Japan—land of flower-arranging, sumo wrestlers, geisha girls, the tea ceremony, motorboat racing....
Motorboat racing? Few gaijin—foreigners—realize it, and Japanese traditionalists hate to admit it, but Japan's most heavily attended spectator sport is motorboat racing. In fact, Japan is the only country in the world where professional speedboat drivers compete on a daily basis—and with pari-mutuel betting to boot. Last year, the sport attracted 34.4 million spectators who wagered more than $4 billion at the country's 24 racing sites, which are located in or near virtually every major city on three of the four main islands. (The exception is the northernmost island, Hokkaido, where the winters and waters are just too cold for water sports.)
Strangely, foreign tourists are virtually unaware of the sport's existence, and even Japanese-language general press, television and radio coverage is nonexistent. The aura of mystery surrounding the sport may, in fact, heighten the public's interest.
The conundrum at the core of Japanese motorboat racing is Ryoichi Sasakawa, an extremely wealthy entrepreneur who is fond of making spectacular donations and gestures: He donated $500,000 worth of fireworks set off during the closing ceremony of the Los Angeles Olympics. Sasakawa, now 86, made his fortune after World War II in motorboat racing and shipbuilding—in that order. He says he got the idea of racing hydroplanes from a picture in LIFE magazine. In 1952, Sasakawa obtained the exclusive franchise to establish racecourses throughout Japan, and the sport was launched. He founded the Federation of Prefectural Associations of Motor Boat Racing and in 1955 named himself president—in effect, for life, though he must be reelected every three years. Through this organization, Sasakawa controls every aspect of racing, from the design and construction of the equipment to the training and professional management of the racers to the formulation of regulations.
The racing craft, manufactured by the Yamato Company, are identical in every respect. Each hydroplane weighs 147.4 pounds and draws 12 inches; the hull, made of wood, measures 7'4". The engine is a Yamato Model 101, a two-cycle, 398-cc, 30-horsepower outboard. Minimizing variations in mechanical performance means that the only relevant factor for bettors to consider is the skill of the driver.
There is only one way to become a professional motorboat racer in Japan. The federation, the sole franchising authority for the sport, recruits and trains drivers and sanctions them for competition. Only federation racers, about 6% of whom are women, may even enter a boat. An aspiring driver must be between 17 and 23 years old, weigh less than 121 pounds, be no taller than 5'6" and have a high school diploma. Those who qualify must pass a series of examinations to be accepted for training.
The training center is located on the shore of Lake Motosu at the foot of Mount Fuji. Its motto, loosely translated, is "Strictness in training, cheerfulness in livelihood." During the two annual acceptance periods, in April and October, competition is extremely keen. This April, 1,000 men and women applied; 30 were accepted—but, says a federation official, Tsutomu Fujikawa, "Ten will certainly be eliminated before graduation by the hard training."
Trainees learn more than merely how to handle a boat: They have to submit to intense regimentation. For example, they must wear uniforms and participate in daily flag-raising and -lowering ceremonies. Reveille is at 6 a.m., lights-out is at 9:30 p.m. (trainees sleep 10 per dormitory room), and baths may be taken only between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. After a year of this rigorous existence, relieved by two eight-day vacations, the trainees graduate, in March and September, and can begin their professional life of touring from racecourse to racecourse.
Most courses hold races 180 days a year, in series of four to six consecutive days; at 10 races per day, this adds up to roughly 900 meets, 4,000 race days and 40,000 races a year. The racecourses are built and owned by various private and public consortia, but they are operated by municipalities looking for additional revenue.
One typical racecourse is Heiwajima—the name means Island of Peace—built on reclaimed land in south Tokyo. It is just a 25-minute cab ride from downtown and can also be reached by train or bus. General admission is only about 20�, and a spot in an enclosed reserved-seat section costs about $5.