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Editorial: With 500 days left until 2020 Games, it's time to boost local-int'l exchange

There are 500 days left until the start of the Tokyo 2020 Games.

Interviews for prospective games volunteers began last month, and applications for the lottery for regular events tickets will open in April.

The feeling that the games are on their way is almost tangible, and not just in Tokyo or regional areas hosting events. That's what the central government-backed Host Town Initiative is all about. The program works with local bodies to set up sports and cultural exchange events with foreign athletes, coaches and staff set to take part in the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, as well as related figures. As of March 5, 381 local governments across Japan had registered to host guests from 121 of the 207 countries and regions eligible for the games.

In a move related to recovery from the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and the ensuing nuclear disaster, the village of Iitate, Fukushima Prefecture, in northeastern Japan has become the host town for Laos. The local Iitate Junior High School created its own IOC -- not the "International Olympic Committee," but the "Iitate Olympic Committee" -- and all 42 of the school's students are playing a role in the host city project.

In an effort to support the Southeast Asian athletes when they arrive, some of the students have launched a "culinary research" group to create dishes that combine local foods with Laotian specialties. Other students have set to building a one-tenth scale replica of Patuxai, an iconic triumphal arch in Laos' capital Vientiane.

The children are doing their best to brainstorm and pool ideas on how to best act as a bridge between Laos and Japan. All this is an example of one region's determination to embody the Olympic movement and spirit.

However, 86 countries and regions still do not have a Host Town Initiative local body to go to. Most of these are in Africa and Latin America, many of them unfamiliar to the Japanese or troubled by conflict. The problem for the Host Town Initiative is how to create ties between these places and local Japanese host governments.

It is tough to suddenly strike up exchanges with a place with which one feels no connection and without some kind of specific cue. If people from these places are to be accommodated together, then the host body has to prepare those facilities. That's a tall order for small local governments.

Host towns have also been approved to keep holding exchange events with foreign athletes after the games are over. Perhaps this long-term aspect of the program will make it easier for local bodies to sign up.

During the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Japan and South Korea, the then village of Nakatsue, Oita Prefecture (population approximately 1,300), put up the Cameroon side. The exchanges have continued ever since, setting a good example for what is possible. This kind of project is a major asset for a regional area.

Next summer, some 11,000 athletes from more than 200 countries and regions will descend on Japan. We would like to see preparations to accept them spread across the country, to deepen international exchange.

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