Endurance races involving wheeled office chairs have spread from their birthplace in a small Kyoto suburban town across Japan to Taiwan and China.

The races are named Isu-1 Grand Prix — a pun on the Japanese word “isu” for chair and Formula 1 racing.

Teams of three cover as great a distance as possible over two hours while sitting on wheeled office chairs.

The racing started in a struggling shopping area in Kyotanabe, Kyoto Prefecture, in March 2010 as an event organized by the cooperative association of around 45 local retailers to attract shoppers.

The idea was to evoke “happy childhood memories,” said Tsuyoshi Tahara, 46, head of the Kirara cooperative association.

To organizers’ surprise, as many as 32 teams gathered for the first race to compete over a 180-meter course in the Kirara shopping arcade. The race became an annual event.

The success drew attention from shopping districts across Japan as an event to rejuvenate local business activity.

The races have so far been organized in 12 cities from Hokkaido in the north to Kyushu in the southwest.

The races were covered by the media and online footage of them has attracted a large number of viewers.

On April 24, the first overseas race was held in a shopping district in Tainan, a city on Taiwan’s southwestern coast.

Tahara visited Tainan twice to help arrange the event in which around 100 teams competed in the presence of more than 10,000 spectators.

“Thanks to support from the Tainan city office, the race was more exciting than those in Japan,” Tahara said.

A racing event also saw a success in Suzhou, China, on June 25, held as a department store promotional event.

The racers use commercially available office chairs. Casters can tire out, and backrests and armrests can break as the riders collide and crash into each other.

For safety, many riders wear helmets as well as knee and elbow pads. Before each race, a “vehicle and equipment inspection” is held.

Along with the increase in races, participants have been improving their skills, scouting courses in advance and becoming more selective about their chairs.

However, Tahara noted that the races started as an event to revitalize a shopping district rather than as a competition.

“I hope it will develop into a sport everybody can take part in irrespective of age and sex, and show the spirit of staying the course until the last to people including those overseas,” he said.

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