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'Host town' local bodies push int'l exchange efforts for 2020 Tokyo Games

Local elementary school children watch a member of U.S. men's gymnastics team practice in the city of Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, on June 18, 2019. (Mainichi/Shohei Oshima)

TOKYO -- Local bodies across Japan registered under the government-backed Host Town Initiative are preparing to welcome foreign athletes, coaches and staff as well as hold cultural exchange events, as June 20 marked 400 days until the start of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Children from at least one local primary school in the city of Funabashi, Chiba Prefecture, east of Tokyo, wowed and cheered as they observed the U.S. men's gymnastics team practice on June 18. An 11-year-old boy from the city-run Minedai Elementary School smiled and said, "I saw a gymnast for the first time. He was very muscular and (his performance was) stunning."

American Sam Mikulak, 26, who won the 2019 FIG Individual All-Around World Cup competition in Tokyo, experienced a traditional Japanese tea ceremony and other cultural exchange events. He said it felt refreshing and experiencing life in Japan will be an advantage when competing in the Tokyo Games.

It was the second time the gymnastics team participated in a training camp held in Funabashi following the same event that the city hosted last year. However, there "were some difficulties in adjusting the balance between practice and exchange events," according to Naoki Wada, 38, an official in the Funabashi Municipal Board of Education sports-for-all division.

In January 2018, the Kasama Municipal Government invited junior track and field athletes from Ethiopia to the city of Kasama in Ibaraki Prefecture, north of Tokyo. By welcoming foreign athletes, locals learned specific differences in customs, such as the fact that Ethiopians do not consume animal protein on certain days of the week due to religious reasons, according to the city.

Not only has the Host Town Initiative led to cultural exchanges, but there has been a case in which local bodies deepened ties with each other. The Zao Municipal Government in Miyagi Prefecture, in northeast Japan, and the Hitachiomiya Municipal Government in Ibaraki, which became host towns for Palau in 2016, shared the expenses for establishing a committee to promote efforts for Host Town Initiative activities.

The town of Zao and the city of Hitachiomiya are taking turns accepting athletes from Palau, as well as engaging in efforts for interregional exchange -- such as junior sports clubs visiting each other's municipality and selling each other's regional specialties at local events.

Some 390 local bodies across Japan have registered to host guests from 126 of the 207 countries and regions eligible for the games. There are systems in which local governments can hold exchange events to show their appreciation for recovery support for areas affected by the March 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and the ensuing nuclear disaster, or engage in efforts to create an inclusive society.

Meanwhile, many countries and regions mainly in areas including Africa and Central and South America still have not registered to participate in the exchange program. A government representative stated, "Host towns also have a choice to invite foreign athletes and keep holding exchange events after the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. We hope to keep placing importance on the continuity of public involvement, and at the same time increase the number (of host towns) so that Japanese people can support as many countries as possible."

(Japanese original by Shohei Oshima, City News Department)

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