While Japan looks forward to hosting the world’s biggest and glitziest sports event five years from now, a Tokyo man is promoting a series of innovative, quirky sports that are played simply for the fun of it.
Handball played with slippery, lotion-dabbed hands; a game of Frisbee involving both people and their dogs; and a squash video game in which the elderly can use their tongues to control the racket are among the sporting twists being touted by 34-year-old Tomohiro Sawada and his World Yuru Sports Association.
“I wanted to restore what sports meant originally, things like ‘playing,’ ‘fun’ and ‘pastime’ ” by inventing original games that let players focus on the sheer joy of participating, said Sawada, a copywriter for advertising giant Dentsu Inc.
Sawada, a self-proclaimed “nonsports” guy, felt big business and cash was dominating major sports events, particularly the Olympics, which Tokyo will host in 2020. The huge amounts of money flowing into sports made him question whether cash was outweighing the value of athletic activities.
The Tokyo native thus set up World Yuru Sports Association in April to focus on what he calls yuru (laid-back) sports in which no one feels left out. They allow anyone to “enjoy participating regardless of their age, gender, athletic ability and disabilities,” Sawada said of the activities he promotes.
Laid-back would seem to be the opposite of the notion of competitive sports, which, according to the Olympic motto, is “about self-discipline . . . and something that aims for higher, faster and stronger,” Sawada said.
As of Aug. 18, his association had introduced 10 yuru sports concepts, all of which look unique and well thought out. They were initially tried out by Sawada and his friends, but the number of participants is increasing.
Hand soap ball, a hybrid term pairing “handball” with “hand soap,” came into being last fall when Shunsuke Azuma, a former national handball team captain, asked Sawada for ideas to raise the profile of his sport.
The rules for hand soap ball are broadly the same as handball, except that players are required to apply a colored lotion that looks like liquid hand soap, and carry or pass the ball with slippery hands.
Since its debut late last year, hand soap ball has drawn about 250 people — from teenagers to people in their 60s to those with disabilities — who responded to Sawada’s call to participate in events he organized.
Sawada wanted a sport that deviated from the rules of conventional handball in amusing ways, while preserving the original elements of the sport. He thought a unique approach was essential to promote a sport that is admittedly not familiar in Japan.
If players drop the ball during a match, they are penalized by having to apply more lotion. If they play rough, they have to double the amount of additional lotion.
“Even a former national team player had difficulty playing hand soap ball,” Sawada said.
Sawada, who denies being good at physical activities, attributes his inspiration for yuru sports to a hilarious YouTube clip he saw early last year featuring bubble soccer.
The Norwegian-invented sport requires each player to wear a transparent bubble-like inflatable suit that gives them the shape of a large ball with their legs sticking out the bottom. The players bounce and fall down as they run into one another during the course of the game.
“I knew even I would enjoy that,” Sawada thought when he saw the clip, and he went on to set up a Japanese bubble soccer association in May 2014. The association began to hold events to promote the new sport around the country almost every weekend.
During the first six months about 50,000 people played bubble soccer, 40 percent of whom didn’t regularly engage in sports, according to Sawada.
“I think many of them were types who see themselves as not being good at sports, but after playing bubble soccer, they all said they had fun and wanted to play it again,” he said.
Sawada also hopes by creating new sports activities that he can engage the elderly, who accounted for a record-high 26 percent of Japan’s population as of last October and are expected to increase to over 33 percent by 2035, according to government statistics.
“That means many people in this country will have difficulty participating in sports as the aging of society advances,” Sawada said. “It’s not very good if there aren’t sports that are just right for such people.”
Sawada said about 200 people are currently involved in the Yuru sports association, of whom about 40 are “sports creators” comprised of young professionals in the advertising, video and music industries.
They are tasked with creating new sports in teams paired with people from different backgrounds, including professional athletes, the physically challenged and children.
The association now receives requests from various organizations for ideas to promote particular sports. Engineers and craftsmen have offered up equipment and devices that can be used to create new sports.
Inutimet Frisbee was born out of such team efforts. In this sport, which combines the Japanese word inu (dog) and Ultimate Frisbee, human players and dogs play together in the game similar to the field sport, but it’s the animals who are allowed to score goals in a number of ways, which include by catching the disc in the opponent’s zone.
The idea came from a suggestion by Hirotada Ototake, a best-selling author who was born without arms or legs due to a genetic disorder. He said to Sawada, “It would be nice if you could play Frisbee with dogs.”
Sawada worked with Yuki Mori, head coach for the women’s national Ultimate Frisbee team, to hone the rules.
Squachu, which incorporates video games and thus does not require overly tasking activities, might appeal to the elderly who want to develop oral muscles to strengthen their chewing ability.
Combining squash and the Japanese word chu (smack, or onomatopoeia for the sound of a kiss), the sport allows players to control an on-screen racket by moving their tongues on a special device. The motion of pushing the lips out in the manner of kissing is translated into the hitting movement of the racket.
In response to requests, Sawada said the association plans to hold a squachu event in November for the physically challenged who are bedridden.
Squachu brought together a technology that researchers at Tokyo’s University of Electro-Communications had yet to find a proper use for, and people who wanted to promote the sport.
The World Yuru Sports Association now has about 45 sports categories under development, and the number is growing, according to Sawada.
He said his ultimate goal is to export yuru sports, hoping to see the people around the globe play the sports in 50 years.
“Japan is ahead in terms of its aging population, and other countries will encounter similar situations as us in the future. I want to offer sports for the people in such countries, who may have trouble finding appropriate physical activities for themselves.”