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Overseas Olympic teams' 'katakana wear' draws attention in Japan

In this photo from the German Olympic soccer team's official Instagram account, players are seen traveling while wearing polo shirts with "Germany" written in Japanese katakana phonetic characters.

TOKYO -- It is not only the polished play of the athletes that is attracting attention at the Tokyo Olympics. Clothing worn by foreign athletes sporting Japanese phonetic katakana characters is also getting a lot of looks in Japan.

    At the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium, where the table tennis competition was held, the orange polo shirts worn by German national team officials feature the word "Germany" in black on the chest. It is written not in the Latin alphabet, but in katakana, which is typically used for words of foreign origin in Japanese.

    British officials appeared in white tank tops with four katakana letters for "Great Britain" at the BMX bicycle venue, and Germany's Olympic soccer team was shown on its official Instagram page traveling in a polo shirt with "Germany" written in katakana.

    According to the German-based Adidas, which has been contracted to produce clothing for the German and British national teams, the decision to put the katakana country names on the uniforms for the Tokyo Olympics was made in 2018. The sportswear brand came up with the idea to show respect to the host country for welcoming foreign athletes with open arms, and to show the teams' pride in representing their country. It was well received by each nation's officials.

    This photo shows a T-shirt of the British national team with the country name in Japanese katakana phonetic characters. (Photo courtesy of Adidas)

    The decision to use katakana instead of hiragana, Japanese's other phonetic character set, was based on their pursuit of "high-quality design and ease of reading." Adidas has also adopted katakana for the Hungarian and Irish team uniforms. In addition to shirts, jackets and pants, bags and hats also have katakana designs.

    The designs were decided on before the coronavirus pandemic struck. Initially, the design was intended to show which country the athletes represented when they were sightseeing in Tokyo, so that Japanese people on the street would be more familiar with the overseas athletes.

    However, the world situation has changed dramatically. The athletes could no longer casually go out in Tokyo, and the opportunity to see "katakana wear" on the streets was lost. Even so, the coaches and officials wearing them at the competition venues appeared on TV screens.

    Even athletes from countries where companies other than Adidas were contracted, such as Finland and the Czech Republic, wore clothing that included katakana characters, and Japanese people on social media called it "cute," "eye-catching," and "warm-feeling."

    Simon Cartwright, 55, of Adidas, who played a central role in the project, said it was natural for Japanese katakana culture, which Japan could proudly show the world, to attract attention. He said that the response was beyond officials' expectations and that he was proud that the aims of the designs had been achieved on a global stage, with so many people accepting them.

    What people in Japan are probably wondering is whether they will be able to purchase this katakana wear. According to Cartwright, unfortunately, in the case of Adidas it is only on sale in the teams' home countries, and is difficult to purchase from Japan at this point.

    (Japanese original by Shohei Kawamura, Sports News Department)

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