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Hawaii uses sports to attract Japanese

by Kaz Nagatsuka

One of Hawaii’s biggest traits is its Aloha Spirit. And the state is actively working on extending its warm-welcoming, positive state of mind through sports.

Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) president and CEO Mike McCartney said that sports can be a great source which can represent that spirit and has the power to act as a bridge between the nations.

“Sports is building friendships” McCartney said in an interview with The Japan Times along with his partner and HTA vice president of tourism marketing David Uchiyama, during a recent trip to Japan.

“Sports is like a universal peacemaking tool. People compete against each other or play or enjoy sports with each other. Sports does a lot more than just competitions, businesses and travels.”

A year away from hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Conference (APEC), the Aloha State is more eager than ever to promote its sporting environment to the world. And it considers Japan as one of the most important partners and markets to achieving that goal.

“Hawaii wouldn’t have been what it is today if we didn’t have long-term visits by Japanese because our economy, our people and our lifestyle are special to them,” McCartney said.

During their stay in Japan, McCartney and Uchiyama actively visited several major sports organizations, such as the J. League and NFL Japan, to seek possible future cooperation, including developing the Pan Pacific Cup, an inter-confederation soccer tournament that invites champions from Pacific Rim nations like Japan and South Korea, the U.S., and Mexico. The tourney wasn’t held in 2009 and ’10 (it was held in Los Angeles in ’09), but Uchiyama said they want to resume it by 2012.

On the football side, the HTA, collaborating with the National Football League, is inviting a couple of Japanese coaches to the state for the Pro Bowl in the end of January. Akira Yonekura, head coach of this year’s national collegiate champion Ritsumeikan University, and Hiroyuki Yabe, an offensive line coach of Waseda University, will fly to Honolulu to get a taste of some precious NFL experience throughout the weekend.

“We’re hoping that elevates the level of interest in American football,” Uchiyama said.

Meanwhile, McCartney and Uchiyama also referred to youth tournaments and programs, assembling children from around the world, so they can gain some international experience in the early stages of their playing career and improve themselves more effectively. They added they would like to make it happen in soccer and football to begin with.

McCartney insisted that giving the youth generation international experience is a key to raising the level of an entire nation.

“The youth needs to compete internationally,” he said. “Not just compete against the best teams in your country, in your region, but to compete internationally to have that experience. We would like Hawaii to be one of the stops along the international circuit.”

Their emphasis won’t be limited to just team sports. They also want to introduce individual sports, such as marathon and ocean sports. They hope visitors will be provided with meaningful experiences by actually participating in sporting events in Hawaii.

Many Japanese runners participate in the Honolulu Marathon each December. Uchiyama said Japanese participation has made the annual race even more special. But Hawaii has more to offer, including the 13-km Great Aloha Run and the Century Bike Ride, and the HTA wants to expose them more to the world as well.

“There’s a lot of things that visitors from Japan can be part of,” Uchiyama said. “People from Japan can observe and watch, but also experience and participate in.”

The HTA also cooperates well with the University of Hawaii, and tries to thicken bonds with Japan with the school as well. Starting with the men’s basketball program, Japan’s Ex Sports channel has started airing the UH sports games, including volleyball and football, since last winter.

“We feel that Hawaii events are University of Hawaii events,” McCartney said. “So we support the University of Hawaii very much to expand relationships with Japan. It’s a dream and goal, not just for the Hawaii Tourism Authority, but for the University of Hawaii.”