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Friday, Oct. 18, 2002


Grassless Japan gets set to go greener

We'll soon be saying goodbye to gravel

A well-tended lawn or a green sports field are rare and exotic luxuries in Japan.

I was reminded of that while watching the World Cup on TV this past spring. The beautiful green pitches on which the matches were played were in stark contrast to the ashen gray soccer grounds that you find nearly everywhere else in Japan.

And it's not just with soccer.

Schoolyards, children's playgrounds, small parks and just general areas where people go to have fun are normally covered in dirt, sand, fine gravel or a combination of the three.

In short, grass is not big in Japan.

Which strikes me as unnatural, since the green stuff creates such a comfortable, clean and aesthetically pleasing surface when compared to dirt.

A safer one too. How can a school-age soccer goalkeeper be expected to make a diving save when he knows that when he hits the ground, he risks having grit embedded in his skin?

So what's with Japan's preference for dirt over grass?

Whenever I've asked around, most people cite cost. The expense of maintaining grass sports fields and parks is beyond the budgets of local governments. Or so I was told by a group of patrons in my neighborhood bar one recent weekend.

"Yeah right," was my response. "In the world's second largest economy?"

I reminded the crowd that Cambodia, Sri Lanka and other much poorer countries I have visited can afford to provide large swaths of grass in their city parks and schoolyards.

After the barroom discussions got nowhere, I contacted research agronomist Noriaki Aoki of the Nishinihon Green Research Institute, a foundation in Fukuoka that promotes the use of grass for recreation sports in Japan.

Cost, he said, is not a factor.

"I think the most fundamental reason is because Japan has never had much land, so for most private houses the construction of a yard or garden based around a lawn has been impossible," Aoki said.

Consequently, the concept of a well-kept lawn or grass sports field has long been an alien concept to many Japanese, whose image of greenery tends to center on trees rather than grass.

Aoki added that Japan has also been lagging in the development of scientific methods for creating and maintaining grass for recreation and sports.

Yet the situation seems to be changing. I've since learned that a kind of pro-grass movement has sprouted up very recently in Japan.

Among its promoters is no less than the central government. Late last month, the Central Council for Education, part of the education ministry, rolled out a report recommending that grass fields be created in the nation's schoolyards and sports grounds.

The proposal was prompted by statistics showing that the physical strength and stamina of Japanese youth have deteriorated at an alarming rate in recent years.

The report's authors pin much of the blame on dirt schoolyards, whose harsh surfaces and dust clouds can make sports -- and just generally running around -- an unpleasant activity for kids.

The council also hopes that more green sports fields will help create a new generation of improved athletes.

A nonprofit organization (NPO) in Kobe, Green Spirit, realized this long ago. It has been promoting the replacement of dirt with grass at schoolyards at elementary schools. And once the grass fields are created, it wants the schoolyards to roll back their big iron gates to the public during school holidays, so that families can use the green spaces for their outings.

Among the benefits of grass playing fields, in addition to the physical fitness factors, are a reduction of heat in summer, according to the NPO. It cites a survey finding that temperatures on grass fields can be more than 10 degrees cooler than at dirt fields, something to consider given Japan's scorching summers of the past few years.

Green Spirits also believes that playing on grass brings kids in closer touch with nature.

So should this pro-grass movement gather steam, Japan could gradually start turning greener in the years ahead.

Who knows? Maybe we'll see a time when the smell of freshly cut grass in spring and summer becomes a true feature of Japan's seasons.

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