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Aichi, Sports Hub of Central Japan

Nagoya Dome is the home of the Chunichi Dragons baseball team. Opened in 1997, it has one of the largest fields of any baseball stadium in the country and seating for 40,500 spectators. Because of Japan's relatively rainy weather, many of its professional baseball stadiums are roofed.
It is often said that sport is a universal language, but there are clearly national and regional variations in the way we play our sports, and in the way we enjoy them as spectators. Identical sporting codes take on a different color depending on where the activity takes place. Indeed, sport is an important aspect of the culture of a nation or a region and an integral part of the way of life in any community.

This is certainly true of Aichi, where a deep-rooted and distinctive regional sports culture flourishes. From amateur and professional sports to cutting-edge sports medicine, the breadth of sporting activity is yet another powerful attraction in this, one of Japan's leading centers of industry.

The Japanese "art" of enjoying baseball
A soccer team enhances local pride
From little children to seniors
The sports medicine approach

The Japanese "art" of enjoying baseball

Fans of the Dragons can buy a pair of cylindrical balloons and add an only-in-Nagoya sound to the cheering in the dome by slapping them together.
Chunichi Shimbun
More than 22.4 million. That's how many people attended professional baseball games in Japan during the fiscal year that began in April 1999. As the country's total population is a little over 120 million people, that means the equivalent of one in five people went to see a professional baseball game during the six-month season. No other sport in the country can claim to be so popular.

Baseball was born in the United States, of course, and it was first introduced to Japan in 1871. The first professional baseball team in the country, the Tokyo Giants, was formed 63 years later, in 1934, and it is still playing today as the Tokyo Yomiuri Giants. Within the next year, professional teams were set up in succession not only in Tokyo but also in Osaka and Nagoya, the country's two other main cities, creating the basis for a national league. Professional baseball in Japan today has 12 teams, divided into two leagues, the Central League and the Pacific League.

The Nagoya-based Chunichi Dragons is one of the top teams in the Central League, which it won convincingly in 1999. Its home ground, Nagoya Dome, draws more than 2.5 million local fans each season.

One element of Japanese baseball that is said to differentiate it from the game in the United States is the organized display of support from fans, egged on by private cheerleading groups. Anyone who has ever attended a game at Nagoya Dome will have felt for themselves the buzz of excitement and camaraderie that these groups generate.

"I've been to Nagoya Dome many times. Anyways, the fervor of the fans filling the stadium is awesome, especially those private cheerleading groups in the outfield stands. The way they set the rhythm for supporters with their drums and bugles right through the game; that's really amazing. I don't think even the major leagues back home have enthusiasm to match that." So says an American student in Nagoya who confesses to being a Dragons fan these days.

The origin of the cheerleading groups that give Japanese baseball stadiums such a distinctive atmosphere precedes the introduction of baseball, going back to the groups of admirers who used to clap and cheer for their favorite sumo wrestlers and kabuki actors during the Edo period (1603~1867). Thus even though baseball itself was a nineteenth-century import, the distinctive style of spectator support that has grown up around it is something very Japanese.

A soccer team enhances local pride

Members of the Nagoya Grampus Eight soccer team salute their fans in the stands after another match at their home ground in the city.
Chunichi Shimbun
Soccer took somewhat longer to catch on in a big way. Amateur soccer clubs have been around for a long time, but it was only in 1993 that they judged the time was right to launch the Japan Professional Football League, also known as the J. League. That was almost 60 years after the start of professional baseball.

The league started out with only 10 teams. It now has 16 just in its first division. Aichi's team, Nagoya Grampus Eight, has already won the Emperor's Cup (a championship tournament with a long tradition dating back to 1924) twice since 1993. In doing so, it has attracted strong public following, cutting deeply into the support base for baseball. The name Grampus, by the way, is another name for Nagoya's symbol, the shachi dolphin.

The J. League has brought a breath of fresh air to the Japanese professional sports world that had been so heavily dominated by baseball since the end of World War II. It has generated close bonds between the teams, the people of their home areas, and their corporate sponsors. In fact, the league's formation had such a powerful impact that the name "J. League" was selected as the trendiest of all new terms in the Japanese language for 1993.

"I never thought soccer would catch on in Japan the way it has. The excitement of the supporters is just like in Brazil. When it comes to game skills, though, I think Brazil's still well ahead," says a Brazilian student at one of Nagoya's universities.

Whether it is baseball, soccer, or some other sport, supporters at every event create a cheerful atmosphere and a powerful bonding experience like that of a local festival that nobody wants to leave. And, just like a festival, each match functions as a cultural event to strengthen community spirit. To Aichi Prefecture, the Chunichi Dragons and Nagoya Grampus Eight are much more than sports teams. They are powerful symbols of local pride, and that is why they enjoy such loyal support from so many fans.

From little children to seniors

On a different level from baseball, soccer, and other professional sports that draw huge crowds of spectators is the participation by many ordinary people in sporting activities as a regular part of their lives. This involves all age groups, from small children to seniors, and reflects a growing awareness of health issues in the broader community.

The Chikusa Sports Center is the only public sports facility in Aichi with a place where people can practice archery.
"We tend to think of sports as something for younger people, but in our case, especially on weekdays, many of our participants are seniors. Among them are several over eighty," says Kaori Mizuno, one of the trainers at the Chikusa Sports Center in Nagoya. Aichi has a number of public sports centers, but the Chikusa Sports Center has been particularly popular since it was opened with funding from the City of Nagoya in 1998 with a view to getting more citizens to participate in sporting activities. It caters to all kinds of sports, with an arena seating 1,126 spectators, a six-lane, 25-meter heated swimming pool, a training room with a wide variety of equipment, and a range of other facilities. With facilities as good as, or better than, any private sports center, it is a big hit with people of all ages.

"When it comes down to it, this is a public facility, so fees are much lower than at sports centers run by the private sector, and I think that fact is one reason for its popularity. We especially want seniors to feel they can use the facilities freely, so admission to the swimming pool is free for those sixty-five or over at all times," Mizuno explains. The total number of people who used the center last year was 320,000, just over the original forecast of 300,000. "We want to put still more effort into publicity and encourage as many people as possible to come and exercise their bodies," she adds, voicing the high level of motivation shared by all the staff.

Some local governments in Aichi are actively trying out new ways of using sports to stimulate intergenerational communication. One such example is a campaign mounted by the city of Handa, located south of Nagoya near the middle of the Chita Peninsula. One of the leaders of the city's campaign to encourage residents to set up more local sports clubs is Takahiko Sakakibara, who works as a staff member of the Board of Education in Handa:

"To overcome the barriers and strengthen the ties between generations, we believe that it's essential to create sports clubs that involve entire districts, not just sports teams organized in schools. To do this, we started out by creating an environment for the residents of one particular district in which people of all ages could play sports together. In practice, this meant hosting baseball, soccer, volleyball, and other competitions, and recruiting leaders in each sport from within the community. All this activity led, in 1996, to the creation of the Narawa Sports Club, which has membership spanning all generations. We've been lucky enough for membership to grow yearly, and it's now over 2,200."

After this success in the trial district, the campaign to encourage all-age sports clubs has been expanded to the rest of the city of Handa. "Very soon now, there are plans for the formation of five new clubs," says Sakakibara. The novel way that the city of Handa has used sports to build communication between generations has proved extremely effective and has attracted the attention of local governments around the nation.

The sports medicine approach

A proper understanding of one's own strength and the state of one's own health is essential for anyone who wants to enjoy sports on a regular basis. If a person jumps in head first without knowing his or her limits, the result is likely to be physical damage through overexertion instead of improved fitness.

This was the thinking behind the opening in 1997 of the Aichi Health Plaza, an all-purpose health facility, in Higashiura Town. Here people undergo a detailed assessment of their health and their lifestyle and are given a tailor-made exercise regime designed specifically to help them improve their health through sport. The plaza contains many facilities on a par with the best available in public and private sports centers elsewhere in Aichi, but none of the others conducts anywhere near so thorough a health checkup from a medical perspective.

Exercycles are wired up to computers in this room set aside for measuring the physical burden of exercise and accurately assessing physical condition.
(Aichi Health Plaza)
"We assess the health of everyone who comes to the plaza for the first time. They are measured, tested, and interviewed about their medical condition, fitness, nutrition, and the amount of rest they are getting. We also have doctors, physical trainers, nurses, and nutritionists on hand, so people can be given appropriate advice based on their personal records at any time after they have begun their training," explains staff member Naomi Ikeno.

Many of the people who come to the Aichi Health Plaza are in their twenties, but a visit to the pool, the athletics room, or any of the other facilities is enough to see that there are also plenty of seniors. "People use the facilities after undergoing a proper health assessment, so seniors can enjoy exercising their bodies without a risk of overdoing something," she says. In this way, the Aichi Health Plaza is a good place for people who want to improve their health through sport, regardless of their age.

There is also a highly regarded research institute in Aichi Prefecture providing medical and scientific support to the sporting community. The Institute of Sports Medicine and Science was established in Agui Town in 1986 . It is the nation's first and only "think tank" for sports in general, and its objective is to undertake medical and scientific research relating to sports and to provide feedback on its findings--through physical examination, diagnosis, and research seminars--to athletes and also to the broader community. As its activities focus on prevention and treatment of sports injuries and health management through sport, its work is highly medical in nature. But what makes it unique is that it treats only "sportspeople."

"What we mean by sportspeople is certainly not restricted to professionals," explains physiotherapist Hirokazu Kobayashi. "Everyone in whose life sports have a significant weight, even people who play a sport for fun, or who actively engage in sport for personal development, are sportspeople in the broadest sense of the word, and they can all come to our institute for help."

He adds, "Out of the total five thousand or so people who come to us during a year, there are students from local elementary and middle schools, members of corporate sports teams from all over the country, and the elderly who are still active in sports."

Naturally, many professional athletes also come to the institute for help, and not only from within Japan. Among the numerous foreign visitors that institute staff members have seen recently are several members of the South Korean basketball team that competed in the Sydney Olympics. "The strongest theme running through all our research into sports medicine is the pursuit of safe and efficient bodily movement. This is the ultimate issue for anyone at all who is involved in sports," Kobayashi says.

From little children to seniors, from members of corporate sports teams to professionals, as well as sportspeople from overseas, the Institute of Sports Medicine and Science deals with sports lovers in all walks of life. In a way, it is a microcosm of the prefecture as an important hub of sporting activity.

(Photos by Masatoshi Sakamoto, Text by Masaki Yamada and Jun Nakahara)