NISHINOMIYA, Hyogo Pref. — With the Hanshin Tigers having their best start in years this season, the pride of the Kansai area has been the center of public and media attention.

While the media and fans are in the grips of Tiger mania, the extensive coverage of Hanshin players has had a far-reaching effect for one charitable nonprofit organization.

Hanshin stars started the season on March 30 sporting stickers of Ashinaga (Long Legs), a Tokyo-based scholarship foundation, on their batting helmets in an effort to support youths who have lost parents due to disease, suicide, crime or disaster, or whose parents cannot work due to such incidents.

The name Ashinaga is derived from “Daddy Long-Legs,” a novel written by American Jean Webster.

It is unprecedented for a Japanese pro baseball team to support an NPO in this fashion.

The idea surfaced earlier this year when the team’s manager, 56-year-old Senichi Hoshino, suggested that the popular club do something to help children who have lost parents and cannot afford to study or engage in sports, the team said.

Hoshino himself lost his father to a brain tumor before he was born.

“Earlier in the spring, when the team was playing preseason games, (Hoshino) asked if we could contribute to society by campaigning for charities, for example, by putting promotional stickers on our helmets,” team spokesman Hayato Okamoto said.

Hoshino was greatly troubled by the recent increase in suicides by male white-collar workers, apparently due in part to the prolonged recession, and the plight of fatherless children, Okamoto explained.

According to Ashinaga, the number of high school students on its scholarship program whose parents had committed suicide jumped from 21 in fiscal 1998 to 178 as of the end of the fiscal 2001.

The group was founded in 1993.

“When the Tigers first contacted us, we were surprised,” recalled Ashinaga Secretary General Yoshiji Hayashida.

“Ever since, we have been overwhelmed by the public response to the campaign and have received letters saying things like ‘we saw the Tigers helmets’ and ‘we are Tigers fans and would like to support Ashinaga.’ “

For the current fiscal year, Ashinaga plans to lend about 1.56 billion yen to some 4,200 high school and college students and to work to support the mental health of parentless youths at a Rainbow House facility in Kobe and via nationwide gatherings it is scheduled to hold in the summer.

The group is trying to raise funds to cover the annual scholarships and to construct another Rainbow House in Tokyo by the end of fiscal 2004.

Ashinaga is funded via donations from some 30,000 regular “Ashinaga-san” contributors, and via street fundraising campaigns conducted nationwide in the spring and fall by volunteers and students who have lost one or both parents.

The group receives no government subsidies, although public funds have been allocated to another group that supports children who have lost their parents in traffic accidents.

With the Tigers promoting Ashinaga’s cause on the organization’s Web site and players helping students and volunteers with the street fundraising campaigns in late April, the group collected about 160 million yen, up 40 million yen from an average year.

The team has also collected about 2 million yen in a postal savings transfer account it set up exclusively to handle Ashinaga donations since April 9, when Hanshin played its home opener at Koshien Stadium in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture.

However, it is not the cash that has helped the youths the most, Hayashida stressed.

“The Tigers campaign has given tremendous power and courage to the young people in Ashinaga as well as our staff and volunteers nationwide, probably beyond the expectations of Mr. Hoshino, the club and its players,” he said.

“Seeing the stickers on the Tigers helmets almost every day on TV, the children of Ashinaga can feel they are not being neglected by society, and our staff and volunteers take greater pride in our activities.”

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