Some sports are specific to certain regions and thus gain a cultural cachet that those regions exploit. Ban’ei keiba, a form of racing that features large draft horses pulling heavy sleds over a straight course, is unique to Hokkaido, a by-product of agricultural life there since the island was opened to development in the 19th century.

With the possible exception of its central role in the award-winning 2005 feature film “What the Snow Brings,” ban’ei racing has attracted little attention outside of Hokkaido, and even within the prefecture its star has been fading. Once there were ban’ei race tracks in four cities, but now the only one active is in Obihiro. Since the pandemic started, however, the sport’s popularity has increased considerably, especially among people who like to gamble.

Last month, ban’ei racing received attention when a video of an April 18 test race was shared widely on the internet. Test races are held to find out if new horses can advance to official races, and this one was broadcast live online as a promotional event. During the race, a 2-year-old female had trouble making it over one of the two 1.6-meter high sand-covered mounds on the 200-meter course. The filly’s forelegs sank into the sand and she stopped moving, so the jockey, who normally stands on the sled and urges the horse on, got off and kicked her in the face twice in an attempt to get her to move.

According to Tokyo Shimbun, the local organization promoting the race received more than 250 complaints criticizing the jockey’s actions, which many said amounted to animal abuse. A representative of the local government said the jockey had been temporarily suspended and would receive more “instruction.” Tokyo Shimbun reported that one internet commenter explained that horses that get stuck in the sand must be raised up quickly, otherwise sand particles can get stuck in their nostrils and cause breathing problems, but a livestock veterinarian, Yasuo Nambo of the Obihiro University of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine, told the newspaper that this was no reason to kick the horse, implying that the jockey’s actions had more to do with frustration than concern for the animal’s well-being.

To many viewers the video made plain an aspect of ban’ei racing that animal welfare groups have always talked about, which is that the sport has abuse built into it. The horses are forced to pull 450 kilograms of dead weight by jockeys who continuously whip them. As a counterpoint, Tokyo Shimbun quotes a racing writer who says that the whipping is not abuse but rather a “signal” to the horse.

When compared to other sports involving animals, ban’ei racing may not be as abusive as, say, bullfighting, which involves the torture and, in almost all cases, death of an animal. In recent decades, more regions that once were famous for bullfighting, even in Spain, have banned the sport, the idea being that culture is not monolithic and must change with the times.

Tokyo Shimbun says that complaints of animal abuse tend to follow the sport of horse racing. However, the newspaper doesn’t mention that these complaints rarely get exposure in the media. Even Tokyo Shimbun probably wouldn’t have covered this particular incident if video of the race hadn’t been broadcast live and provoked a nationwide reaction.

Last January, Tokyo Shimbun profiled Katsuhiko Sumii, a former horse trainer with the Japan Racing Association who promotes the use of retired thoroughbreds for therapeutic purposes. The article highlights Sumii’s evolution from stable boy to award-winning trainer in order to elucidate his determination to give something back to the horses he tried to make into champions. He always worried about the fate of those that did not become top racers or studs or breeder horses. In the racing industry, interest in horses is limited to their productivity, and once an animal stops being productive everyone becomes “numb” to its existence, as he put it. Even Sumii says he doesn’t know what happens to the horses afterward, a startling admission from a professional horse trainer.

Sumii’s admission was also frustrating to read in a newspaper, since the reporter didn’t follow it up by explaining what actually does happen to unproductive or retired horses, which isn’t a secret. Almost all are killed, sold for meat or other materials, because, even as the article points out, it is very expensive to keep a horse. But Japanese media rarely go that far when reporting on animal welfare issues. The two-part feature simply proceeds to describe Sumii’s crowdfunding activities and how horse therapy works. But it also says that around 7,400 thoroughbreds are born in Japan every year, and that very few end up as competitive race horses. What happens to the rest is left to the imagination.

At the opposite end of Japan, in Okinawa, another animal-related sport, cockfighting, enjoys a similar if less celebrated cultural status, except that the roosters used for cockfighting are essentially raised to kill other birds. One woman, Kyoko Honda, has received attention in some media for taking in maimed roosters that have been discarded after becoming useless for fighting purposes.

Japan has animal protection laws, but authorities in Okinawa seem to look the other way when it comes to cockfighting, which is banned explicitly in only five prefectures. Honda’s latest petition to outlaw the sport has just been accepted for review by the Okinawa prefectural government and endorsed by the city of Itoman, which previously rejected the petition owing to general ignorance about cockfighting in the city. But as she explained in an email to this column, Honda has had less success in attracting media attention to her efforts, and there’s little chance a viral video like the one that inadvertently brought attention to the cruelties of ban’ei racing will emerge to spotlight the cruelties of cockfighting.

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