"Kyōtei" (Boat Race)Culture
Public Sport Gambling
Hydroplane boat racing is one of a few varieties of public wagering allowed under Japan’s strict gambling laws. Other types include horse racing (keiba), bicycle racing (keirin), motorcycle speedway (ōtorēsu), and lotteries. The sport features professional drivers guiding speeding boats around a set course. Races take place at established venues located throughout the country. While still popularly referred to as kyōtei, the association promoting the sport has officially adopted the English name "Boat Race."
Races feature six boats, each piloted by a single driver. Spectators purchase betting tickets known as funaken, with payouts divided from a collective pool; winnings, minus a percentage for the course operator, are paid in proportion to wagers.
Bettors can purchase seven varieties of tickets, ranging from wagers on one boat to win (tanshō) to as many as three boats to place or show (sanrenpuku) with bets made in ¥100 increments. This style of betting is also shared by horse and bicycle racing.
Easy Accessibility to Races
Wagering is not confined to race venues. There are over 40 locations around Japan with dedicated betting windows where tickets can be purchased for kyōtei events. Boat Race enthusiasts can also sign up for services with specialized members’ accounts, enabling them to make bets from home, over the Internet, or via mobile phone.
While the style of hydroplane boat racing is distinct to Japan, first developing in the 1950s, interest in the sport has recently begun to emerge in neighboring countries. In 2002 the Misari Motorboat Racing Park in Hanam, South Korea, became the first kyōtei venue outside of Japan.
To boost attendance, many of Japan’s 24 Boat Race venues offer services including information corners, general and reserved seating for races, restaurants, and shops, as well as facilities for children and game arcades. There are also a number of special fan service events, such as those allowing participants to meet popular racers and interactive shows featuring celebrities.
Kyōtei has relatively high odds of winning, with only six competitors per race to choose from—the lowest number among all public sports betting. (By comparison, there are from 8 to 18 horses in keiba, 9 cyclists in keirin, and 8 motorcycles in ōtorēsu.) Revenue from races is used to support a wide variety of initiatives, including those run by municipalities as well as nonprofit organizations. (Nippon.com is produced with funding from boat racing.)
In accordance with starting positions, boats are assigned one of six colors: white, black, red, blue, yellow, or green. Races begin with a short rolling start requiring competitors to cross the start line in a designated period of time or risk being scratched from the competition. Contests consist of three laps around a 600-meter course marked by two turn markers, for a total length of 1,800 meters.
A Lucrative Career
According to figures for 2014, there are 1,583 professional racers, including 190 women, competing in the sport. The average annual income for these drivers is ¥16 million. Typical earnings for the top 300 racers are higher at ¥34 million, with some making as much as ¥100 million.
The kyōtei season begins in January and runs the entire year. The premier fixture is the year-end grand prix, which is held in December and features the circuit’s 18 highest earners. Securing a slot in this event is a major factor motivating racers over the long and arduous season.(Banner photo: Boats round a turn marker during a race. © Boat Race Promotion Association.)