Every year, dozens of teams from all across Japan go to Ito to compete in one of the world’s most unique athletic events — the All-Japan Pillow Fighting Championships.
Pillow fighting is a centuries-old sport enjoyed by children of all ages all across the world. Japan is no exception; nonetheless, the game has been raised to the status of national sport, with teams comprised of individuals of all ages battling for fame and money. After competing in regional qualifying events, victorious teams gather in the small fishing town of Ito, south of Tokyo, to vie for the title of Japan’s top pillow fighters in the All-Japan Pillow Fighting Championships.
The All-Japan Pillow Fighting Championships were inspired by makura-nage, the enjoyable pillow battles that Japanese students indulge in before bedtime on school excursions. It’s a rite that many Japanese people experienced at some point during their childhood, and one day several of them decided it would be enjoyable to revisit those days as part of a competitive competition. The event began in 2013 and has been conducted annually since since.
Competitive pillow fighting was founded by a group of high school students in Shizuoka and is based on a set of peculiar but relatively basic rules. A game is played between two teams of five players each dressed in yucatas, a traditional summer attire. The game begins with the participants pretending to sleep on futons until the referee blows their whistle, prompting them to wake up and reach for a cushion.
Pillow fighting now resembles dodgeball in that the goal is to strike the opposing team’s members, ideally their captain, with pillows to knock them out of the game. Still, it is a highly unique sport with peculiar regulations, such as announcing “The teacher is coming,” which forces the opposition team to retreat to their futons for 10 seconds, allowing them to wander about and gather pillows from the opposite side of the court.
In competitive pillow fighting, the ultimate goal is to hit the opposing captain. The round is over when it happens, even if all of the opponents’ players are still in the game. The game is won by the first team to win two two-minute rounds. To ensure the captain’s safety throughout the rounds, one player from each side can utilise a duvet to shield them from pillows.
A year after the All-Japan Cushion Fighting Championships debuted in 2014, Japanese business Makura Kabushikigaisha produced a customised pillow built exclusively for competitive pillow fighting, and it is still the only officially recognised pillow during the championships. It costs roughly 3,150 yen ($30) and is said to be perfectly balanced — heavy enough to toss but elastic enough not to injure anyone.
The greatest competitive pillow fighting teams in Japan gather in Ito every February for the national pillow fighting championship. They are made up of people of all ages, ranging from nine-year-old children to veterans in their sixties, and while the 100,000 yen ($915) on the line may not seem like much, they are all in it to win it.