Last week I talked with my students about the histories of animals in Imperial Japan. One of the animals that I wasn’t intending to talk about was the history of horses. That was until I saw the following commercial by the Japanese Racing Association (JRA) commemorating the 150th anniversary of horse racing in Japan.
The JRA has put together a website which outlines the history of racing in Japan since the first “western” track was constructed in 1866. The site includes videos, pictures, and timeline. HERE is a link to the site, but it is only in Japanese.
The first steps toward establishing race tracks in Japan were taken when the head of the British Legation informed the Tokguawa government of their intention to build a race track. The beginning of the construction of the 1,764 meter long and 18 meter wide track began in March 1866. It was finished in the summer of that year.
What is left out — or muted — of the chronicle of information in the JRA site is that they were not responsible for the management of regulation of Japanese built race tracks until 1954. The first Japanese-built tracks, which were completed in the fall of 1877, were administered by three stakeholders: the Imperial Army, Imperial Household Ministry, and Ministry of the Interior (Naimusho).
Each of those stakeholders had different desires for what the tracks and the racing system should be used for. Each of these stakeholders saw the track as an apparatus of civilization and enlightenment, an method by which they could improve the quality of national horses so that they would be equal or better than horses held by their international competitors — especially those which were hostile towards Japan.
For the Imperial Household, the racing tracks were going to be used for preparing horses for ceremonial purposes. For the Home Ministry, they wished for the tracks to be used for the rearing of good agricultural horses. For the army, the track was going to used to train war horses of “good quality.”
No animal was utilized more than horses in warfare. None. For the Imperial Amry, horses lived their lives a what the historian Sugimoto Ryû has called, “living military hardware” (gun no katsu heiki). The Ministry of the Army saw the network of race horses in Japan as place less for entertainment than as places where they could refine war horses.
The Ministry of the Army took an particular interest in the tracks after the conclusion of the first Sino-Japanese War. They reported after its conclusion that they were unsatisfied with the performance of the horses in the front, and they sent directives to the government that there was a need to produce horses of better quality.
Race tracks were the answer. But the problem was rearing good horses costs money. Lost of money. Along with the construction of tracks, you needed money for maintaining the facilities, paying the trainers, feed, veterinarians, and breeders. Things were cheep, so one of the solutions that they came up with was betting. Allowing betting was a means by which the government could encourage a connection to these animals but also a way of funding them.
Sources Consulted (Other than the JRA website):
Sugimoto, Ryû. “Gunba to Keiba (War Horses and Race Horses).” In Hito to Dôbutsu No Nihonshi, Vol. 3, Dôbutsu to Gendai Shakai (People and Animals in Japanese History, Vol. 3, Animals and Contemporary Society), edited by Yutaka Suga, 16-43. Tokyo: Yoshikawakô Bunkan, 2009.