A NEW PLAYER COULD HOLD THE KEY TO THE FUTURE OF JAPAN'S GOLF INDUSTRY.
In 2018 the Japanese government decided for the first time to market Japan as a global sporting destination. Chief among the sports chosen to bring in a new wave of holiday spenders was golf.
But in a country that has over 2,000 golf courses—more than the UK, Ireland, and Scotland combined—why is it only now that Japan’s golf courses are opening up to the inbound golfer?
To understand the intricacy of the sport in Japan, you need a brief history of golf in the land of the rising sun. Golf first came to Japan in 1903 with the opening of Kobe Golf Club, constructed by the British ex-pat Arthur Hesketh Groom. But it wasn’t until after World War ii, and in particular, during Japan’s “bubble” era of rapid economic growth in the 1980s, when golf established itself as a money-making entertainment to be reckoned with.
As golf began to be seen as a status symbol, a way to secure more business in a relaxed and opulent setting, the increasing demand triggered a veritable explosion of courses. The fallout was an exorbitant spike in annual membership fees to heights of 20 million yen or more.
When the bubble burst at the end of the ’90s, many Japanese golfers were left with a membership that no longer seemed quite worth it— and left in droves. Courses looked to the general public for salvation, bringing fees back down to earth and opening up to non-members. Online booking sites like Rakuten Gora and Golf Digest Online moved in and were able to flourish. This set the stage for a comeback for the waning domestic industry. Golf democratized, becoming less about status and more of an accessible sport to be enjoyed by all social classes. Courses and players adapted to this new era and the next 20 years progressed with the industry largely buoyant.
Today, the golf industry faces new challenges. The average golf course member is now over 70, while the baby boomers—the market that had largely been bolstering the golf course business in Japan—are not far behind. Rumor has it that one or two courses in Japan close their doors every month. The larger conglomerate groups like Pacific Golf Management and Accordia are able to survive with group-wide memberships and schemes offering value for the average golfer, but for the single-owner courses, especially if they are far away from the cities, the outlook seems bleak.
Or is it? In 2015, a new bubble of sorts began. With the inbound tourism boom, the weakening yen, and the announcement of the Tokyo Olympics, visitor numbers to Japan soared. Three years later, due to problems with over-tourism along the so-called “Golden Route” from Tokyo to Kyoto, a push was made to bring people to outlying rural regions in order to distribute the benefits among the dwindling populations that needed it the most. At the same time, the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) recognized that the luxury segment was craving something more than temples and sushi, something experiential but with the same level and quality of service that characterized Japan’s hospitality. The realization that the country’s abundant, world-class golf courses were a drastically under-used asset dawned. Organizations such as the Japan Golf Tourism Association and its regional counter- parts in southern Mie, central Shizuoka, and northern Hokkaido prefectures established themselves and have attempted to educate the golf industry on this new potential revenue source.
However, uptake from the general golf business in Japan has been slow. While there are success stories (a few courses boast that around 15-20 percent of its rounds are played by foreigners), barriers still exist. It is a rarity for a golf course to have English-speaking staff, it continues to be difficult for golfers with clubs in tow to find the courses, and there remains an underlying feeling from the baby boomer members—particularly the ones still holding their defunct 20 million yen memberships—that courses should be members-only and not accessible to passers-by who don’t truly appreciate the club's values and traditions. It is clear that those courses that refuse to evolve will find themselves in rapid decline due to an increasingly shrinking domestic market.
This third-wave golf boom, as small as it currently is, offers some hope. The visiting player may be the key to sustaining and nurturing the industry in all corners of Japan for many years to come. After all, as those golfers who’ve had the privilege to play in Japan know, it’s worth saving.