Horse racing is an immensely popular sport in modern-day Japan. However, few people know how deep its roots go. Due to the Westernized trappings of modern-day horse racing, many overlook the deep roots it has in Japan.
We’ve written this article in hopes of shedding some light on this beautiful tradition. Read on to find out more.
The Early Equestrians
The earliest records relating to horse racing in Japan date back to the eighth century. Horse racing was originally a prominent part of religious ceremonies held in the Imperial Court; this caused the discipline to spread across the empire until practically every major temple and shrine held horse races.
These honorable competitions between the samurai of the time attracted a huge number of fans among the peasant and commoner classes. This caused the most talented horse-riding samurai to start appearing in many historical records and literature of the era.
Every year since the eight century, traditional horse races have been held at Kyoto’s Kamigamo Shrine each May. The tradition and style of the races have remained the same since the 11th century, lasting through Imperial, Feudal, and Modern eras of Japan — almost 900 years.
Early Western Influence
In 1862, a couple of years before the Boshin War, and only a year before the “Expel The Barbarians” act of Emperor Komei, foreigners living in Yokohama, mostly British, introduced Western-style horse racing by founding the Yokohama Race Club.
In the beginning, Western-style horse racing was only practiced in Westerner enclaves. Unfortunately, due to that, very little is known about the early days of Western horse racing in Japan. During this time the Japanese capital was renamed from Edo to Tokyo, and the Shogun was replaced by the Emperor, and Western-style horse racing started to spread across the larger cities of Japan. All of this takes place during the Meiji Restoration — a period of rapid Westernization and modernization in Japanese history.
By 1906, the Japanese government implemented new policies which implicitly allowed betting. This resulted in the spread of modern horse racing in most major centers such as Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, etc.
Unfortunately, this system didn’t last long. A couple of years later, the government banned betting and created a system of direct subsidies to fund the prize money and other expenses.
Imperial Racing Society
During the following period of government-supported horse racing, many prominent figures started advocating for the introduction of horse racing law. In time, the Japanese government began to take an interest in the budding sport. They supported the discipline in order to improve the horse breeding industry and increase the quality of Japanese horses, as the horses in Japan were small and generally considered to be of poor quality.
1923 brought the long-awaited Japanese horse racing regulation. This led to the creation of 11 racing clubs. In addition, betting on these races was finally legalized. Shortly after, the Imperial Racing Society was founded as the final authority in the horse racing world.
The Imperial Racing Society was responsible for the establishment of rules, as well as the registration, racing colors, and the licensing of the jockeys and trainers.
1936 brought major changes to Japanese horse racing, the 11 clubs and the IRS were all merged into the newly-created Japan Racing Society. This created drastic changes and improvements to the discipline, one such example being the establishments of the JRS (later JRA) races like the Japanese Derby (Tokyo Yushun). This, in turn, increased the attendance, marking the beginning of modern horse racing in Japan.
However, WWII brought hardship, and most race tracks were forced to stop hosting any more races, and the historically most important race course, Yokohama, was commandeered by the army for military use.
It was only in 1946 that horse racing activities were re-established, and by 1948 yet another change in horse racing law occurred. This time the JRS was abolished, and the government took complete control of the sport.
The government, like always, wasn’t good at running a business, and they changed the law yet again in 1954, when they established the now-familiar Japan Racing Association (JRA), which took over all horse racing operations of the Japanese government.
This new law also allowed for the existence and legalization of regional public racing. It was set up as a separate system from the national one.
The JRA and Modern Horse Racing
With the balance of power firmly established between government and business, the JRA turned out to be the perfect way to run horse racing in Japan. The post WWII economic boom had an effect on horse racing as well as everything else.
This lead to the formation of one of the richest horse races around the globe, the Japan Cup, which was established in 1981. The Japanese Cup is run at Tokyo Racecourse in Fuchu at the end of November.
The JRA over the years has brought us many amazing annual races such as the Takarazuka Kinen, and the Yasuda Kinen race.
The other important racing authority in Japan is the National Association of Racing (NAR), which is operated by the various local governments of Japan.
This system where the JRA is responsible for the bigger horse racing events at the ten major courses in cities, while the NAR is responsible for the numerous local events across the islands, turns out to be the perfect division of responsibility.
As you can see, Japanese horse racing has a truly interesting history and is a rich tradition of the country. However, horse racing isn’t just a tradition in Japan; it is an extremely successful sport, with more than 21,000 races held per year.