Japan's greatest sports heroes

Japan's greatest sports heroes

Sadaharu Oh, Shizuka Arakawa and... Takeru Kobayashi? Here are five Japanese competitors who took their sports to new levels
Shizuka Arakawa
Shizuka Arakawa hoists the Japanese flag for photographers after winning gold at the Turin Winter Olympics in 2006.

Just because Japan renounced military rule in the 19th century and the entire concept of war in the 20th doesn't mean the nation's samurai spirit disappeared. Thankfully the warrior's stoic sense of dedication and bravery has been refocused into the much less fatal sphere of competitive sports. From the high school Koshien tournament to the collective schoolgirl crush on golfer Ryo Ishikawa, athletics remains a strong central rallying point for Japanese society.

Sports have also allowed the relatively insular Japanese nation to connect with the rest of the world. National pasttimes like sumo, aikido, karate and judo are now practiced in hundreds of countries. And Japanese players have entered the elite pantheon of American Major League Baseball.

With so many spectacular athletes throughout Japanese history, we thought it was long overdue to single out five who have both inspired generations and changed the faces of their respective sports forever.

Sadaharu Oh: "King" of baseball

Japanese sportsSadaharu Oh

Matsui, Dice-K and Ichiro have reached the top echelons of America's Major Leagues, but back in Japan, they still bow to the altar of the greatest Japanese baseball player of all-time -- Sadaharu Oh. Originally a star high school pitcher, Oh switched to first base in the majors and later became the world home run king, with 868 over the fence during his long career. After retiring at age 40 in 1980, Oh reemerged as a legendary coach for both the Yomiuri Giants and the Fukuoka Hawks.

Born to a Taiwanese father and Japanese mother, Oh -- spelled with the Chinese character for "king" (王) -- has also become a powerful symbol of Japan's often ignored cultural diversity.

Rikidozan: Inspirational wrestler

Japanese sportsRikidozan

In the decade after World War II, the Japanese population faced not only material poverty but an almost crippling depression about their tragic defeat. In the early 1950s, however, professional wrestler Rikidozan came to the nation's rescue. He single-handedly worked to lift the nation's spirits by winning victory after victory over American wrestlers in widely-viewed televised matches.

The irony, however, was that the national hero Rikidozan was actually Korean, and like all good pro wrestling, the matches were rigged. No matter, Rikidozan still established pro wrestling as a major sport in Japan and closed the book on Japan's early post-war malaise.

Shizuka Arakawa: Solid gold skater

Japanese sportsShizuka Arakawa

Figure skating has a long history in Japan, with the All-Japan Figure Skating Championships held since 1929. No Japanese figure skater, however, had ever taken the highest honor -- an Olympic gold medal -- until Shizuka Arakawa pulled it off at Turin in 2006.

Arakawa had been a highly-ranked Japanese skater, but heading into Turin, she enjoyed little of the media hype that rivals like Miki Ando spun into product endorsement deals. Yet with the flawless execution of an Ina Bauer and a triple jump combination, Arakawa beat expectations and became an Olympic champion. This not only made Arakawa one of the top female Japanese athletes of all time, but also demonstrated the power of modesty: The girl was all walk, no talk.

Futabayama: Sumo legend

Japanese sportsFutabayama

Taiho and Chiyonofuji are the post-war legends of sumo, but Futabayama may be the greatest wrestler who ever lived. Born in 1912, the Kyushu-born top-knot won 69 consecutive titles during his prime -- something no one has ever come close to replicating. When he finally lost in 1935, it was less due to his skill and more to do with his suffering from dysentary, which can be a real downer in athletic competition. Futabayama was also blind in one eye from childhood, which makes his technical innovations of the sport that much more impressive.

Futabayama eventually founded his own stable and became chairman of the Japanese Sumo Association, assuring the modern continuation of this sacred and ancient Japanese athletic tradition.

Takeru Kobayash: Lean, mean eating machine

Japanese sportsTakeru Kobayashi at Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest

Back in the old days, competitive eating was essentially a gag competition for obese Americans. Everything changed, however, with the professional debut of 173cm, 58kg Japanese eater Takeru Kobayashi. No one has done more to make this grotesque culinary event a "sport" than this young Japanese man.

Thanks to his special "Solomon" hot dog eating technique (dipping the buns in water and snapping the wiener in half), Kobayashi racked up six consecutive wins at Nathan's Coney Island hot-dog eating contest. He may have lost to Joey Chestnut most recently, but Kobayashi's legacy lives on in his influence on most of the top winners' techniques.

Kobayashi may have lost his hot-dog title, but don't fret: He is still the reigning champ of the hamburger-based Krystal Square Off. Eat that, Chestnut.