Is Japan’s love of golf beginning to fade?

Hirono Golf Club in Japan

The origins of golf in Japan are reportedly traced to a group of British expatriates who played the game at The Kobe Golf Club in the early 1900s.

Under the direction of Arthur Hasketh Groom, the original nine-hole course debuted in May 1903; in less than a year, the course was extended to 18 holes.

The Tokyo Golf Club in Komazawa was later established in 1913 to serve local Japanese golfers. Still, the Japan Golf Association did not exist until 1924.

As the game gained popularity, an increasing number of courses were constructed, but progress was impeded by the 1930s Great Depression and the nation’s developing anti-Western sentiment in the 1930s and 1940s.

Only 23 courses had been created by the time the United States of America declared war on Japan in response to the bombing of Pearl Harbour, many of these courses having been commandeered for military use or put back into agricultural usage.

Japan began constructing courses again as post-war conditions improved, and by the middle of the 1950s, there were more courses available than ever before.

A few years later, Torakichi Nakamura and Koichi Ono won the Japan Cup (now known as the World Cup) in 1957, marking the beginning of Japan’s love affair with the sport and the country’s first professional golfer.

Over 400 courses were offered by 1964, and over 1,000 courses were offered by the early 1970s.

Over the following three decades, this trend persisted, and by 2009, over 2,400 courses were allegedly offered for golfers in Japan, ranking second only to the United States and the United Kingdom.

Hideki Matsuyama’s 2021 Masters win didn’t draw the same kind of response as earlier triumphs, although the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was still being felt at that time in Japan.

In 2023, a baseline of at least five million golfers came out to play per month with October seeing a peak of 8.91m players, while May and November also recorded more than eight million golfers.

While the numbers in Japan still look fairly positive there is some concern that Japan hasn’t benefitted from the boom in golf participation that took place in the West after pandemic restrictions were lifted.

Some markers of growth need to be interpreted in context when it comes to Japan, and it isn’t really reasonable for the nation to continue building golf courses at the same rate.

Japan’s golfers are well served for facilities, although the cost of taking part is still a significant barrier to participation for many potential players.

Japanese clubs tend to be quite buttoned up and traditional which isn’t necessarily something that will encourage younger players to take up the game.

As it stands, numbers of golfers are in a mild decline as older players are unable to continue playing and the numbers of new players taking up the game also dip.

Still with over 2000 courses and close to nine million active players, it wouldn’t be fair to say golf in Japan is in crisis.

But given the density of courses, Japanese golf could probably do more to market itself as a mecca for the game.