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Sunday, Oct. 13, 2002

Sports Day: the spirit of '64


By YOKO HANI and SETSUKO KAMIYA
Staff writers

"Have Japanese people already forgotten about soccer?" asks a recent advertisement for a satellite-TV station. The ad continues: "To all the Japanese people who were swept up in the soccer frenzy of the World Cup -- have you forgotten about soccer?"

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Teams of children race while carrying huge balls at a Tokyo elementary school's Sports Day.

But how could we? As the ad aims to remind us, there is still a huge selection of games, both local and international, being broadcast in Japan. Obviously, there's been a serious demand for it ever since Japan and South Korea co-hosted the World Cup finals in June, when scores of Japanese were converted into rabid soccer fans.

Despite the sweeping soccer mania, no one has (yet) suggested creating a new, 15th national holiday to commemorate the event, maybe one called "World Cup Memorial Day." To declare a holiday after a major sporting event might seem like a peculiar notion, but it does has one significant precedent.

Thirty-eight autumns ago, another international sports event enthralled the nation -- namely, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the first Olympic Games ever held in Asia.

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Older residents of Tokyo play gate ball at Mabashi Park, Suginami Ward, Tokyo.

The Olympics -- which served as an opportunity to impress the world with Japan's postwar economic recovery -- made such a tremendous impact that the government introduced a national holiday: Taiiku no Hi, officially translated as "Health-Sports Day."

The Tokyo Olympics Games not only raised the spirits of post-war Japan, but also helped boost the battered economy.

For instance, infrastructure projects, such as the construction of the first shinkansen rail link (the Tokaido Shinkansen between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka), the Metropolitan Expressway in the capital, and the Meishin Expressway linking Nagoya and Kobe were coordinated with the event. And the goal of virtually every household was to purchase a TV to view the event.

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Futsal, or five-a-side soccer, is increasingly popular in Japan, especially since the World Cup finals in summer.

The national holiday was first observed in 1966, on Oct. 10 -- the opening day of the '64 Olympics, which ran through Oct. 24. Now, however, following a revision of the law in 1998 to create a three-day weekend, the national holiday falls on the second Monday of October -- this year, on Oct. 14.

In most schools, from kindergarten up, undokai (athletic meets) are held around this annual seasonal holiday, with students' families invited both to watch and, in some cases, to take part. Also, at the National Stadium in Tokyo, the government organizes a Sports Day event, which includes basic physical activities tests, such as sit-ups, jumping and gripping power.

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Amateur fighters practice the art of self-defense at the Guseikai Takagi Karate Dojo in Tokyo.

According to government data, modern lifestyles and a lack of regular exercise are having an adverse effect on the population's physical condition in general. A recent education ministry survey found that basic physical abilities, such as elementary schoolchildren's running and ball-pitching, are significantly worse than 30 years ago -- even though the average height and weight of children exceed that of their parents' generation.

At the other end of the age spectrum, however, a growing number of Japan's senior citizens are incorporating sporting activities into their daily or weekly routines. But whereas this used to often translate to golf or "gateball," nowadays hiking, for example, is becoming extremely popular among seniors.

The '64 Olympics notwithstanding, October -- with its many clear, fresh days -- is a perfect season for sports and outdoor activities. However, the general belief that it rarely rains on Oct. 10 is incorrect, according to the Meteorological Agency. A spokesman noted that "the opening day of the '64 Olympics was such a beautiful autumn day that people now believe it is always fair around the day."

Though the excitement of the Tokyo Olympics may be little more than a memory for some, Sports Day lives on, involving millions of Japanese, both young and old.



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