National success is the best way of attracting new young young into that sport and expand its base...that applies to ALL countries. If you are going to have a pop at Japan's view of sports success then it should be targeted towards the inept ministry of sports (part of the stupidly large and poorly grouped MEXT) and their handling of such sporting success and future planning.

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In my country, we don't go on and on about our own sportsmen and sportswomen while ignoring others, as you see on the television here. You'll only get news of certain sports here if the Japanese are doing well. If a Japanese loses, you'd hardly get any report (last case was Sugiyama losing in the AO doubles final - NHK reports every time she wins, but, lo and behold, nada when she loses).

My 'pop' at Japan's view of sports success is aimed mainly at the Japanese media and those who follow it blindly. Yes, F1 may be popular in the UK, but it's always been popular, even before Hamilton appeared on the scene. You get news about sportsmen from all over the world on UK TV. I just don't see that in the Japanese media. And British reporters don't go asking foreign sportsmen what they think of X or Y (fill in X and Y with your favourite UK sportsmen). Plus, they don't give non-stop reports on 'how our boys are doing abroad'.

People CAN be proud of their nation's sportsmen AND show respect to others without ignoring them. I don't need to ask myself that question. You need to ask YOURSELF how much longer you're willing to be fooled by the Japanese media. F.O.B people require a bit of time before they realize what the Jp media is like.

Moderator: Back on topic please.

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I know what squash is but I have no idea what racquetball is.

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Contrary to what the article says, Japan does not play in the cricket World Cup.

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"I've never understood why it is not popular here."

Because it's an individualistic sport and difficult to stage as a group or communal activity, due to the confined space of a squash court.

I play tennis in Tokyo regularly, and rarely see singles played. Rather, groups of up to 20 people will often play on a single court.

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Because it's an individualistic sport and difficult to stage as a group or communal activity, due to the confined space of a squash court.

It is very common here for a group of people to book the court for a couple of sessions, or more and play together in rotation, winner carrying on; coaching is usually done in groups too. Tournaments are held within clubs and between groups of clubs in proximity, with rankings and handicaps to make it interesting for everyone taking part. For those who play, it can become a very sociable game...

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Interesting article.

As soon as I came to Japan I tried to join a small sukashu club in Suginami, but for some reason they wouldn't have me...!

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