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Kyodo News Shinmachi, a small town of about 13,000 people in Gunma Prefecture, has drawn the attention of several municipalities because of its comprehensive regional sports club — a concept common in Europe but relatively new to Japan.

Children from Shinmachi Sports Club play soccer in April at an elementary school ground.

In line with the government’s sports-promoting policy, Shinmachi Sports Club is helping many children get involved in sports.

The former Education Ministry — which now falls under the umbrella of the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry — formed a basic sports-promotion plan last year that involved the establishment of comprehensive regional sports clubs in all cities, towns and villages by 2010.

The Japan Amateur Sports Association, which has been supporting municipality-based efforts to foster sports clubs since fiscal 1995, designated 22 locations across the country as “model areas” and extended subsidies to the relevant municipalities.

The town office of Shinmachi, operating its sports club using an annual subsidy of 1.5 million yen from fiscal 1997 to fiscal 1999, was forced to operate independently when financial support ceased.

Shinmachi’s all-around regional club has attracted attention from other municipalities curious to see whether a club of this kind can take root in a local community.

The town, in which a number of food and chemical companies are based, was the first in the prefecture to be designated by JASA in fiscal 1997 as a model area for the fostering of comprehensive regional sports clubs.

Education Ministry officials sought to establish clubs capable of hosting a variety of teams, mirroring those that have been in operation in Europe for years.

The nearest relation to these clubs in Japan are commercial athletic clubs that collect initiation and equipment utilization fees. Various Japanese sports organizations operate independently and are not affiliated with any particular group.

In fiscal 1995, therefore, officials decided to set up comprehensive regional sports clubs that could become core sports establishments in the 21st century.

With a looming five-day-school-week system, to debut in all Japanese schools in 2002, officials believe clubs of this kind could help children engage in sports on weekends.

Officials also saw the clubs as a means of addressing the decline in junior high and high school sports activities that has arisen from the falling numbers of children and increasing numbers of older teachers populating the nation’s classrooms.

Shinmachi’s sports club, which is now operated independently of the town office, consists of five regional sports organizations, including a kendo group.

About four times a month, children who are members of the club get together in a gymnasium or a schoolyard to participate in physical exercise. They are given the opportunity to participate in hands-on sports lessons, such as those given by former Olympic athletes, or to join a ski training camp in the winter.

One warm Saturday in April, around 80 elementary school children, led by a high school student, gathered in a schoolyard in Shinmachi.

A wide variety of programs had been prepared for the children. First graders engaged in a floor exercise or played tag. Junior high and high school students played softball or took part in a game of dodge ball, while the girls’ softball team participated in a game.

The children feel at ease playing softball and other sports in the same schoolyard, according to 43-year-old Toshikazu Koide, the club’s coordinator. Koide is also the secretary general of the children’s sports organization.

The organization, modeled on a German sports club, gives children the freedom to play any kind of sport without worrying about the outcome of the contest.

The Shinmachi club was initially composed of eight organizations. Three of these withdrew following the end of the three-year subsidy in fiscal 1999, although the children opposed this withdrawal.

One of the three organizations that terminated its membership in order to to operate independently was the children’s baseball organization. Despite not being officially invited to attend a Christmas party and physical strength check, children belonging to other organizations asked the boys to come.

The baseball group is now scheduled to rejoin the club.

The club’s membership stands at around 240. With the number of children in Japan falling, however, some club members are listed as members of more than one organization.

The JASA subsidy system has helped the clubs in Shinmachi and Shibetsu, Hokkaido, to take root in their respective regions. Problems still need to be resolved, however, including the effective utilization of existing facilities and the nurturing of leaders.

Sports experts also point to the need for clubs such as these to establish cooperative ties with J-League professional teams and sports clubs run by corporations. Others say soccer pool earnings ought to be distributed to foster comprehensive regional sports clubs.

It will still take the Shinmachi club several years to attain the status of its European counterparts, with Koide remarking that he will be pleased if the club is able to reach 50 percent to 60 percent of his ideal within his grandchildren’s generation.

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