Fascinating history of horse racing in Japan

The first Western-style horse races in Japan have been organized in the last years of the Tokugawa shogunate(1603-1867). The very first one was held by foreign residents living in Yokohama in 1862(2nd year of the Bunkyū era). A few years later, in 1870 races were started on different locations of Tokyo, but their purpose was dedication(奉納) to Gods on regularly held festivals instead of gambling. Later on there were races at Mita breeding station(三田育種場) in 1877 (10th year of the Meji era), in a school at Shinjuku(新宿) in 1879 and on the shore of the Shinobazu lake(不忍池)in 1884. However these races did not last long.

The first Western-style horse races in Japan have been organized in the last years of the Tokugawa shogunate(幕末)


Japanese breeders started to use western breeding technologies after the Meji-restauration(明治維新), and in the same time, in order to enhance the Japanese horse population they have imported various kinds of horses from Germany, England and America.

Japanese specialists after the first Sino-Japanese war(日清戦争), and the Boxer Rebellion(北清事変)realized that the performance of their horses compared to their western counterparts is not so good. As such they have decided to make plans to improve the Japanese horse population and to be competitive with the west.

There were some officials in the Meiji cabinet, who were against the spread of gambling in Japan, but in 1905 the government has finally given its tacit approval that allowed the selling of betting tickets. This made it possible for the Tokyo Horse Racing Association to organize a four day session next to the Ikegami Honmonji temple(池上本門寺) in November 24, 1906 where betting tickets were sold. This was the first time when Japanese people held an event by themselves and the popularity of horse racing spread rapidly.

As a side effect more and more people have designated their lives to the races, and in the worst cases, lost their assets because of gambling addiction. Bad decisions made by inexperienced organizers were common and the Japanese government had to take actions.

Selling betting tickets was forbidden from the 41st year of the Meiji era(1908). And gambling on horse races, which was tacitly allowed before, came to an end after two short years.

This did not necessarily mean that the Japanese government was completely against horse races. From the following years, in order to support horse races that did not sell betting tickets, the government started to provide financial aids for the establishments that the races required and for financing the rewards. There were 15 organizations in Japan that time, which were reorganized, and 11 of them could still operate.

These measures resulted in decreased audience and the rewards were not tempting enough anymore. Horse racing in Japan indeed had hard times during these years. Nevertheless these races had been being organized for 14 years.

Fans who missed betting tickets so much, kept on complaining and they thought the reintroduction of the tickets could help to improve the Japanese horse population. Breeders, horse owners and people who had interests in the races could finally convince the government, which in 1923 (12nd year of the Taisho era) established a new law that allowed the selling of betting tickets on the following 11 locations:

  • Sapporo (札幌)
  • Hakodate (函館)
  • Fukushima (福島)
  • Niigata (新潟)
  • Nakayma (中山)
  • Tokyo (東京)
  • Yokohama (横浜)
  • Kyoto (京都)
  • Osaka (大阪)
  • Kokura (小倉)
  • Miyazaki (宮崎)

These publicly acknowledged horse racing associations, regardless of the Great Depression or the Great Kantō earthquake in 1923, operated without any significant problem. Betting tickets that allowed betting on more horses were introduced in 1931.

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The Tokyo-based Japanese Derby(日本ダービー), which was established in 1932 became a firm basis of the Japanese horse racing community. However the business model of the previously mentioned 11 associations was different, there was no unity among them and mistakes were common. Consequently the Japanese government has decided to unify the associations and reform it in an entity which provides more income to the country.

The law regarding horse racing in Japan has been significantly modified in 1936 and a unified Japanese Horse Racing Association was born. This obviously had the rights and the responsibility of the former 11 organizations. It was given a task to make a proposal to improve the Japanese horse population and to set and unify the rules (responsibilities) of modern horse racing in Japan.

Shortly after the previously mentioned measures, horse racing reached its peak before the world war. There were no races organized during the second world war. The first ones were held in Tokyo, Kyoto and on two more locations after the war from 1946.

Operation of Japanese horse racing associations was threatened by the instructions of Douglas MacArthur(General Headquarters), but Japanese people concerned could make the necessary steps to avoid any disruption.

There was a new law announced in 1948 regarding horse racing in Japan, which was based on the previous rules, but it has changed the structure of regional horse racing. From 1948 horse racing was split into two, regional and government-operated types. Horse races operated by the government could be viewed as a successor of the Japanese Horse Racing Association. Moreover they established a horse racing division in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, which had three offices opened in Tokyo.

Later on new betting forms were made available and new establishments were built to sell betting tickets. In 1952 there was a committee formed as an advisory body of the Minister of Agriculture and Forestry. This committee was responsible for the negations regarding the privatization of Japanese horse racing, which was finally approved by the government.

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Source: http://jra.jp/topics/column/etc/history2.html



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