Between infamously long work hours and personal identities grounded in corporate affiliation, Japan has usually been known for its labor rather than its leisure. This may be, however, exactly why the nation’s enduring obsession with golf is so conspicuous. Sure, golf is the most obvious athletic extension of Japan’s social priorities, but in recent days, the sport has an enormous legion of fans that expands far beyond the rigidities of workplace hierarchies. The game has grown and shifted together with society — providing a useful metaphor for understanding both the country’s emergence as an economic power in the 20th century and the downfall of the salaryman-dominated social system in the 21st.
Although now something approaching a cliché, the first images to emerge globally of Japanese golf culture told a slightly depressing story. Back in 1964, an infamous photograph appeared in Life of atomized salarymen at a three-story driving range hitting balls into the void. This etched a nearly permanent narrative for the rest of the world: The busy people of a very crowded Japan were trying to live out the fantasy Western lifestyle at any extreme. Scholar Marilyn Ivy wrote in the essay “Critical Text, Mass Artifacts” that the U.S. media portrayed Japan as “impossible, dehumanized productivity.” And in that framing, those now-iconic industrialized golf ranges surely looked like the key leisure activity of a “dystopic capitalistic” system (Ibid.).
Twenty-five years after that photograph, however, the idyllic towns of Hawaii and California greeted planeload after planeload of “Japan Inc.” businessmen as they headed out to play the areas’ most prestigious greens. The dream had been fulfilled — those practicing in that dystopic driving range were now enjoying the Great Outdoors shoulder to shoulder with the American elite. And when a Japanese businessman purchased the ultra-luxury Pebble Beach Golf Links on the California Coast for $700 million over the market price in 1990, Japanese golf suddenly became another facet of U.S. paranoia towards Eastern economic dominance.
But we all know what happened later: The Japanese economy collapsed in the mid-1990s, and the salaryman class lost its monopoly on social prestige. Golf was a core tradition of corporate warriors, and it therefore also suffered a reputation loss from its over-association with the dominant old-man contingent. The decline of golf, however, is itself history, and in recent years, the sport has been rehabilitated as a sport rather than a day of work outside of the office. And it is now open to almost all — not just old men with expense accounts but also young women on group dates.
Even with these changes to the player base, one thing remains constant: Golf has become as deeply-embedded in Japanese culture as green tea and baseball. There have been thousands of fads and trends involving foreign culture, but golf has weathered a full century of tremendous social change to still reign as a dominant sport. How did this one particular game of hitting a little white ball into a distant hole become so entrenched in the Japanese psyche?
As seen in most importation of Western culture in Japan, golf first entered the country directly through acts of foreign intervention. When Japan re-opened its borders in the Meiji Restoration of 1868, the port cities flooded with Western businessmen looking to cash in on a new trade route. Since these men and their families mostly lived in sequestered communities with Western housing, they were also quick to install other institutions, such as churches and cricket clubs, that would replicate their lifestyles from back home. So it was quite inevitable that a foreigner would look out one day on a lush green Japanese valley and claim the land for golf.
In 1901 destiny called for Arthur Hesketh Groom, a Brit in the tea trade who was sick and tired of not having a good golf game in the 33 years he had been in Japan. He took it upon himself to construct a private four-hole course on Mt. Rokko, which two years later, he expanded into nine holes. Thus was born the Kobe Golf Club. In the May 19, 1903 issue of English newspaper Kobe Chronicle, Groom announced a golf tournament on his new course. Unsurprisingly, no Japanese players showed up, and in this nascent year, golf was exclusively a pastime of the expat scene. But by the following year, the now 18-hole Kobe Golf Club had 171 members, seven of whom were Japanese.
Once Groom proved that the sport could work on Japanese soil, golf spread throughout the country — but always at the hands of foreigners. A more winter-friendly course opened in nearby Yokoya in 1904, and two years later, Brits near Yokohama founded a course in Negishi. Native players slowly trickled in to the sport, sometimes as caddies of the Western players, but they were generally slow to become competitive members of this elite world. Japan’s first national golf tournament, which started in 1907, did not even have a Japanese contestant until 1916.
1918, however, was a big shift as Inoue Makoto became the first Japanese player to win his country’s makeshift national tournament. With this victory, golf started to show movements towards greater domestication. Of course the first Japanese involved in the golf scene were the sons of high-society families who had studied or worked in the West. Inoue had been posted at the New York office of his company and spent enough days and nights at New Jersey’s White Beeches Country Club to be crowned club champion for two years straight. Another famed early golfer Akaboshi Rokuro had picked up the sport during his time at Princeton.
These foreign-trained individuals acted as early golfing ambassadors, but soon they were joined by the nation’s less-globetrotting upper class. In 1914, 30 top Japanese businessmen — one of whom later became a cabinet secretary — came together to start their own golf course in Tokyo’s Komazawa area. In just two decades, golf had shifted quite nicely from the foreign elite to the Japanese elite. And this set a pattern common to most trend adoption around the world: The next-highest status group often attempts to imitate the highest-status group’s culture as a way to claim membership to the group above them. This “trickle down” of a burgeoning modern Japanese elite imitating the West was directly responsible for golf’s national expansion.
Right up until the end of World War II, golf increasingly became a well-integrated part of the privileged classes’ lifestyle. By 1940, there were 71 courses across the nation and around 110,000 total players. This was impressive growth from the days of Groom and his private course, but golf had hardly become a mass sport. Compared to other successful foreign imports such as business suiting and baseball, golf had not become anywhere near as common. The limiting factor was mostly financial: Buying golf balls and clubs would have taken up most of an average worker’s yearly salary. We can assume, however, that golf’s small, exclusive player base gave it universally understood associations with wealth and prestige. Golf was clearly the pinnacle leisure activity of Japan’s ruling class. This was true, however, of most modern consumer culture in the pre-war years: Only the urban elite could really participate.
World War II completely disrupted Japan’s old class system, however, and as a new, more egalitarian Japan emerged from the rubble of the Empire, golf had a new chance to penetrate more deeply into Japanese society. For the first few years of the post-war, U.S. soldiers reclaimed most of Japan’s golf courses for military usage, but in doing so, likely gave the sport further legitimacy as the sport of society’s top tier. Things got rolling again for Japanese golfers in the 1950s, as the U.S. returned the courses to private ownership, and the Japanese Golf Association re-opened its doors. In 1957 — the year after the government officially declared the “post-war” to be over — there had been an increase up to 116 courses with 18 million course visits. That same year a Japanese player Nakamura Torakichi won the international tournament Canada Cup (now World Cup) hosted in Japan and sparked what author Tanaka Yoshihisa calls the “First Post-War Golf Boom.” From 1957 to 1961, golf was red hot, as the top executives and managers of Japan’s burgeoning New Middle Class — arguably the new elite in a post-aristocratic Japan — flocked to the greens. With this huge demand to hit the links, an unprecedented number of new courses were constructed. It also helped that companies could claim golf — like boozing with hostesses and lavish dinners — as an entertainment expense. The more golf played, the less tax paid.
Throughout the 1960s, the number of courses continued to grow steadily. But this growth curve got a major kick during the “Second Post-War Golf Boom” of 1971 to 1974. Golf tournaments had begun to appear on TV in the late 1960s, and as a result, a much larger group of middle class workers began to take interest in the sport. This was also a time period when the Dankai Generation — Japan’s Baby Boomers — had entered the work force and began to settle into their careers. Golf’s association with the business elite in the late 1950s had sent the implicit message to younger workers that knowing how to play golf would become a critical requirement for future promotion. This was also the era when Japan’s pop culture really exploded: when consumers could afford to buy LPs, off-the-rack clothes, stereo equipment, and magazines. Japan had emerged from being the world’s manufacturing factory and started to actually spend some of its hard-earned wages on leisure and goods.
Although growth of the golf industry petered off in the early 1980s, the Bubble Economy of 1986 to 1989 spurred the Third Post-War Golf Boom. This era had all the ingredients required to make an elite leisure activity more widespread: speculation-fueled wealth-generation, a currency doubling in value, and a broad culture of conspicuous consumption. The Bubble was the age of excess — the salaryman class living out all the fantasies of the post-war in glorious and excess detail. This meant drinking watered down Johnny Walker Blue Label every night in Ginza hostess clubs in black Armani suits. When it came to golf, companies suddenly had the cash to invest in prestigious country club memberships, corporate trips abroad to Hawaii, and other extravagant ways to tee off. With salarymen being the kings of society and golf being their leisure activity of choice it only made sense that the sport would loom large in the wider culture. Just as the brigades of corporate soldiers hit their paradise years of fancy golfing, this era also saw an influx of female golfers, who made up 20% of all Japanese players by the early 1990s.
Golf’s takeover of Japanese society continued to fit the trickle-down model quite nicely. In all of these golf booms, a roaring economy and greater spread of media brought a huge number of new players into the game. Golf has always been expensive in Japan; this is the country that introduced the idea of “green fees” on top of already-exorbitant sunk costs in country club memberships. And golf always had a strong association with the top echelon of society. So as incomes increased, more people had the disposable income to play golf, and they naturally wanted to play golf as a way to identify as a member of the society’s upper crust. At first this meant internationalized Japanese showing their worldliness by joining up foreign country clubs in their own country. Later this meant the top executives in the New Middle Class imitating the pre-war elite.
By the 1970s and 1980s, golf still had its prestige but lost its exclusivity. Ultra-bright driving ranges across Tokyo would be filled to the brim with white collar workers hitting balls into a net, as practice for the next time their company would pay for them to play 18 holes. And in the Bubble, Japanese became the most famous consumers of golf around the world, snapping up famed courses for unbelievable prices. In Singapore, for example, the Japanese expats joined country clubs at such a rate that the government had to pass a law preventing foreign players from being more than 30% of the total membership (Ben-Ari).
Golf’s growth trajectory in Japan’s miracle post-war should be no surprise, but there is something interesting in how golf managed to stay in the national imagination for so long. There was a time in the 1950s when everyone was obsessed with owning a rice cooker and refrigerator, but of course, these became commonplace in the 1960s and these humble dreams disappeared in their widespread attainment. Tennis boomed around the same time but petered out with the over-proliferation of college tennis clubs in the mid-1980s. Golf had the dual advantage of always being expensive and inaccessible even as incomes rose, as well as being a sport that did not necessitate youthful prowess. The richer and older you were, the more golf you could play. But the increase in players always outpaced the construction of giant courses, and this lack of supply always kept fees at a slightly painful level for the wider population, hence giving corporate entertainment budgets a critical role. Despite Japan’s great wealth, it was nearly impossible to actually play golf in this Bubble era peak. Players would have to reserve golf courses several months in advance as well as pay exorbitant green fees (Ben-Ari). Due to Japan’s tight geographical constrictions, golf became more exclusive the more it became popular. Compare this to the Louis Vuitton handbag, which started in a similar position of being only for the upper classes, and by 2005, was on the arm of every other girl in the subway. Golf’s natural barriers towards mass adoption strengthened its prestige.
With the Bubble’s collapse in the early 1990s, however, the holistic and dominant taste culture of the post-war male elite — whiskey, golf, dark serge wool suits with white shirts and dark ties — became an easy target for ridicule. Tastes had greatly diversified in the 1980s, and a new culture of aesthetic refinement (spurred in great part by the Saison retail empire) rejected the mainstream business-driven cultural world. Japan was no longer monolithic, and as the economy started to teeter and the salaryman became a sad sack in sack suit, golf was suddenly a punchline, more associated with men stained by stale cigarette smoke and coffee-stained teeth than regal men in natty dress breathing in the Great Outdoors. Golf went through some rough years in the national imagination, especially with the collapse of exclusive country clubs and exposure in many cases of funding from organized crime. By the 2000s, however, enough time had passed to give golf a second shot. Thanks to athletes like Tiger Woods, the sport would shed some of its older associations and be reborn as a class-neutral athletic endeavor.
Golf has always had a unique sense of style. With a lack of sustained physical movement inherent in the activity, dress could be relatively fancy compared to other sports. Okay, knee breeches and argyle may have been the height of “sporty” in the past, much like the white flannels of tennis players. Before the modern era, however, there was generally high propriety of dress for all occasions, and this extended to the golf course. Dressing up as “gentlemen” on the green was a natural part of the pastime for early players, and this past has been sewn into the sport’s reputation. Modern players may not take up the exact dress of their ancestors but they surely bask in the sense of decorum established centuries prior.
At the same time, this sense of gentlemanly propriety has made golf a difficult fit within the wider pantheon of sports. Take the case of Japanese Ur shoe-brand Onitsuka Tiger, which framed itself constantly in its early years as the ideal material companion to the Olympic tradition. In the spirit of athletic diversity, Onitsuka Tiger manufactured distinct shoes for every obscure sporting event and physical activity in the modern world from track to boxing to “baton twirling” to rugby to handball. Yet the company’s golf shoes were produced under a separate brand name — GOOD SHOT Golf Shoes. In the 1950s, these had a look that has been mostly forgotten today: clunky black nylon lace-up cleats with patches of white on the toe, something like a boat shoe’s angry uncle. In the 1960s and 1970s, however, Onitsuka Tiger went back to the classic saddle shoe design that had become a key look for professional golfers in the 1920s. These stayed in basic whites, browns, and blacks, but later on in the 1970s, expanded into electric reds and yellows.
This kind of business-shoe adapted for the green is a vestigial remnant of golf’s ancestry. These days, global athletic brands have invaded and enforced a strict space-aged techno-savvy — a strong counterbalance to the old aristocratic fun of dressing up. No natural fibers are harmed in the production of modern golf clothes. Sunglasses must look like props from 1980s science fiction films. Even Brooks Brothers — the arbiter of traditional style in the U.S. — likes to encourage younger men to wear anachronistic pieces like rounded club collars to the office while suggesting a relaxed, “less formal” ensemble as the perfect golf wear.
This seems a direct sartorial consequence of golf’s re-imagination as an activity open to all. Democraticization is great for people but terrible for clothing. Formality of dress has always been a quiet tool of class society to clarify status, and it makes sense that dismantling the aristocratic conventions cooked into institutions means doing away with much of the costume. The new American work uniform — an over-sized dress shirt (with undershirt showing through the open collar) and a pair of giant Dockers — could easily be traced directly to belief in meritocratic egalitarianism. Theoretically-speaking, there could be creative fashion in a utopian democratic society, but fashion throughout history — at least what we consider “dressing well” — has almost always been correlated with imitation of the upper classes’ style rules.
Throughout the 20th century, playing golf was a badge of upward mobility — a chance to buy into an exclusive “Gentlemen’s game.” And certainly, dressing up was part of the appeal. The concept of dressing for “time, place, occassion” (TPO) has become a quaint anachronism — except, arguably, in Japan where it still guides most public dress. It makes sense therefore that while golf lost most of its aristocratic or upper class associations in Japan after becoming over-exposed within the salaryman class, the sport was able to make an impressive comeback with Japanese women around 2007 by adding back to the game a sense of TPO-driven dress.
Women’s sudden interest in golf was an unabashed trend conspiracy, mind you, with the golf industry paying out large sums to apparel companies and fashion magazines to directly target young women who had never once considered the idea of putting. They re-framed the game as part of the courtship process with (upwardly mobile) men, and hence, a new opportunity for women to dress up in a completely different set of (adorable) clothing, which they would need to go out and buy. An entire magazine Regina popped up to be the fashion guide for the female golf set.
Yet everyone won. While this has echoes of the industrial complex bending the behavior of citizens, the plot also says a lot about the nature of golf. This would not have been possible with ice hockey nor even basketball — sports that require putting a lot of incredibly specialized people in the same room. And ironically the democratic nature of golf in the 21st century also opened the door. Ladies circuit stars like Miyazato Ai have been an inspiration to Japanese women to get out there and show their athleticism. The dainty clothes were an appeal to some, but the entire female golf movement did encourage many women to take the sport seriously beyond the social dimensions.
Like so many traditions in the 21st century, golf has found a new strength and stability in its ability to signify many things to many audiences. The sport has been freed from its previous monolithic understanding as an exclusive leisure activity for elite men. Golf may no longer work in Japan as a universally understood symbol of economic progress, but the elements of prestige, leisure, and fine dress still resonate with larger audiences than before. Golf can be all things to all people. Businessmen still banter over distribution strategies while rescuing balls from the bunker, and two holes down, a young couple learns to play golf together as an unspoken sign of eventual matrimony. Golf has mutated over the years but these evolutions occur so that it can remain core to the Japanese DNA.
All facts about Japanese golf history, unless otherwise noted, came from:
Tanaka Yoshihisa. Gorufu to Nihonjin. 『ゴルフと日本人』 Tokyo: Iwanami Shinsho, 1992.
Allen Guttmann and Lee Thompson. Japanese Sports: A History. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2001.
Eyal Ben-Ari “Golf, Organization, and ‘Body Projects’: Japanese Business Executives in Singapore.” The Culture of Japan Seen Through Its Leisure. Ed. by Sepp Linhart and Sabine Frühstück. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.
Marilyn Ivy “Critical Texts, Mass Artifacts: The Consumption of Knowledge in Postmodern Japan.” Postmodernism and Japan. Durham: Duke University Press, 1989.