As Japan prepares to enter the new Reiwa Era, the country has immersed itself in a period of reflection about how past events and people shaped recent times, including those in the world of sport where certain figures came to define their generation.

The country's national sport of sumo dates back many centuries and along with other martial arts such as judo have long played a role in forming the collective character of Japanese athletes.

Modern sports came about in Japan after the 1868 political revolution known as the "Meiji Restoration," which resulted in an era of unprecedented westernization across the archipelago. After gaining popularity as a recreational activity, sport invigorated the populace and provided a new avenue of hope for the contemporary era.

The seeds of various sports were planted by westerners in the early years of the Meiji Era (1868-1912). Baseball first arrived by way of American educator Horace Wilson in 1872, while soccer is said to have been introduced by the British navy the following year.

(Yoshiyuki Tsuruta)

Sport continued to spread throughout Japan into the Taisho Era (1912-1926) and the first half of the Showa Era (1926-1989), resulting in nearly a century of athletic development. High school baseball continued to be a popular institution since its beginnings in the Meiji era, while sumo wrestlers entertained the masses from the raised ring.

Japan topped the world stage at the 1928 Summer Games in Amsterdam when Mikio Oda and Yoshiyuki Tsuruta earned the country's first two Olympic gold medals, in the triple jump and the 200 meter breaststroke, respectively. At the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, breaststroker Hideko Maehata made history when she became the first Japanese woman to stand on the top step of an Olympic podium.

That same year, legendary right-hander Eiji Sawamura played in the inaugural season of the Japanese Baseball League, the country's first attempt at nationwide pro competition. Around the same time, sumo grand champion Futabayama achieved the longest run of consecutive wins, with 69, a record that stands to this day.

During the dispirited post-war years of the Showa era, sport provided Japanese people with a much-needed distraction. In the early 1950s, pro wrestling sensation Rikidozan captivated audiences and became a source of national pride when he defeated American opponents with his signature karate chop.

In 1964, Japan showed the world it had recovered from the war by hosting the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, the first Olympics held in Asia. And as Japan's economy continued to boom until the early 1990s, legendary sluggers Shigeo Nagashima and Sadaharu Oh became the faces of the sport by embodying the "work hard for a better tomorrow" ethos of the times.

(Hideo Nomo)

The Heisei Era (1989-2019) was marred by some dark moments, including an economic downturn and several large-scale natural disasters, but sport served to sustain people's hopes and dreams into the new millennium.

Hideo Nomo opened the door for Japanese major leaguers after debuting with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995, while outfielder Ichiro Suzuki took the major leagues by storm when he joined the Seattle Mariners in 2001.

Midfielder Hidetoshi Nakata embarked on an overseas career that paved the way for a cadre of domestic soccer players.

And with the eyes of the world upon them, elite athletes like swimmer Kosuke Kitajima, wrestlers Kaori Icho and Saori Yoshida, and international figure skating icon Yuzuru Hanyu won back-to-back Olympic golds to assume the mantle that will serve to inspire a new Reiwa-era generation.

And with the new era opening with Japan hosting the 2019 Rugby World Cup and 2020 Olympics, the nation has an opportunity to use sport to galvanize the next group of Japanese icons.

(Yuzuru Hanyu)