Later this month, the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games will feature a made-in-Japan sport that few people apart from enthusiasts have even heard of — keirin.

It’s a type of race held on a steeply banked track, with nine cyclists covering around 2 kilometers at a mind-blowing pace. And although it’s one of four state-sanctioned sports in Japan where gambling is permitted — along with powerboat, motorcycle and horse racing — it has struggled to retain interest here beyond core fans.

The War on Wheels: Inside the Keirin and Japan’s Cycling Subculture, by Justin McCurry
288 pages

Yet there’s much that’s fascinating about keirin. Traditionally, riders zip around the track at up to 70 kph on old-school, hand-turned steel bikes with one gear and no brakes. Head-butting, shouldering and other forms of physical contact are permitted; spills and broken bones are common. And it’s not every rider for himself: Competitors form regional alliances and engage in complex strategies to block rivals until each burns rubber to the finish. The stakes are high: Around ¥650 billion is wagered on keirin annually, and champions can win ¥100 million at the Keirin Grand Prix held every year on Dec. 30. Meanwhile, races at Japan’s 43 velodromes are held across various classes, often multiple times per day year-round, meaning the roughly 2,300 male and female professional keirin riders compete more frequently than athletes in any other individual sport.

Although keirin is well-established overseas, and has even been an Olympic discipline since Sydney in 2000 for men and London in 2012 for women, Japan has only won a single medal at the games, with Kiyofumi Nagai getting the bronze at Beijing in 2008. Now, cycling enthusiasts in Japan are looking to Yuta Wakimoto, Yudai Nitta, Yumi Kajihara and other home-grown hopefuls to claim the spotlight at Tokyo 2020.

Justin McCurry gives a detailed look at where keirin came from, and why Japan has struggled internationally in a sport it created, in “The War on Wheels: Inside the Keirin and Japan’s Cycling Subculture,” released by Pegasus Books on June 1. It’s an absorbing, in-depth analysis written by a passionate convert who doesn’t shy away from noting the sport’s controversies.

To understand them, it’s important to acknowledge keirin’s early days. The word “keirin” is formed of kanji meaning “compete” and “wheel.” Organized track races began in 1948 in Kitakyushu, Fukuoka Prefecture, then known as Kokura, an industrial port city and naval base that suffered massive firebombing — and nearly an atomic attack — during World War II. Mayor Ryosuke Hamada championed the construction of a velodrome for gambling on bike races as a means to raise funds for reconstruction and raise morale among the city’s war-weary residents. The first race drew around 55,000 spectators whose total bets were nearly ¥20 million, a staggering sum in those days. But not everyone was a fan.

“For all its popularity with punters, wider Japanese society viewed keirin with less enthusiasm than the working men of Kokura,” McCurry writes. “For some, the very idea of betting on any activity was an open invitation for crime syndicates looking to make easy money at the velodrome.”

Even as keirin enjoyed surging interest in the decades after the war, with velodromes erected across Japan, there were episodes of violence and yakuza involvement, as well as a major pushback by those who viewed it, along with other forms of betting, as an additional tax on the poor. The most successful of these was Tokyo’s socialist governor Ryokichi Minobe, who ended government sponsorship of racing, leading to the closure of Korakuen Velodrome in Bunkyo Ward.

The moral panic has never quite gone away. Although a small fraction of keirin revenues — about 1% — go toward social welfare projects, “even those who earn a living and derive huge enjoyment from keirin feel compelled to practically apologize for its existence,” McCurry writes. He traveled to velodromes across the country, many of which are aging facilities with declining attendance, a reflection of Japan’s demographic freefall. The spectators themselves are mostly elderly, retired or unemployed men, and they won’t hesitate to shout abuse at keirin riders who turn their bets into losses.

However, McCurry’s love of the sport comes through on nearly every page, whether he’s dissecting race strategy, interviewing famed rider Koichi Nakano or master bike builder Yoshiaki Nagasawa, or observing the spartan regime at the Japan Institute of Keirin, where cyclists train 15 hours a day for 11 months.

As the Tokyo correspondent for the Guardian, McCurry cycles nearly everywhere for work, and even does a few laps at velodromes when he’s offered the chance. One of his prized possessions is a secondhand Nagasawa frame.

“I’ve been on a bike just about every day since I came to Japan (in 1991), and that was a long time ago,” McCurry says with a laugh. “Before this book, I’d known a little bit about keirin but I was never a keirin obsessive like I am now.”

Author Justin McCurry
Author Justin McCurry

That passion has produced a comprehensive account of the sport that’s not targeted at bike aficionados — it’s accessible to outsiders and includes unflattering aspects. There’s gambling addiction, objectification of female keirin athletes in promotional material, and a BBC investigation showing that the Japan Keirin Autorace foundation bought its way into the Olympics in the 1990s with a $3 million payment to the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI); the UCI denied any wrongdoing. While the result raised the sport’s prestige, it didn’t translate into victories for Japan.

McCurry also explains how Japanese keirin riders are too focused on winning at home to devote serious attention to Olympic keirin, where tracks are shorter, modern carbon bikes are used and there are no regional alliances. That focus on domestic races is one thing that makes keirin unique. Another is the longevity of its athletes.

“It’s not so much a sport as a career,” he says. “You’ve got guys who might become a professional at the age of 20 but you’ve also got guys in the bottom ranks who are in their 50s and even early 60s. It’s not like the Tour de France where you’ve got to be as fit as a flea and probably burn out in your early 30s. Because it’s about a concentrated period of power in terms of sprinting, a lot of guys, if they look after themselves well and have the physical attributes, can keep going. Even though some have pot bellies and they smoke and eat and drink too much.”

Keirin still generates hundreds of billions of yen in revenue annually, and receipts have been rising lately, but it has to change to survive. This is already happening with the return of female keirin in 2012 after a decades-long hiatus; the advent of Keirin Evolution, a variation of the races in which carbon bikes — not steel — are used; and riders from overseas. Though they are only licensed to compete for a few months at a time in Japan, many international athletes find it a refreshing back-to-basics experience.

“There’s a lot of love for the steel bikes that haven’t changed much in half a century,” McCurry says. “I think the presence of (non-Japanese) coaches at the Keirin school has helped change attitudes toward Olympic keirin. It’s now taken more seriously. If one of the Japanese wins a medal this year, it might put the focus back on this Japanese sport.”

Even if readers aren’t gamblers or cycling fanatics, “The War on Wheels” is an engrossing portrait of a uniquely Japanese competition that’s like a microcosm of postwar Japanese society and all its attendant glories, challenges and ills. And it’s a sure bet they’ll pick up new insights into Japan, too.

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