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Beach volleyball is becoming a hot topic even before the arrival of summer, thanks to the growing popularity of 21-year-old player Miwa Asao.

Asao, who also works as a model and television celebrity, saw her popularity surge as her TV appearances began to increase last year.

A book of photographs of her has sold 25,000 copies since coming out last winter, and sales of a DVD featuring her have exceeded 20,000.

Customer reaction to the DVD was much higher than expected, said Shuji Omata, deputy manager of the first visual production department of Ponycanyon Inc.

“It’s not often that sales of DVDs of a woman idol amount to 20,000,” he said, adding that Ponycanyon had targeted men in their 30s to 40s.

The company wanted to “convey the beauty of her healthy body,” according to Omata.

All of the roughly 800 tickets for this season’s opening tournament in late April in Chita, Aichi Prefecture, including those for the courtside section priced at 4,000 yen, sold out.

The second tourney, a three-day event in Tokyo’s Odaiba waterfront area in May, drew 1,400 spectators, many of whom appeared anxious to get a look at Asao in action.

The Japan Beach Volleyball Federation banned spectators from taking still photographs and video footage to allow players “to concentrate on the game.” It took the step in the wake of reports that pictures of Asao taken by women beach volleyball buffs and made into DVDs had been auctioned on the Internet.

Asao first caught the eye of JBV chief Shunichi Kawai during the 2002 national spring high school volleyball tournament. She was a first-year student at a commercial high school in Tsu, Mie Prefecture, and Kawai, who is also president of a TV celebrity management company, was interested in her appearance and athletic ability.

Kawai, once a member of the Japanese national volleyball team, tried to recruit her and train her to become a star athlete by getting hints on how Maria Sharapova of Russia developed into a top tennis player.

He recommended that Asao switch during her final year in high school from standard volleyball to the beach version.

Kawai drew up a long-term plan covering the period up to the 2012 London Olympics to have her chosen as a member of the Japanese delegation and also worked out a plan for her to take lessons in modeling.

Asao now pairs up with Takemi Nishibori, 25, who used to play for corporate powerhouse JT.

Although Asao’s popularity may exceed her ability as a player, JBV Managing Director Shoji Setoyama said that from the standpoint of building up beach volleyball, the federation is grateful she is receiving so much attention.

Tomohisa Yamamoto, manager of the Japanese women beach volleyball delegation to the Olympics, said Asao is competitive for a 21-year-old.

Asao is taking part in a world tour that will determine whether the Japanese team will be eligible for the Beijing Olympics.

“My main job is beach volleyball,” Asao said. “I get frustrated when someone says I am not as good at beach volleyball as I am as a TV celebrity. I will go for a medal at the London Olympic Games.”

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