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Hoops and breams: Japanese man spends years training wild fish to swim through rings

Naoyuki Aoki is seen next to a recreation of the blackhead sea bream swimming through the Tokyo 2020 hoops, in his garden in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, on May 16 2019. The extra rings he prepared for the 20-loop challenge can be seen in the background. (Mainichi/Ryoko Kijima)

MATSUYAMA -- Local resident Naoyuki Aoki, 83, has spent over a decade perfecting an idiosyncratic art under the sea. Kitted out in his diving gear, he tamed three of the famously nervy blackhead sea bream living on the seabed in Ehime Prefecture, west Japan, to swim through a series of 10 hoops reading "Tokyo 2020."

Although the fish disappeared around spring 2018, Aoki and his aquatic athletes offer encouragement for 2020's Olympic competitors. "Just as my sea bream swam through 10 rings, double the Olympic five, I want those taking part in the games to work twice as hard for the event."

Aoki first encountered the fish around 2005 and 2006. He was diving off the coast of Gogoshima Island, near Matsuyama, when the sea bream he calls "Gonta" approached him. He said that at first the fish were so nervous they would swim away at the sound of bubbles from his air tank, but over time they became comfortable taking food offered to them.

Taro the blackhead sea bream swims through the 10 loop course while being watched over by Naoyuki Aoki in this image taken from his video shot.

The next phase was to start bringing hula hoops into the water. Training began with Aoki modelling the swimming motion through the rings for the fish to emulate. Then he used food to guide them into doing the trick themselves. After a few years they could glide through five, each measuring a diameter of about 50 centimeters. With the announcement that Tokyo would host the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, he doubled the course to 10 hoops. The new version was first completed in 2017.

Along with Gonta, there was also Ichiro and Taro. Over around 100 visits to the sea a year, Aoki forged a bond of trust with the three fish. To call them over, he would tap a hammer against submerged parts of boats or on seabed rocks.

"They'd swim through the rings then beg for a treat," said Aoki. There were rough periods when the fish would perform U-turns halfway through the hoops reading "Tokyo 2020." But when they swam through them perfectly and repeatedly, he was delighted. "It was like we'd won the gold medal," he says looking back.

But since spring 2018 they haven't responded to his calls. "Gonta was around 20 years old, so it may have been his time. But I wonder; were they caught in a net or something like that?" His shoulders fall in disappointment, "I'd made more rings to make it 20, as a challenge for Tokyo 2020. It's such a shame."

But, he still has the videos of them practicing together. "I want many people to find out about their majestic movement through the hoops, and for it to become a kind of support activity for our Olympic athletes," he said.

(Japanese original by Ryoko Kijima, Matsuyama Bureau)

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