Sano is a nondescript town bang in the center of Honshu, the Japanese archipelago’s largest island. Although only about 80 km from the capital, Tokyo, the town could be another planet, as sparsely populated and modest as Tokyo is flashy and thrumming. The abrupt appearance on its outskirts of an international standard cricket ground is therefore mirage-like. But this is no optical illusion. Sano bills itself as the home of cricket in Japan, and is betting on the sport to transform its fortunes as it grapples with demographic and economic decline.
How this unlikely turn of events came to be is a story that includes entrepreneurial city hall officials, baseball stars-turned cricketers and a national government strategy to revitalise regional economies, stirred in with a dollop of serendipity in the form of a half-Japanese, half-Scottish cricket enthusiast called Naoki Alex Miyaji and his passion for Ramen noodles. It’s also a story with a catchy headline given that Japan recently qualified for the first time ever to play in the Under 19 Cricket World Cup next year.
The Japan Cricket Association (JCA) was an organisation that existed only in disembodied name until Miyaji, who’d learned to play cricket as a child during summer holidays in the U.K., became its first full-time chief executive in 2008. The JCA office was at first located in Tokyo, but it quickly became apparent that to find and develop a cricketing ground in a city as congested as the Japanese capital would be impossible. Miyaji cast around for other locations and settled on Sano, a town he knew well, having lived there for a few years. It ticked several boxes, being within 100 km of Tokyo, on a relatively flat ground and most importantly, had a mayor who happened to be casting about for strategies to revitalise the town.
Among Japan’s numerous demographic challenges, the depopulation of vast tracts ranks high. The result of a declining birth rate combined with large-scale migration to big cities, this trend means hundreds of towns might disappear altogether.
The national government has responded by providing a generous budget to regional bodies to invest in creative ways to stem depopulation. Cities and towns have taken to vying with each other in positioning themselves as centres of arts and crafts, natural beauty or specialty foods to attract tourism and businesses.
But what do you do when you are not particularly picturesque, historic or artsy? Sano, whose population has declined from about 130,000 to 116,000 over the last decade, was grappling with this question and the best answer its elected leaders had managed to come up with was outlet malls. But this was before they met Miyaji.
The JCA CEO began to work Sano’s corridors of power through contacts made with the help of the owner of his favourite Ramen restaurant, Nikkoken. The restaurant was a hub for all those with a penchant for noodles in pork broth, which more or less included everyone in town.
“I met Miyaji san and came to know that this sport called cricket had an international viewership that could compare to soccer,” recalled Kenji Yajima, the chairman of the Sano Chamber of Commerce. A 2018 International Cricket Council survey showed that the sport has over one billion fans globally. “I was stunned. I thought why not use this to help develop our town also?” he said.
Yajima was aware of other Japanese cities that had latched onto niche sports. He alluded to Sapporo, on Hokkaido island, that has promoted itself as a curling centre. “If they can use curling, we can use cricket,” he concluded.
Yajima teamed up with Sano mayor, Masahide Okabe, to set up a cricket supporter’s club that included prominent local businesses (the number currently stands at 120 companies, up from an original 40). Their aim was to find the funds necessary to develop the sport in Sano. The opening of the Sano International Cricket ground in 2016 – the first dedicated cricket pitch in Japan to meet international standards – was the crowning glory of these efforts. But they also managed to introduce the sport into the regular curriculum of six local schools. Given that the JCA conducts regular cricket camps in other schools as well, a youngster in Sano today has a more than even chance of at least knowing the basics of the sport. That’s a far cry from a few years ago. The deputy mayor, Eisaku Kato, said that when he first heard about cricket he thought it was a type of biscuit.
A recent development that has taken cricket into the national headlines is a couple of the country’s baseball stars deciding to try their hand at cricket. Baseball is Japan’s most popular sport. In January 2018, Shogo Kimura who had played in the Japanese Professional Baseball League from 2003 to 2017, decided to shift to cricket. Only four months later he was selected for Japan’s national cricket team.
Twenty one year old Musashi Yamamoto, runs his hand through his bleached blonde hair while revealing that he was inspired by Kimura when he too decided to exchange his baseball bat for cricket’s willow, last year. Yamamoto, who had played professional baseball for Yokohama DeNA BayStars, moved to Sano two months ago to begin cricket training. He is still puzzling over rules like lbw, but said that he’s gradually beginning to appreciate the nuances of the sport beyond just hitting the ball.
How much any of this will tangibly help to revive Sano’s fortunes remains up in the air. It could end up as a boundary, but equally be out caught. “For us it’s a feeling that we can use an internationally famous sport to help Sano develop an international profile,” said Yajima. “Our cricket ground is the Lord’s of Japan.”