Kawagoe, Saitama Pref. – In 1995 Nobuko Hirayama inherited her father’s membership in one of the most exclusive country clubs in Japan. However, it was another 23 years and an upcoming Olympics before she could play golf there on Sundays.
Today Hirayama is one of only a dozen women among the 1,200 full members of the Kasumigaseki Country Club just outside Tokyo, the venue for both men’s and women’s golf at this year’s games.
The 92-year-old club, in which then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe played with former US President Donald Trump on its rolling fairways in 2017, has long been a province of the elite.
When Hirayama inherited her father’s membership, women were not allowed to be full members, so she was made a “weekday member” prohibiting her from playing on Sundays.
Under pressure from the Olympic organizers and after a public outcry, the club changed its rules and accepted three women as full members in 2018, including Hirayama. Approximately 200 women are associate members, either relatives of men who are members or “weekday” members themselves.
“I’ve never felt discriminated against or anything like that,” said Hirayama, who is also a board member of the International Golf Federation and the Japan Golf Association, on the verge of Olympic golf.
It was “nothing special” to be able to play every day of the week, she said, adding that she still enjoyed it.
Membership has only ever been possible through “friendship” with existing members, said Masao Koshi, the country club’s public relations director. He didn’t want to say how much it cost.
U.S. President Donald Trump tenses Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a round of golf at Kasumigaseki Country Club in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture, November 2017, while Japanese professional golfer Hideki Matsuyama watches. The 92-year-old club has long been a province of the elite. | CABINET PUBLIC RELATIONS OFFICE / VIA REUTERS
Applicants require two members as sponsors, a criminal background check, and a round of golf with the club management.
“It’s not about how well you play golf, it’s about your manners and your personality,” said Koshi.
The club’s dress code dictates that a woman’s skirt or shorts should be no more than two inches above her knees. Men in shorts must wear long socks to cover their legs.
These rules are not enforced for the Olympic game.
The Japanese Mone Inami, who switched to the medal fight in women’s golf on Friday, said she had not felt any gender differences in golf given the widespread interest in the sport.
“Women’s golf is pretty popular in Japan,” she said, adding that women’s tournaments are as popular as men’s tournaments.
Hirayama said while traditional and exclusive golf clubs like Kasumigaseki had strict rules, they would eventually change due to the generational change among the Japanese.
Sakuragaoka Country Club, a well-known private golf club in Tokyo, recently announced that it would accept unmarried women as members and removed a clause that only women who were married to members could join.
Hirayama said she wants to work with golf clubs and driving ranges to host more events for women such as courses.
“It’s changing,” said Hirayama. “I think the golf industry in Japan has recognized this and many golf courses are trying to open up and are thinking more and more about accessibility.”
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