Japan Has Half Of Asia's Golf Courses, But The Game's Popularity There Is Flagging

Nov 16, 2017
Originally published on November 18, 2017 12:52 am

Golf has played an outsize role in the relationship between the U.S. and Japan lately, as diplomacy between President Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe often includes playing 18 holes together. But in Japan, where you can find half of all the golf courses in Asia, the industry is flagging.

America still has the largest golf industry in the world, by a long shot. But in Japan's economic heyday in the 1980s, it built up thousands of courses and the game became baked into its business culture.

Those days are over. Golf participation in Japan — a measure of the number of people nationwide who play golf — has dropped by 40 percent since 1996, according to the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper.

Private courses — which make up about 90 percent of Japan's courses — are starting to disappear.

They require hefty membership and initiation fees. Back in the 1980s, when golf was booming, Japanese clubs regularly required a deposit of $400,000 or more for a membership, according to industry analysts at Rakuten, the Japanese Internet giant.

The deposit was supposed to be returned after a decade. But when the Japanese economy went bust after 1989, many private golf courses were unable to honor their commitment. Since then, dozens of courses have been bought out; others have been redeveloped, and some have closed down entirely.

"They're just abandoned," says Tomita Shoko, who covers the golf industry for the Tokyo Kezai, Japan's oldest business magazine.

Not only did the membership model falter, she says, but the old business culture changed, too.

During the Japanese economic bubble, it was very common for companies to do what they called seitai golfu — golf as informal business negotiations, Shoko says.

"But when the bubble burst in '89 and the Japanese economy did not recover, businesses decided it wasn't worth spending the money on that kind of golfing," Shoko says, "and it hurt the golf industry overall."

The industry is hoping it can attract another generation of players to keep its fortunes in the green. Golf is now back as an Olympic sport for the second time in the past 100 years — just in time for the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo.

Meanwhile, Japanese golf courses are trying various tactics to keep from closing. Because Japanese people are golfing less, many courses are trying to branch out to attract non-Japanese players — including tourists from other parts of the world. There's also a perception problem: It's seen as "your dad's" sport, leading to some trouble attracting younger golfers.

The Musashigaoka Golf Course, about an hour outside Tokyo, has managed to stay successful in part because it's a public course instead of a membership-only private club.

And Musashigaoka is among many courses that are relaxing strict golf etiquette. It has loosened its rules on socks. Golf courses in Japan don't just require collared shirts for men and women, but blazers, too. Rules for timely play and behavior are tight.

"There was a time in Japan when you had to have long socks to play. Men and women had to have long socks when they were playing on the course, if they were playing in shorts," says Takashi Yanaoka, president of the Musashigaoka course. "But those rules have relaxed and now people can have short socks."

To stay relevant, some courses are now branding themselves as "American-style" — where players can wear whatever they want or linger on the greens.

Yanaoka says his course hasn't gone quite that far.

"When I think about people showing up on the course in a tank top and sandals, I'm just not sure that's how we roll in Japan," Yanaoka says. "If you really want to wear sandals and a tank top, go surfing."

NPR producer Becky Sullivan and Tokyo journalist Jake Adelstein contributed to this story.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ELISE HU, HOST:

Golf has played an outsized role in the relationship between the U.S. and Japan. President Trump and the Japanese prime minister both love the game, so diplomacy between them has meant playing nine holes. During his trip to Asia last week, the two leaders teed off with the No. 4 ranked player in the world, Hideki Matsuyama. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe joked that the guys didn't keep score.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER SHINZO ABE: (Through interpreter) Indeed, the match was a neck-and-neck competition, in my opinion.

HU: America still has the largest golf industry in the world by a long shot. But if you want to play golf in Asia, Japan's got you covered. Half of all golf courses on the continent are in Japan. Japanese golfers regularly make it big on the world stage, and golf's back as an Olympic sport for just the second time in a hundred years, just in time for the 2020 Games in Tokyo. But private golf courses here are struggling. An hour outside Tokyo at the Musashigaoka Golf Course, which is public, players tee off in seven-minute intervals. Business is brisk in the fall. Course director Takashi Yanaoka showed us around.

So what percentage of your available tee times would you say are booked on a regular basis?

TAKASHI YANAOKA: (Through interpreter) Of course when it's really hot or it's really cold we have a drop-off in customers. But when you put it all together we have about a 90 percent reservation rate, which is very good.

HU: Golf participation in Japan has dropped 40 percent since 1996. Musashigaoka has managed to stay successful in part because it's not a membership-only club.

Are we all going to fit?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Let's just squeeze in.

HU: Yeah.

Speeding around in a golf cart, this certainly looks luxurious. This is a pro-level golf course. It hosted a women's pro league tournament just a few days before we visited. But anyone can get a tee time for the starting price of $190.

I feel like I should be doing a golf whisper because we're surrounded by rolling hills, green as far as the eye can see, trees in fall colors meeting the horizon. It's gorgeous out here.

And there are players at every hole. In Japan, it's the more expensive private courses that are starting to disappear. They require hefty membership and initiation fees. Back in the '80s when golf was booming, Japanese clubs regularly charge - Japanese clubs regularly charged a deposit of $400,000 or more for a membership. The deposit was supposed to be returned after a decade, but the Japanese economy went bust in the 1990s, and many private golf courses were unable to return the deposits. Some have been bought out. Others redeveloped. Some closed down entirely.

TOMITA SHOKO: (Speaking Japanese).

HU: "They're just abandoned," Tomita Shoko tells us. She covers the golf industry for the Tokyo Keizai, Japan's oldest business magazine. Not only did the membership model start flagging, she says the old '80s business culture changed, too.

SHOKO: (Through interpreter) During the Japanese economic bubble it was very common for companies to do what they called seitai golfu, golf as informal business negotiations. But when the bubble burst and the Japanese economy did not recover, businesses decided it wasn't worth spending the money on that kind of golfing, and it hurt the golf industry overall.

HU: Shoko says Japanese golf courses are trying out a lot of things to keep from closing. Because Japanese people are golfing less and less, many courses are trying to branch out to attract non-Japanese players, tourists from other parts of the world.

And which hole is this?

YANAOKA: (Through interpreter) This the 17th hole.

HU: Here at the Musashigaoka Golf Course, we're too far from the airport for that. This course decided to cater to a certain set called active seniors and women golfers. They've remodeled the clubhouse. The customer service is outstanding. And to attract the next generation, people under 21 years old can golf for free. And this golf course is among the many that are relaxing strict golf etiquette. Traditionally, collared shirts and a jacket have been required. Rules for timely play and behavior were tight. To stay relevant, some courses are now branding themselves as American style, where players can wear whatever they want or linger on the greens. Course director Takashi Yanaoka says he's not ready to go quite that far.

YANAOKA: (Through interpreter) There was a time in Japan when you had to have long socks to play. Men and women had to have long socks when they were playing on the course if they were playing in shorts. But those rules have relaxed, and now people can have short socks. And even while they're relaxed, when I think about having people show up on the course in a tank top and sandals I'm just not sure that's how we roll in Japan.

HU: OK, so you're not going to get that relaxed.

YANAOKA: (Through interpreter) Yes, we're probably not going to relax our standards that much. If you really want to wear sandals and a tank top, go surfing.

HU: (Laughter).

Japanese golf courses are doing a lot to stay in the green, but so far they're unwilling to become a completely different sport.

(SOUNDBITE OF BONUS POINTS' "HAMMOCK DAYS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.