Despite its deep-rooted traditions in a culture that prides itself on honouring the past, the WURC has also looked to the future, opening up the sport to women in 1955. A women’s race with rival Keio followed the next year, a pioneering achievement for women’s rowing in Japan. The current team numbers 22 female and 48 male students participating as rowers, coxswains or support staff.

The team’s main racing season begins in April with the Waseda-Keio Regatta raced over 4 km on the Sumida River in the heart of Tokyo near Asakusa, one of the most famous sightseeing areas of the capital. This annual dual race has been a fixture since its establishment in 1905.

“The tradition of Waseda-Keio Regatta has been inherited by us today,” says Waseda University’s Chiaki Hidaka. “Apart from suspensions including the effects of WWII, the regattas are annual, and [it] has been held since 1947.” April 2016 will mark the 85th edition of this event. Then comes the All-Japan Lightweight Rowing Championships in May, where the best university lightweight rowers line up against the elite company teams.

The season’s main goal for Waseda and other universities, however, is the All-Japan Inter-Collegiate Rowing Championships in August. “All the varsity rowers from competitive programmes compete in this regatta aiming to win the College Championships,” says Hidaka.

Waseda University rowing, Tokyo, Japan © Waseda University Rowing Club

The championships attract around 1,350 students from 80 participating institutions. There are no lightweight races, just open events. Racing follows a grueling international format over four days with heats, repechages, semifinals  and four-laned finals. Five points are awarded for first, three for second, two for third and one for fourth, with the university team collecting the most points winning the overall Championship title.

Many of these rowers will go on to race at the All-Japan Rowing Championships in September, where some of the more competitive university crews can rival the company clubs. This concludes the major racing, after which the rowers at Waseda transition into winter training with some top athletes preparing for selection to the Japanese National Team.

The Waseda Club  also offers lessons to children and to novice student rowers. “It is our tradition to raise a rower who starts rowing with us to the level of elite competition,” says Hidaka.  

“Each university has their own training system and coaches,” Hidaka says. The majority of coaches are volunteers and many are alumni of the teams they now support. Things are changing, however, and universities that can afford to have begun to hire professional full-time or part-time coaches. “JARA (the Japanese Rowing Association) has been trying to unify the training system.”

Ayami Oishi is the latest international rower to come out of Waseda. Oishi raced to bronze in the lightweight women’s single sculls at the 2015 World Rowing Under 23 Championships and this past year won gold the Universiade Games in Korea and raced at the World Rowing Championships in Aiguebelette, France.

“There have been many notable alumni who rowed at WURC,” Hidaka says. Waseda rowers attended their first Olympics in 1928 in Amsterdam and have participated in a total of nine Olympic Games. Eight Waseda rowers and one coxswain had the particular honour of representing Japan in various events on home waters at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

While Waseda and other universities play a role in the development of international level athletes, especially at the Under 23 level, it is the company teams that provide most athletes and crews to the senior national team. “Companies employ elite rowers as full time employees,” explains Hidaka. “The Primary purpose of competitive company rowing teams is to win the national championships and compete in the national team.”

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