The players kneel at the ready, six to a side, staring down their opponents from across a verdant field.
At the center line are four balls — three slightly deflated dodgeballs known as “bludgers” and a volleyball referred to as a “quaffle.”
Behind each mixed-gender team stands a set of three raised hoops. Between each player’s legs sits a meter-long length of plastic pipe referred to as the broom.
When the referee blows their whistle, the scene will explode into a frantic display of athleticism known as competitive quidditch.
Combining elements of handball, dodgeball and rugby, the sport — which, yes, is inspired by the fictional game played by wizards in J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” universe — was first played in 2005 at Vermont’s Middlebury College.
After gaining popularity on college campuses across the United States, quidditch expanded globally — the International Quidditch Association, which oversees tournaments such as the IQA World Cup, consists of almost 40 member countries that in turn sanction hundreds of local teams.
In Asia, quidditch has become a social hub for both local and foreign residents. Whatever has brought them to the pitch, they have found the same thing — a welcoming, inclusive and quirky community.
Beaters, chasers and a quaffle
It’s 10:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning in May, and a pile of brooms belonging to Edo Quidditch have already been warmed by the sun when the bulk of the group arrives at a park in eastern Tokyo’s Edogawa Ward.
Over half of the players are wearing uniforms of the club’s top team, the Kaminari Monsters, which bear a Godzilla-inspired design on the front and a torii gate on the back. Others, such as a trio of Israeli backpackers who learned of the weekly meetup from a couch-surfing host, are mostly dressed for a workout.
Organizer Camila Guadalupe Cortea launched Edo Quidditch after seeing the sport depicted in the 2013 Google-inspired comedy “The Internship,” but was surprised to find serious interest from the non-Japanese community.
“Quidditch is the game for millennials, that’s why I am so keen on it,” the Argentinean says. “There are so many roles that it doesn’t matter if you’re tall or (short), if you’re fast (or slow), or if you’re just sturdy and can tackle. There’s always one role for you.”
Team captain Stephen Lilico leads the group through warmup drills, followed by a seminar on how to tackle — and be tackled. A five-year quidditch veteran who discovered the sport as a university student back in England, he’s tasked with preparing the Monsters for the Asia-Pacific Quidditch Cup, which is set to take place in Incheon, South Korea, on July 27 and 28.
“You have this rich depth of real athletic engagement with quick passing and maneuvering and the occasional big physical tackles, but also real tactical depth,” Lilico says.
With the attacking “chasers” trying to throw the quaffle through a hoop for 10 points, the defending “beaters” attempting to tag chasers out with a bludger and the “keepers” protecting the hoops, there’s already plenty of room for strategy. That’s before a fourth position — the “seeker” — comes into play after 18 minutes.
Their mission is to chase the “snitch,” the flying golden ball in the “Harry Potter” series that is depicted in real life by a neutral player dressed in yellow known as the “snitch runner.” The snitch itself — basically a tennis ball in a sock — is attached to the back of the player’s shorts. Should a seeker manage to grab the snitch, it’s worth 30 points and marks the end of the game.
The variety of roles accommodates both players with athletic backgrounds — rugby and soccer being the most common — as well as those who would rather have read “The Chamber of Secrets” than participate in gym class.
“One of the things about (the stereotype of) nerds not really being into sports is that a lot of sports feel really inaccessible to nerds in some way,” says Lilico. “I think a lot of people would enjoy sport more if they weren’t destroyed by it when they were small children and made to feel bad.”
As players come and go, Lilico seeks to create an environment in which both competitive and casual players can get something out of the game.
“Whether it’s finding that (a certain) formation worked well, picking out individual plays that worked (or) noticing your own personal improvement,” Lilico says that focusing on “small victories” are what makes the sport feel worthwhile. “(For example) people who were previously a bit shy about tackling, saying, ‘I made a big tackle on that guy and it was great.'”
Progress in sport
One of quidditch’s strongest draws is its progressive attitude toward gender and the LGBTQ community, which has garnered the sport positive coverage in outlets such as Vice and the Huffington Post.
The IQA requires that teams field no more than four players identifying as the same gender, a rule that encourages transgender and nonbinary players to participate.
Nor are positions restricted by gender, a significant appeal for players like Cortea.
“I’m female, and I love that even though it’s a contact sport, I get to play with the guys,” she says. “When I was a child in Argentina the boys would always play soccer among themselves, and they would only let me play when they were shorthanded.
“Here I get to be a part of the team. It doesn’t matter if I’m female, or how I identify. It matters what I can do in the game. I’m really happy that quidditch is inclusive in a way that we can play, female, male (and) nonbinary, all together.”
As professional sports struggle with the role of gender — perhaps best exemplified by South African runner Caster Semenya’s ongoing legal battle over demands by track and field’s governing body that she take drugs to suppress her naturally elevated testosterone levels — quidditch offers participants a more welcoming path.
“There’s a certain aspect to quidditch that makes the group more open-minded and less trapped in toxic masculinity,” says Kang Hyun-ku, a member of Seoul National University’s Seoul Puffskeins and executive director of the Asia-Pacific Cup.
“I tell (potential recruits that) putting a broom between your thighs doesn’t compromise your masculinity. In fact, compared to other (sports) it’s the most wholesome community I’ve seen.”
In Asia, where LGBTQ acceptance has lagged behind North America and Europe, Kang thinks local teams can do more to match their international brethren in terms of outreach. Still, there is progress — Edo Quidditch has been in talks with Tokyo-area LGBTQ groups, while the Vietnam Quidditch Association has participated in local pride festivals.
It’s surely one of many subjects that will be discussed when the Asia-Pacific Quidditch Cup’s 10 teams gather in Incheon. The Kaminari Monsters are one of four teams coming from Japan, with others hailing from Malaysia, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Australia.
Beyond his personal goal of two wins in the group stage, Lilico hopes the Monsters will use the competition to gain an appreciation for the sport’s growing global community.
“I want everyone to come and have fun and get a real flavor for what quidditch is in the broader community and see what it’s like outside Japan,” he says. “I’d like everyone to get engaged and have fun all the way through, even though there may be players who aren’t used to playing (competitive) sport. … (And) for people to discover things they can do that they didn’t know they could do before. For them to feel like we’ve got this community and family, and that we can be together.”
The terms and teams of a wizard’s sport
British author J.K. Rowling published the first installment of her “Harry Potter” series in 1997. It was titled “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” and it’s where she first introduced the fictional sport of quidditch played by wizards. Fans have now brought the sport to life, so here’s a list of terms you should know when you check out a match in Japan.
- Chaser: Each team has three chasers. They score goals by throwing or kicking quaffles through hoops.
- Beater: Two to a team, the beaters throw bludgers to distract their opponents.
- Keeper: Much like other sports, the one keeper on the team acts like a goalie trying to prevent chasers on the opposite team from scoring.
- Seeker: The team’s sole seeker tries to catch the snitch, which is worth 30 points if they succeed. Catching the snitch also ends the game.
- Snitch runner: The neutral snitch runner carries the snitch and tries to avoid both teams’ seekers.
- Quaffle: A volleyball that’s used by chasers to score points.
- Bludger: A slightly deflated dodgeball used by the beaters that is thrown at other players. Players hit with a bludger must drop any balls they’re carrying, dismount from their broom and head back to their team’s hoops to remount.
- Snitch: A tennis ball in a sock attached to the shorts of the snitch runner. It is released in the 18th minute of the game and is worth 30 points if caught by a seeker.
- Hoop: Each team has a set of three raised hoops on their side of the field. Teams receive 10 points for each quaffle thrown through one of the opposing team’s hoops.
- Broom: In “Harry Potter” they’re used for flying, but until we get that technology they’re used for authenticity. Players are required to keep the broom between their legs throughout the game.
- Azabu Stirring: Founded this year by players who work in the ritzy Azabu-Juban area of Tokyo, Stirring has set an ambitious goal of producing players able to represent Japan at the Quidditch World Cup.
- Kaminari Monsters: Formed by bilingual expats and open to players of any nationality, the Monsters train weekly in Kasai (rain or shine) and have organized tournaments featuring visiting overseas teams.
- Katayaburi Quidditch: Katayaburi is operated by the V-Sports Project, a group promoting alternative team sports such as quidditch, netball and ultimate frisbee.
- Tokyo Penguins: Japan’s first team and inaugural All-Japan Quidditch Tournament winners, the Penguins’ mascot represents the “first penguin” — courageous risk takers who don’t shy away from a challenge.