The 11th World Gateball Championship, organized by the World Gateball Union, was held at the Niigata City Athletic Stadium in Niigata Prefecture from September 26–28, 2014. This article looks at the championship and recent developments in the world of gateball, which has become a sport for people of different nationalities and ages.
The 2014 World Gateball Championship was held in Japan, marking the first time in 12 years for the sport’s home country to host the competition. During the two days of the event, 700 “gateballers” from the 96 teams that had made it through the qualifying rounds took part in hotly contested matches. China’s Shanxi Linfen team from Shanxi Province took first place, followed by Josho Kiryu of Japan in second place, and TPE Hsinchu County of Chinese Taipei and China’s Shanghai Gaodong tied for third.
At the opening ceremony, Kiyoko Ono, chairperson of the World Gateball Union, underlined gateball’s growing status as a sport enjoyed around the globe. “The world championship, which started out as a competition among 6 countries and regions, this year brings together 20 countries and regions. Today there are 12 million gateballers in 45 countries and regions, with South Africa the most recent addition. Sixty-seven years after its birth in Japan, gateball is now played across five continents.”
The Growing Circle of Gateballers
Gateball was invented in Hokkaido in 1947 by Washin Suzuki based on the rules of the traditional European mallet game, croquet. Suzuki envisioned gateball as a game for children, but it went unnoticed in the aftermath of World War II through the 1950s. In the 1960s, however, it found new life as a sport for the elderly, and in the 1970s Japan was swept up in a gateball boom. In time, the sport was brought to Japanese communities overseas by emigrants and spread to other places thanks to foreigners who had traveled to or lived in Japan.
Initially, a variety of gateball associations existed in Japan, and each was carrying out activities inside and outside Japan according to its own agenda. For this reason, the rules of the game were not uniform, which caused many problems.
The Japan Gateball Union was established in 1984 through funding from the Nippon Foundation to remedy this situation and promote the health of elderly people. The federation consolidated the Japanese organizations and established a uniform set of rules and a refereeing system. Once the reorganization was achieved, the union began to call for the creation of a world federation devoted to gateball. Brazil, China, South Korea, Chinese Taipei, and the United States gave their consent to the proposal, leading to the establishment in 1985 of the World Gateball Union.
In 1986 the union organized the first international gateball championship in Hokkaido, the birthplace of gateball, with the matches played according to the new standardized rules. The event was staged annually until 1990, and once every four years after that. The hosts included Cheju Island (South Korea), Honolulu, São Paulo, Seoul, and Shanghai. Niigata was the venue for the 11th World Gateball Championship held this year.
A Game for All People and Places
This year, for the first time, European teams took part in the World Gateball Championship: the Swiss team and Team Europe, a mix of Belgian, British, French, and Luxemburg gateballers, made their championship debut. Up to then, the event had featured players mainly from Asia and from North and South American countries with large populations of Japanese immigrants.
Major hurdles stood in the way of gateball’s introduction to Europe, a land of croquet. Alex Park, a member of the Australian team, played a key role in breaking down the barriers. Park went to Britain and Switzerland as a self-appointed “missionary” of gateball, making use of a network of Australian croquet players who also played gateball. Park expressed delight about seeing the seeds of his efforts bear fruit at the 2014 championship.
David Underhill, a member of the Swiss team who began playing gateball after meeting Park, says one interesting aspect of gateball is that it is a 10-player team sport, as compared to the individual sport of croquet. “The strategy is more complex because of this, and the game can be enjoyed for its tactics, like chess. Gateball may have the makings of a hit in Europe.”
In response to the emerging interest, the World Gateball Union began providing equipment and dispatching instructors to Europe to popularize on the continent and discovered that Europeans found the shorter playing times appealing. Whereas a game of croquet can take a few hours or even days, a game of gateball is over in just a half an hour.
One of the noteworthy features of the championship is the large number of teams made up mainly of younger people. This is not only true for countries like Indonesia and Russia as well as India, which made its championship debut in 2014, but also for Japan, China, and Brazil, whose teams have a significant number of players in their twenties and thirties. And one of the teams from Chinese Taipei was made up entirely of junior high school students.
Masao Suzuki, the editor-in-chief of a São Paulo daily who has provided support for the Brazilian teams since the first championship, notes the popularity of gateball in Brazil among young third-generation Japanese-Brazilians. “I never would have thought gateball would be this popular. Its success is the upshot of the World Gateball Union’s strategy formulated a decade ago to attract younger players. I’d like to get word out about the sport not just to Japanese Brazilians but to other young people.”
Making Gateball a Global Sport
In this year’s championship, the Chinese grabbed first and third places, showing they are a force to be reckoned with. In the previous championship held in Shanghai in 2010, China took all three of the top places. Today, the country has five million gateballers, more than double the two million in Japan. Moreover Chinese players have the advantage of the support provide by the General Administration of Sport of China for improving gateball techniques and strategies. The instruction of young players is now a focus of attention so the Chinese gateballers are likely to become even more formidable in the future.
Jun Nogami, head of the Gateball Promotion Division of the Japan Gateball Union, applauds the developments in countries outside Japan.
“It’s a shame Japan didn’t win this championship, but the improvements in the performance of teams from other countries shows that gateball’s development as an international sport has reached a milestone. A rise in the number of countries where gateball is played is the key to its recognition as an international sport and its future development. When the new international gateball emerges in Japan, the Japanese public will view the sport in a new light. I hope that Japan, as the birthplace of gateball, will play a leading role in shaping international trends, and that our organization gets the word out that this fabulous sport got its start in Japan.”
Photographs by Noriaki Miwa