JIN-359 -- A Local Model for Athletic Excellence

T H E J @ P A N I N C N E W S L E T T E R
Commentary on the Week's Business, Technology and Cultural News

Issue No. 359
Wednesday March 8, TOKYO

+++ VIEWPOINT: A Local Model for Athletic Excellence

ICA Event - March 22

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+++ VIEWPOINT: A Local Model for Athletic Excellence

On February 25 a beaming Shizuka Arakawa (24), wearing her Olympic gold
medal, stood before the press corps in Turin. Her face wore a severe
expression only once, when she remarked, "Kids have been deprived by the
closure of the skating rink where I learned the basics from childhood. I,
too, have no choice but to practice in the US. I think the Japanese
environment [for skaters] has deteriorated."

The rink where Arakawa polished her skating technique belonged to Daiei.
It closed in 2004. In fact, more than 40 rinks have closed during the last
five years. The aftershocks of corporate restructuring are shaking the
foundation upon which world-class athletes are fostered in Japan.

There has been much gnashing of teeth here after Arakawa
brought home the only medal from Turin. The Japanese are a sport-
loving nation, and are painfully aware that a single medal is not a
harvest in proportion to the nation's population or economic clout.

And the situation may get worse.

There were fewer Japanese in 2005 than in 2004. The population of Japanese
under 20 stands at 26 million, down from 38 million 50 years ago.
Over the next 50 years it will drop to 15 million. Forming a strong team
from such a small population of potential athletes presents a challenge.

Not only has there been a drop in the population of young people, but
their physical strength has declined. Today the typical nine-year-old boy
runs the 50-meter dash in the same time as a nine-year-old girl did 20
years ago. The rate of eleven-year-old boys who exercise three or more
times a week has declined from 80 percent 30 years ago to 60 percent

The Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology
attributes the decline in children's physical strength to a drop in the
number of playmates, owing to the falling birthrate, and to the dwindling
amount of open space.

The shrinking athlete population, coupled with the reported decline in
children's physical strength, bodes a day when Japan will no longer be
able to win international sports competitions. One solution would be to
focus on certain sports, gather the best athletes, and open the funding
spigot. But that would be contrary to the egalitarian society Japan tries
to foster, through, for example, a high tax on inheritance. The ideal
society is one where all enjoy sports and medals are won in an array of

A better solution would be for the Japanese to return to their pre-Meiji
era roots, when they were, in a sense, a federation of unique fiefdoms,
isolated by mountains and waterways, without a strong central government
and creating products suitable to their climate, topography and
temperament. There a few paragons of this local model for excellence in
sports. One is in Okinawa Prefecture.

Yaeyama Shoko, Japan's southernmost high school, on Ishigakijima island
(population: 40,000), will for the first time send a team to the
prestigious National High School Baseball Championship Invitational
Tournament, played in Koshien Stadium. The team's manager, Yoshimori
Ishimine, when asked by the Nikkei Shimbun how he built a strong team,
replied, "I scolded, I harangued, I encouraged. I blew up over small
things. Spiritual toughness is what's most needed to win at the top
level." Most of the 20 players on the team are local boys. Their average
height is under 170 centimeters. "People have criticized my old way of
doing things. But I promised I'd get these kids to Koshien. We live on a
remote island. So we have a poor environment [for baseball] and have less
talent. If we are to aim for the championship, all we can do is put all
our energy into it."

Tokorocho, in Hokkaido, is the home of three of the five members of Japan's
curling team. Yoshiyuki Oomiya (47), a member of Japan's curling team at
the Nagano Olympics, managed a tournament in Tokorocho in January. Asked
why Tokorocho is strong in curling, he told the Nikkei: "There are as
many as 40 teams in this town of only 4,000. Adults go to the curling hall
instead of a pub. The proximity of Olympic athletes excites the interest
of young children and gets them on the rink."

The Tokorocho Curling Hall was built 18 years ago. Most of Tokorocho's
citizens had never heard of curling and vigorously protested the hall's
construction at a cost of 250 million yen. However, townspeople who argued
the sport would become a local specialty prevailed.

A similar phenomenon was observed in Shimokawa, another Hokkaido town. Ski
jumping is the town's treasure. The slope is an integral part of the life
of its children from an early age. All four members of Japan's ski jumping
team were from Shimokawa.

The effect of the decline in population is felt over time. Preparations
must be made for the situation of Japanese sport 10 or 20 years from now.
The Japanese are a nation who play many sports. Japan must create a
mechanism that nurtures world-class athletes and prevails in the teeth of
depopulation. The working parts of such a mechanism are the local
communities such as Ishigakijima, Tokorocho, and Shimokawa that focus on
nurturing select sports as Japanese communities have fostered local
delicacies and folkcraft articles over the centuries.

--Burritt Sabin

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Written by Willhemina Wahlin; edited by Burritt Sabin (editors2@japaninc.com)

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