Buckaroo Banzai

The adventures of a westerner encountering the odd sport of boat racing in Japan.

May 1, 2001

The guy next to me wears this look of doom as if it were woven into polyester suit. Betting stubs are being crushed by his sweaty hands. He obviously isn’t here because he loves boats. We’re both pressed to the rail watching a pack of red, white, and blue outboard-powered mosquitoes pile into turn one. Seconds before, they had been screaming down the straightaway, all nice and orderly in their lanes. How wonderfully Japanese, I thought. But now it’s become a free-for-all. Drivers in the inner lanes are trying to make U-turns as tight as possible. Those in outer lanes are attempting to cut inside. A sharp corner turn pulls speed off the boats in dramatic fashion. They all seem to come to a complete stop for a heartbeat. The crowd holds its breath. The guy next to me is up on his toes, almost doubled over the rail. Then the crowd exhales in the crowd exhales in unison. Boat #3 had clawed its way through the pack. From the look on his face, it’s a good bet that my buddy isn’t holding the winning ticket. Veins popping on his forehead, he screams, “Baka! Baka!” Not-so-polite Japanese for “You fool.” Spit and losing tickets mash into the concrete. So much for the supposed national trait of restraint.

Living in Tokyo for 15 years, I thought I knew something about the sports here. I’ve been to sumo tournaments, judo bouts, and karate competitions. I’ve sat through demonstrations of kyudo archery and even tried kendo, Japanese fencing. But I had somehow missed a sport so unique – and bizarre – it’s unknown outside of this country: boat racing.

There are boat races throughout the world, of course. But nothing like what’s offered in Japan. Fans bet on six supposedly identical mini-hydroplanes with supposedly identical motors. There are 24 stadiums, each staging 12 races per day, 180 days per year. The sport annually attracts 60 million people, who place more than $12 billion in bets. Top drivers become celebrities and have incomes way beyond the wildest dreams of most of those placing the bets.


Pacific Theater

I’d heard of boat racing – it’s almost an urban legend – but no one I know had actually been to a race. So it was time to track down the event myself.

An hour after arriving at the Tamagawa racecourse outside Tokyo, I start to think this was a bad idea. No scrubbed and polished salary men in dark suits here. Underworld is an understatement. There’s little sense of enjoyment in the crowd, but rather an undertone of desperation, as if everyone needs to raise cash – quickly. Ninety percent of the spectators are male and look to be alone. And everyone is chain smoking. By the third race, a suffocating blue haze fills the concourse behind the bleachers – and it isn’t from the outboards.

There doesn’t seem to be much to watch. The six boats line up in lanes and make a running start, with drivers pacing themselves against a giant clock that ticks down to zero. Then they go three times around a course defined by two buoys placed 600 meters apart. It’s all over in a minute, 45 seconds.


It should be exciting, though, with boats just 9’6″ long and 4’3″ wide hitting speeds of 50 miles per hour. But the finishes are almost always anticlimactic. The winner is clear from the outset. There are no neck-and-neck dashes down the homestretch, no cheers as the winning boat crosses the line.

The concourse is actually livelier than the races. Dozens of touts with names like The Professor and Mr. Lucky shout for attention, offering their picks for about $4 a pop. Spectators mill about, snacking on yakitori, bite-size chunks of grilled chicken, and nikuman, meat-filled dumplings. So far I was enjoying the food more than the racing.

Hall of the Monkey King

By the fourth race, I suspect I’m missing something, not unusual for westerners watching Japanese sports. Little is what we expect, and in boat racing the first turn is everything. Simple, short, and sweet. The guy next to me – and everyone else here – seems to know this.


So Japanese. In every sport that originated in this country, the contest can be, and often is, concluded in the blink of an eye by one skillfully executed maneuver. In sumo the favored technique is the uwatenage, the underarm throw. A sumotori reaches over his opponent’s arm, traps it, grabs the back of the opponent’s belt, and swings him forward, tripping him so he goes face down in the dirt. Game over. In judo it’s the seoinage, the shoulder throw. One judoka grabs the other’s arm, then spins and pulls the opponent over his shoulder. Done right, the opponent’s shoulders hit the mat simultaneously. Game over.

And in boat racing it’s all about finessing that first hairpin. The technique is called the monkey turn. “Seventy to eighty percent of the races are decided on that first turn,” driver Takeshi Yago confirms several days later as we sit in a comfortably furnished meeting room overlooking the course. “But it’s mostly luck.” He’s being modest. Yago, 34, is one of the most successful drivers on the circuit. His $930,000 in prize money last year ranked him 15th out of more than 1,500 drivers.

Because leisure boating is virtually unheard of in Japan, Yago, like most of his colleagues, had never driven a boat before entering a year-long boot camp, the only way into this sport. The training center, on a lake near Mt. Fuji, is run by the national association that governs boat racing. Every year, some 1,500 would-be drivers apply, but only 50 are accepted for instruction in everything from maintaining the engines to making the turns. Only 30 of the trainees graduate into the ranks of professional drivers.


Made for Japan

The organization of modern Japanese boat racing is the legacy of Ryoichi Sasakawa, a notorious right-wing zealot who was arrested after World War II as a Class A war crimes suspect. He was released without being tried and later hit on the idea of gambling on boat races as a way of raising money to promote Japan’s industrial recovery and to support some charities. In return for setting up this new sport, 3.3 percent of all money wagered is turned over to the Nippon Foundation, which is controlled by Sasakawa. He originally steered this money into shipbuilding, research, sports, and cultural activities. Later he went international, with multimillion-dollar donations to the United Nations, health centers in developing nations, and even Jimmy Carter’s presidential library. His generosity won worldwide praise and earned him a Nobel Peace Prize nomination.

Sasakawa may have been generous, but he was also a stickler for order. All races are 1,800 meters; all the boats and motors are supposed to be identical. And little has changed since the sport was standardized in the 1950s. But as Yago points out, there remains an element of luck in all this structure. At the start of a series of races, drivers draw lots for their boats and engines. “Even though they’re all the same, there are good engines and bad engines,” he says. The 400cc, two-cylinder, two-cycle engines are made by the Yamato Motor Corp. They generate 32 hp and can rev up to 6000 rpm. They have no gears and run only in forward. How long each engine has been in use and how many times it has powered the winning boat is duly noted in the racing program. Fans factor this information into their picks.

The boats have a slight V to their bottoms, with a broad flat keel for lift, a stubby skeg for traction in the turns, and a shallow step amidships. They weigh 155 pounds and are made of ¼ ” birch or spruce plywood supported by a spindly structure of plywood frames. The driver has only a steering wheel, throttle, and padded kneeling cushion.

The boats are also built by Yamato and are replaced once a year on a staggered schedule. Since the 1950s the only significant modification has been to enlarge the mufflers.

Drivers are allowed to tune, but not modify, the engines. They bring their own propellers, however. The two-bladed props are made of an aluminum-copper alloy soft enough to be worked cold. Drivers spend most of their free time beating on their props with wooden mallets to adjust the shape, pitch, and thickness of the blades, supposedly to suit the peculiarities of the engine they draw. “There’s no theory to it, it’s just a matter of experience,” Yago says.

Experience is what matters when it comes to handling, too. On the straights, drivers hunker down in the back of the boats to cut wind resistance and lift the bow out of the water. Coming into the turn, they throttle down, stand in a crouch similar to a jockey’s, lean to the outside, and shift their weight forward or aft. There’s a lot of activity going on all at once.

Standing creates wind resistance to help slow the boat. Because the hull is almost flat, the boat would skid sideways if it weren’t for the skeg and the hard chine. To keep a good bite on the water, drivers put their weight on their outside leg, but not too much or the boat will flip. Exceptionally good drivers know how to lean forward enough to lift the stern so it fishtails slightly, which helps make a sharper turn. Conversely, shifting weight farther aft results in a gentler curve. The driver has to put all this together as he steers with his right hand, throttles with his left, analyzes the positions of the other boats, and considers waves and wind.

Back in the early days, sportswriters decided this jumping around in the boats reminded them of monkeys in cages, thus the term monkey turn. Yago says it took 10 years before he mastered this maneuver well enough to become a consistent winner.

Although being the first out of the turn is usually the deciding factor, it doesn’t guarantee the race. But once in the lead, it is that driver’s race. One that he can only lose from then on by taking a turn too wide or too cautiously. Yago says the chasers can only stay on the leader’s tail and hope for an opening.

Win, Place and Ah So

I finally flee the concourse’s blue haze and buy a $10 seat in the no-smoking section of the enclosed grandstands. I figure out how to read the program and start studying performance records. By the 11th race I’m ready to bet. At some venues, you can bet on one boat to win. At Tamagawa you must pick a one-two combination. I place two $10 bets by choosing the four drivers with the best recent performances. One of my drivers jumps the start. He’s disqualified and I get that $10 refunded. The other combination ticket is a loser.

For the 12th race, I devise a sure-win strategy. From the tote board, I can see the favorite is the driver of Boat #2, who’s on a winning streak. The most popular bet is the 2-1 combination. So I place $10 each on 2-3, 3-2, and 2-4. I’m covered.

As the boats come up toward the starting line, I find myself gripping the armrests worried about a false start. It’s clean. Yes! Now down the straight to the first turn. It’s do or die. A moment later Boat #2 is first out of the turn with #3 and #4 chasing. Come on #3. Rounding the second turn, #2 holds the lead, but #4 is drifting wide, and #3 cuts ahead of him. Down the second stretch it’s #2 by a length and a half, followed by #3. And that’s the way they finish. My $10 bet returned $88 – I’m up $48. Not bad. It didn’t cover the cost of a celebratory dinner, but it did buy a good bottle of sake for toasting the boat racers of Japan.


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