In 1903 a group of British expatriates established the first golf club in Japan, in Kobe. In 1913, the Tokyo Golf club at Komazawa was established for and by native Japanese who had encountered golf in the United States. In 1924 The Japan Golf Association was established by the seven clubs then in existence. During the 1920s and early 1930s, several new courses were built, however, the great depression and the rise of fascism meant increasing anti-Western sentiment limited the growth of the game. By 1941, the number of courses had risen to twenty-three. During the subsequent war, most of the courses were requisitioned for military use or returned to agricultural production.
As post-war economies recovered, Asia embraced golf and in Japan, you can find half of all golf courses in Asia. In its economic heyday in the 1980s, Japan built up thousands of courses and the game became baked into its business culture. And with this, the Japanese looked further afield to share their love. 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. However, as all good things inevitably come to pass, those days are long in the past now.
Golf participation in Japan, according to the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper, has dropped by 40 percent since 1996. Private courses, which make up about 90 percent of Japan’s courses, and their hefty membership and initiation fees, are starting to disappear. Back in the 1980s, when golf was booming Japanese clubs often required a deposit of $400,000 or more for membership. The deposit was supposed to be returned after a decade. But when the Japanese economy contracted after 1989, a lot of private golf courses were unable to honor their commitment. Since then, dozens of courses have been bought out; others have been redeveloped.
Even with these changes to the player base, one thing remains constant; golf is as deeply embedded in Japanese culture as green tea and baseball. There have been thousands of fads and trends in Japan involving foreign culture, but golf has weathered a full century of tremendous social change to still reign as a dominant sport, and it is still the ground where deals are struck and relationships fostered. Diplomacy between President Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe often includes playing 18 holes together. Trump and Abe played golf in Florida in February.
If you’re keen to get out on the “dance floor” and avoid a “dog track”, as a concierge at a five-star hotel in Hiroshima I often refer visiting guests to:
Higashi Hiroshima Country Club
Fees: 8,291 per person includes lunch. Club rental 2300 yen
Shiwacho Shiwahigashi, Higashihiroshima, Hiroshima 739-0262 (map link)