IWATE, IWATE PREF. – A small mountain town in Iwate Prefecture is proud of its reputation as a town that has produced several Olympic hockey players.
Field hockey has long been part of life in the town of Iwate — which shares the name of the prefecture — ever since it was chosen to host the game during the 1970 National Sports Festival.
Fuji University professor Noritsugu Nishida, 70, was tasked with setting up local teams when he took a teaching assignment at Numakunai High School.
Nishida had no experience of playing hockey, so he invited university players from Tokyo for support. Lacking equipment, players practiced with soft balls and goal keepers used zabuton (floor cushions) as leg guards.
The town office provided elementary schools with sticks and balls and adopted hockey in physical education classes as the town sport.
Masao Tamura, 74, who has led a local junior sports club for nearly 40 years, said hockey became a household word when housewives began to play it. After their daily farm work, women would practice hockey under the lights of the trucks and tillers.
Children are raised in families where the hockey stick is part of daily life. Numakunai High School’s boy’s team has won the national schools competition six times, including for three consecutive years.
At its peak, the town had nearly 100 age-based hockey teams. The number has fallen to around 40 as fewer children are now living there.
The girls’ team at the high school, which won the interschool national championship in 2014, recently did not have enough members to form an 11-player team and so used students from other athletic clubs.
Nevertheless, the town’s annual hockey championship in October is the biggest event for residents, and people who live away from the town return to watch or play hockey. Elderly people who have quit playing now cheer for their grandchildren in games.
Shihori Oikawa, 27, a member of the Japanese women’s national team for the Olympics, was attracted to hockey while watching her mother play when she was small.
The annual championship provided Oikawa with opportunities to get acquainted with lots of people because all schools in the town participate in the event, she said.
“I will perform strongly at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics to show my gratitude to my hometown,” Oikawa said.