U.S.-style surfing first came to Japan in the 1960s but, as far back as the 1820s, there are records of children riding waves with wooden boards known as itago. Later, in the 1930s, the chic and wealthy of Kanagawa Prefecture rode waves with what resembled very short surfboards. However, it wasn’t until U.S. soldiers came to Kanagawa’s Shonan coast that the Japanese got their first look at the genuine article.
The Americans, with their colorful longboards, were a revelation to the Japanese and from here the sport rapidly caught on. In 1966, the same year that The Beach Boys came out with “Good Vibrations,” Japan held its first surfing competition on a beach in Kamogawa, Chiba Prefecture, with 99 participants, all of whom were Japanese. Five decades and four years later, the nation will host the world’s first Olympic surfing competition in Ichinomiya, again in Chiba.
Ichinomiya is one of the area’s most popular beaches and is part of the Kujukuri coastline (meaning 99 ri, equivalent to 388 kilometers). Within this extended coastline, there is a 66-kilometer stretch of gorgeous beaches that has attracted surfers for decades. Avid surfer Takuya Kimura (formerly of J-pop act SMAP) is frequently witnessed among the waves here, as is U.S. celebrity surfer and musician Donavon Frankenreiter.
Japanese professional surfers head out to Chiba (or to the Oarai coast in Ibaraki Prefecture) when training in the Kanto area. Unlike Shonan, the Kujukuri coast promises more consistent waves, though these still pale in comparison to the behemoth waves of North Shore, Hawaii or Big Sur, California, in the U.S.
And, compared to the U.S., the pro-scene in Japan is minute, hindered by three factors: the absence of truly big waves, almost zero international notoriety and a dismally underrated market. There are an estimated 2 million surfers in Japan, a number that sounds sizable until you learn that the golfing population is over 9 million.
And, unlike golfers, surfers can’t rely on controlled conditions. They need to find a beach with consistent, rolling waves, something that can be incredibly difficult to come across. The famed Inamura Classic competition in Kanagawa had been cancelled every year from 1983 to 2013 due to a lack of waves.
There’s also the problem of income. The best professional surfers in the U.S. are said to pull in around $400,000 to $500,000 a year from competitions alone, supplemented by additional bonus dollars from endorsements.
At the other end of the spectrum, top-tier Japanese surfers can count on a measly ¥2 million to ¥3 million ($28,000) a year, provided they perform well in every competition and can snag sponsorship to cover travel and equipment costs.
As for female surfers, their income comes to about half that of their male counterparts, which goes a long way to explain their relative scarcity: 99 female professionals are registered to the Japan Professional Surfers Association, compared to 286 male professionals.
Kujukuri is gearing up for the Olympics and expects a boom for Japanese surfing culture. In an effort to promote the sport and attract serious surfers, the town is offering cheap housing to rent (the average going rate for a 25-square-meter apartment is ¥35,000 per month) and free parking to local residents in the lots along the beaches.
For now though, a deep love of the ocean and the thrill of wave riding are the mainstays of Japanese surfing culture.