OITA – Some five months after the 2002 FIFA World Cup, the village of Nakatsue, Oita Prefecture, is still enjoying the fruits of having hosted the Cameroon national soccer team.
The Kyushu village stole the show when it served as the base for the team from Africa.
Until then, Nakatsue was a quiet, depopulated village located near the border of Kumamoto and Fukoka prefectures. Local specialties include Japanese horseradish and shiitake mushrooms. Its landscape features a thicket of fully grown Japanese cedar trees, a dam, a stream, and National Highway 442 that cuts through the village from north to south.
The village caught the national spotlight when the Cameroon team arrived May 24, five days behind schedule. Despite their 3 a.m. arrival time, 150 villagers — more than 10 percent of the population — were on hand to welcome them at Nakatsue’s Taio sports center.
The players had been in the news with reports that their flight was delayed in Paris and Bangkok en route to Japan. A dispute over bonuses was reported to have been the reason for the delay.
When they arrived in the village, the media attention made Nakatsue’s name known all over Japan.
As a result, unusually heavy traffic is seen even now as outsiders flock to Nakatsue, and villagers display a sense of satisfaction with their success in meeting a small village’s big challenge.
Twenty-four national teams had their training camps in Japan prior to the World Cup, which was cohosted by South Korea.
Nakatsue’s residents hoped to revitalize their village, where almost half the 1,300 residents are over 60, by hosting one of those teams. The rise in sales of local specialty products is testament to their success.
The gains are not only material. The Cameroon players’ weeklong stay in the village has changed the outlook of middle school student Keiko Tosaka, 14, who once hoped to follow in her father’s footsteps and become an employee of the village office.
Now she says: “I’d like to go overseas and teach Japanese or become an international coordinator to convey Japanese culture. Or a flight attendant on international flights. I’d like to work with people around the world.”
Tosaka, who likes studying English, has increased her effort to master the language.
She had been worried about the Cameroon team’s delay because she was to perform a Japanese dance at a welcoming ceremony.
After the team’s arrival, she led a dancing team comprising elementary and middle school students, and also invited team members to join the performance. Team leader Son and player Mboma joined in. “I was really surprised. They were cheerful and their rhythmic sense was superb.
“Every day of the week the players were in the village was a festival,” she said.
Yumiko Goya, 52, who worked as a volunteer in welcoming the players, said: “Here, those in their 50s and 60s are considered young. It’s really important that everyone lend a hand.”
Eighty women and members of the village’s senior citizens’ group, youth organization, and business and industrial association participated in volunteer work. They solicited contributions, made flower beds, cleaned roads, set up signboards and made crafts as souvenirs.
A banner with the words “Campsite for Cameroon in the World Cup” still hangs on the wall by the side of the entrance to the village office, and signs welcoming the team stand along the national highway.
Automobiles bearing the license plates of other prefectures were parked at tourism facilities run by the village office and at the site of the former Taio gold mine. The monthly number of visitors to the site since June has increased 60 percent from the same period last year. In addition, some 2,000 visitors showed up at the Nakatsue sports center on a summer Bon festival day.
The village’s newfound fame has prompted a Tokyo department store to make a business proposal to Tsue Eipi, a company jointly established with neighboring villages to produce specialty goods.
Kaori Kitamura, 34, who is fluent in French and worked as a special employee of the village office during the Cameroon team’s stay in Nakatsue, said that while locals should be happy about the name recognition the village has gained, she is worried the notoriety will disappear before long.
To counter such fears, village head Yasumu Sakamoto, 71, plans to launch a membership group called “the association of smiling faces of Nakatsue Village” in November.
The association will send the village’s specialty products to those who pay a 10,000 yen membership fee, and will hold a gathering every May to mark the arrival of the Cameroon players.
Meanwhile, the village is in the process of deciding whether to merge with six neighboring cities, towns and villages.
Regardless of Nakatsue’s future, Sakamoto said, “We must preserve the humble virtue and the warm nature of the residents.”
Sakamoto plans to visit Cameroon before the end of the year to thank the soccer team for choosing Nakatsue as the site of its training camp.