• Kyodo

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Japan’s cohosting of the World Cup finals have apparently boosted the popularity of soccer, creating strong demand for soccer balls.

Imports of athletic balls of all types soared 43.4 percent in 2001 to 3.6 billion yen, with most of the gains made from soccer balls, customs authorities said Tuesday.

Most of the imports passed through Shimizu port in Shizuoka Prefecture, accounting for 61.6 percent of the nation’s entire athletic ball import value in 2001, customs officials said.

Shizuoka residents are known for their passion for soccer, and the prefecture is often dubbed the “soccer kingdom” of Japan, leading many ball manufacturers to concentrate their distribution facilities there.

Tokyo port came in a distant second, with 12.5 percent of the total import value, the officials said.

China was the largest ball exporter to Japan, accounting for 39 percent of the total import value, followed by Thailand and Vietnam, they said.

Japan’s import of soccer balls also rose sharply in 1993, when the nation’s J. League professional soccer league was launched, the officials said.

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