During the summer months in Japan, parks, baseball grounds and school yards come alive with the grimaces, grins, grunts and cries of triumph or dismay from people of advanced years who gather together to toss big metal balls at a little wooden one.
The game of petanque, or petanku as it is known in Japanese, originated in Provence, southern France, and boasts an estimated 400,000 players in Japan. That’s nothing compared with the 17 million French folk who play it, but even in Japan it is still a popular pastime.
The game is played by throwing steel balls, or boules, measuring 71-80 mm in diameter and weighing 650-800 grams, as close as possible to a small wooden jack that the French endearingly call a cochonet (little pig). Battle is normally joined on a hard dirt or gravel area at least 15 meters long and 4 meters wide. Matches — whether between individuals or teams of two or three — are divided into rounds, with points scored for each boule that is nearer to the jack than the opponent’s nearest boule.
It all sounds simple and straightforward — but petanque reality is anything but.
Weapon of mass destruction
To begin with, there are plenty of tactics that might be regarded as a little less than sporting. For instance, the mark of a good player is their ability to “spot” another’s boule. In practice this means hurling your ball like a smart missile to hit an opponent’s and blast it out of contention. Then there’s the weapon-of-mass-destruction approach, where a player just attacks a mass of balls clustered round the cochonet to cause as much mayhem as possible and hope their ball ends up scoring.
To complement such behavior, petanque has a way of bringing out the sardonic, the sarcastic and the gloating side of even the most seemingly well-adjusted of players.
Despite — or perhaps because of — such aspects of the game, petanque in Japan has been an increasingly popular pastime since the late 1960s. Back then, the popular actor Juzo Itami asked leisure consultant Masaru Yamazaki to promote the summer game he had fallen in love with during a trip to France.
“Nobody had ever heard of it at that time,” says Yamazaki, speaking at the headquarters of the Federation Japonaise de la Petanque (FJP) in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward, where he now works part-time as an adviser.
“The education ministry, which also looks after sports, refused to recognize it as a sport, and the three staff working with me on the project all gave up on it. But I believed in it, and I spent years traveling around Japan with sets of boules telling people it was a great pastime until it finally caught on.”
Yamasaki founded the Japan Bonboru Federation in 1970 (the proper name was deemed too opaque), and that became the FJP in 1983. In a nation with the world’s most rapidly aging population, promoting outdoor activities suitable for seniors is important, and Yamazaki found plenty of interested parties at senior citizens’ clubs across the nation.
Finally, it was at the Nenrinpikku (Senior Olympics) held in Yamanashi Prefecture in 1988 that petanku got its big break. Its popularity there persuaded bureaucrats to accord it official status, and today the FJP boasts 7,000 paid-up members, 47 branch offices and more than 100 tournaments a year.
The average age of FJP members is 60, and the game’s surging popularity follows it having caught on as an alternative to getoboru (a homegrown version of croquet) as the game of choice at senior citizens’ clubs.
“People say that getoboru can get very bitchy,” says Yamasaki. “Petanku feels a lot more active, you’re not hunched over, and there’s a lot more skill to it.”
Yoshii Komori of the Chiba Prefecture branch, says half of his members are over 60, and the youngest is 40. Komori, 59, was introduced to the sport by a friend who saw a demonstration event. Now fifth in the FJP rankings, he says the game is a great way to interact with people in a convivial ambience — and there is “much more to it than meets the eye.”
Although the French Embassy lent its support to the FJP in its infancy, that connection has since waned. Only a few players in Japan have ever visited France, and the federation has only one French member — an expatriate businessman named Bernard.
But as petanku grows in popularity in Japan, ties back to France are strengthening. A delegation of five players from Japan just finished competing in the annual World Petanque Tournament at Millau Aveyron in central France, which was held from Aug. 11-15 and was attended by over 13,000 enthusiasts.
In October, petanque’s most celebrated star player, a 53-year-old Parisian named Marco Foyot, will visit Japan for a series of exhibition matches. It is a visit that he, Yamazaki and the FJP hope will help to keep the ball rolling and lead to Japanese players one day rivaling the French at their own game.