Connect with us
Advertisement

News

Pickleball in Japan: Lessons I Learned on How to Start a Movement

Pickleball enthusiast Daniel Moore reflects on introducing the sport to Japan and highlights how its rising popularity can help other grassroots movements.

Ten years ago, pickleball came to Japan. With a funny name and precisely zero players, success was never guaranteed.

However, I plugged away, volunteering time and spending money traveling across the country to teach new players. I could never have done it without a deep love for the sport and tremendous support from Japanese partners. 

Along the way, I learned valuable lessons about sports, people, and Japanese culture from the challenges I faced. I hope my insights are helpful, whether starting a sport, a business, an organization, or a movement in Japan.

Dedicated pickleball courts in Tochigi Prefecture. (©Daniel Moore, Active Travel)

What is Pickleball?

Pickleball is a racket sport resembling mini tennis, combining tennis, table tennis, and badminton. It began in the United States in 1965, is highly social, and is easy for anyone to learn.

For decades, pickleball was a minor sport found only in the US, limited to a smattering of public schools and retirement communities. Even 10 years ago, it was virtually unknown in America. 

After explaining pickleball, people often asked me whether I started the sport and why I gave it such a quirky name. I explain that the name is memorable. No one forgets the name pickleball.

Today's picture looks quite different. An estimated 36.5 million people played in the US in 2023, doubling yearly for several years. There are pro leagues, courts everywhere, and even Netflix shows that mention pickleball.

Pickleball, which is played with a hard plastic ball, has entered the mainstream, at least in the US. In terms of the number of players, it compares favorably to tennis. It is truly a lifestyle and fitness movement that swept the nation, which I hope to see replicated in Japan.

Talent Satomi Ishihara tries her hand at pickleball. (©Daniel Moore, Active Travel)

The Massive Growth of Pickleball

There are various reasons for this explosive growth, but the two I credit most are demographics and celebrity power. Because a pickleball court is smaller and requires less movement, a wide age group of players who cannot play other sports migrate to pickleball. Among them are players with the time and resources to help build facilities, host tournaments, lobby city councils, and grow the sport they love ー everything I have been doing in Japan. 

During the global COVID-19 pandemic, celebrities also started playing or investing in pickleball. The most famous is basketball legend LeBron James. In 2022, the NBA's all-time leading scorer purchased a professional Major League Pickleball team.

Other US celebrities also started playing or posting about pickleball. That got the word out and made many others want to play. The combination of demographics and star power created the environment for today's explosive growth.

To say pickleball is less prevalent in Japan is a vast understatement. However, many of the same demographic and economic trends exist. Because many Japanese love racket sports, have limited space, and have the oldest population in the world, I have believed for a decade that pickleball would soar someday. 

In many ways, it is the perfect sport for Japan. With 5,000 active players, an official governing body (Japan Pickleball Association), and good mainstream coverage, it seems poised to grow quickly. The process is just beginning, but it finally feels out of my hands. 

It's just a shoe!

Pickleball's Growing Popularity

Here are a few factors that helped pickleball reach its current status in Japan and why I believe it will continue growing. I hope some of these insights help with whatever initiative you might choose to start in this country.

A pickleball event in Kagoshima , Japan. (©Daniel Moore, Active Travel)

Tenacity

Tenacity to continue through setbacks has been a critical success factor for pickleball in Japan. 

I gave up playing professionally in the US and chose to grow the movement in Japan. Even so, I have repeatedly questioned my decision. Sometimes I wondered, did I give up a lucrative career as a professional athlete, only to languish in Japan without pickleball ever becoming popular?

Were there circumstances that made the sport popular in the US but constrained it from becoming accepted in Japan? 

The Japanese have a proverb that says, "Sit on a stone for three years," meaning it takes three years before anything happens.

For me, it's been 10 years, but who's counting? I'm never giving up anyway.

Japanese Leaders Emerging for the Sport

When the Japan Pickleball Association (JPA) began, I intentionally took a back seat, even though there were few players in Japan. I believed that for any movement to succeed, it must be led by the Japanese. 

While I lost some control, it allowed Japanese players to shine and do more than I ever could. I am one person, and I knew the movement would never succeed if I micromanaged it. 

The association created a certification program, hosted tournaments, ran clinics for new players, and found corporate sponsors, among other activities. I learned that there are unique Japanese ways of doing things. Sometimes, I needed help understanding the nuances and rationale for those, but it worked. Followers were also important. They would be the ones to take over the reins and become new leaders to grow the movement.

Pickleball at Akasaka Sakas, a new commercial complex in the Akasaka section of Tokyo. (©Daniel Moore, Active Travel)

Low Hurdles and Access

At its most basic level, pickleball is a simplified version of tennis. People like it because anyone can easily play without prior experience or practice. By contrast, tennis requires players to practice for months before gaining the requisite skills to enjoy a simple match. 

Pickleball presents low entry barriers, making it easy for people to join and feel good about themselves. In any project, depending on what you want to achieve, low hurdles are important. They will also help you to gain a larger following.

Another fortunate coincidence is that you can play pickleball anywhere. It can be played outdoors on tennis courts or indoors on badminton courts, and Japan has many of each. You can even play in a parking lot, a park, or any flat space. (How big is a regulation pickleball court? It measures 6.1 meters (20 feet) by 13 meters (44 feet.)

By contrast, the racket sport padel, which is a blend of tennis and squash and is popular in Europe, has faced slower growth in Japan. That is because it requires dedicated facilities. Japan's earthquake safety requirements make building dedicated padel courts prohibitively expensive. The lesson is that ease of access is critical in analyzing whether your project can continue and grow.

Picked Up By Japanese Media

TV and traditional media outlets such as newspapers still have a strong presence in Japan. Indeed, a real change in pickleball's popularity occurred when Japanese TV stations and newspapers started publishing stories about the sport.

Japanese celebrities then started getting involved, posting on social media, and making TV appearances. That brought in a younger crowd. Thus, the interest of various Japanese media has been crucial to pickleball's growth.

A wide age range of players enjoy pickleball. (©Daniel Moore, Active Travel)

Gaining A Critical Mass of Interest

In some ways, Japan is a challenging environment for new ideas. Most Japanese prefer not to be the first to try new things. However, many followers want to join once the movement starts to grow. People like doing what everyone else does, so the path is much smoother. 

Media outlets, local governments, and businesses suddenly want to participate. The challenge is pushing through, reaching critical mass to the time when everyone knows about the movement.

I felt this shift in Japan in 2023 when various entities approached me about pickleball. Until then, I had to pull teeth and beg people to play. After that, people were asking to participate. They heard about the sport through media or friends and didn't want to miss out.

Pickleball in Japan rode the wave of growth in America. It gained followers and media presence faster by having this badge of honor than an organically Japanese sport could. 

Certifications also helped. Especially, having a coaching certification stamped in the US helped my cause. 

Appreciate the Culture, Speak the Language

Whenever you start, understand the market and cultural conditions that will help your movement succeed.

Similarly, running any business or sport in Japan becomes exponentially simpler when speaking the language. Not only can you communicate, but the trust gained by trying to learn Japanese is undervalued.

While I had an unfair advantage (I grew up in Japan), I still polished my Japanese, challenging myself by studying and taking the JLPT level 1 exam. My goal was for Japanese people to not know I was American when speaking on the phone.

When considering moving to or starting something in Japan, learn Japanese. Sometimes, the most essential thing is to be seen making an effort. You will not regret it.

Tsukuba Open pickleball tournament in January 2024. (©Daniel Moore, Active Travel)

Support Japanese Players

The next step in pickleball's growth is supporting Japanese players going overseas and making a name for themselves on US-based tours, the ATP Tour of the Association of Pickleball Professionals and the PPA Tour of the Professional Pickleball Association.

Japanese audiences love getting behind a Japanese player. Look at the effect Shohei Ohtani has on Major League Baseball.

Supporting Japanese players creates a fan base that grows the number of players. In turn, more young players want to dream big and play for Japan, raising the level even more. The virtuous cycle continues as both fans and players increase.

Motivation

Above all, make sure your motivations are correct. Money as a primary motivator rarely translates to a movement's success, especially when the going gets tough.

The money, sponsorships, business, etc., will follow if you dream big and love what you do. It takes time to get there, but starting something new in Japan is possible, challenging, and fulfilling, all at the same time, as the growth of pickleball has demonstrated.

RELATED:

Author: Daniel Moore

Click to comment

You must be logged in to post a comment Login

Leave a Reply

Advertisement MTB Free Shipping $99+

Sign-Up to Our Newsletter

Sign-up!

Receive regular sports updates and news directly in your inbox

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Advertisement Take a Food Journey Around the World!

More in News