Tag pushed as an Olympic demo sport

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

If there is one thing Yasuo and Takao Hazaki feel confident about outdoing any other father-son duo in, it is their intense commitment to the ancient playground game of “onigokko,” or team tag.

In 2010, Yasuo Hazaki, 65, a social science professor at Josai International University in Tokyo, launched the International Onigokko Association to spur global interest in the game, which dates back to the eighth century.

The sports version of onigokko being pushed by Hazaki has simple rules, requires no equipment, and can be enjoyed by anyone regardless of age, training or athletic skill, he said.

Two teams of seven players try to seize a token placed on the opposing team’s side of the playing surface that is defended by the opponents. They must dash over, dodging attempts by their foes to tag them. If a player is tagged, he must return to his side and start again. Whenever a player grabs the token treasure, he wins a point for his team. The winning side is the one with most points when the 10-minute match ends.

Hazaki and his son have codified the rules and hope to make onigokko an official demonstration sport in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. They want to organize a public tournament, which Hazaki says might help to restore some of the “sports for all” mindset he believes the Olympics has surrendered to the athletic elites.

“The modern Olympics used to assert that what counted most was participation. It wasn’t all about winning, as it is today,” said Hazaki.

While emphasizing that top-notch athletes are welcome to compete for medals, he says the trend has made the event inaccessible to the public, the majority of whom only engage in it through television.

“Sports are a wonderful thing. They shouldn’t be considered a mere privilege for certain athletic talents. We need to create an environment where everybody can enjoy them,” said Hazaki, who is widely referred to in the sport as “Mr. Onigokko.”

Demonstration sports ceased after the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, and have yet to make an official comeback, although Beijing held a competition for one of the Chinese martial arts,during the 2008 Summer Olympics.

The Hazakis, together with other “onigotters,” as they refer to themselves, are campaigning for “sports onigokko,” a competitive, more formalized version of the game. The nascent sport has so far proved popular with schoolchildren, university students and even exhausted businessmen who play it for fun during office outings and business trips.

Traditional onigokko sees children merely enjoying chasing and being chased, but Hazaki’s version plays out as a real sport, with team clothing and officially licensed referees. The number of referees certified by Hazaki’s association has grown to about 600 nationwide, he said.

The professor says playing sports onigokko would help young people stay fit and rediscover the joy of playing outdoors in the digital age. Over the past three decades, children aged 7 to 19 have shown a broad decline in running and throwing ability, although there was a slight uptick most recently, a 2012 sports ministry survey showed.

Hazaki says the sport has many attractions because both defense and offense can be strategized. It also promotes teamwork. And by sharpening their dodging and sprinting instincts, players might even save themselves in an earthquake, he added.

One warm June evening, children gathered at the National Children’s Castle in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, to participate in an event organized by the Hazakis.

Unlike regular onigokko, the children became so engaged in the sports version they were soon shouting directions to each other as if it was soccer. Their similarly involved parents alternated between jubilation and groans whenever a side snatched the treasure.

Watching from the sidelines, Takao Hazaki, president of event organizer Amica Project Inc., said he arranges onigokko trips and outings for corporate clients. In the lead-up to the 2020 Olympics, Takao, 30, said he plans to host Japan’s first sports onigokko World Cup, as early as next year.

He will urge foreigners studying here to spread the word when they return home, and hopes the Japan International Cooperation Agency will similarly publicize the sport abroad.

“By introducing something as easy to play as onigokko, we hope more people, regardless of athletic talent, will feel encouraged to play sports and enjoy them, which I believe will go a long way toward making the global population healthier,” he said.

The professor says his fascination with onigokko began more than 30 years ago. At that time he was working at the National Children’s Castle and found himself wondering if there was any solution to childhood obesity.

Then he realized one day that onigokko might serve as suitable exercise and had a group of children try it.

“The effect was a miracle,” he said. “They became physically active like never before, and overcame their reluctance to exercise.”

A similar phenomenon was seen during an outing by Tokyo video game developer Furyu Corp. in summer 2013. The trip, organized by Hazaki’s onigokko group and travel agency JTB Corporate Sales Inc., stressed the fun side of sports onigokko while downplaying its athletic element.

Furyu employee Taketo Nakamura, who was on the trip, said sports onigokko is a great way to increase communication within a workforce. “Once we started playing, we ran about screaming frantically, completely oblivious to our age-based vertical relationship,” he said.