A Visit to Nadeshiko’s Hometown Around Japan Episode 8. Iga FC Kunoichi Mie
Situated in the inland area of Mie Prefecture, the city of Iga shares its boundaries with the prefectures of Kyoto, Nara, and Shiga, connecting three major roads leading to the cities of Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, and Ise. Known as a birthplace of ninjas, Iga attracts a lot of foreign tourists hoping to experience the ninja world, and enjoy the landscapes of an old castle town. Ninja images are illustrated everywhere, and Ueno-Shi Station is even nicknamed ‘Ninja City Station.’ This time, we sneaked into the city and met three groups of people supporting the team.
Expecting to promote the city nationwide
Sakae Okamoto, Mayor of Iga
The city of Iga has been active in promoting sports, as well as sports culture tourism. Upon the Sports and Culture Tourism Awards in 2019, the city was given the Culture Tourism Award for creating hands-on programs called ‘Iga Nindo,’ which integrate historical and cultural experiences with sports. Crowned with a name originating from a female ninja, Iga FC Kunoichi Mie has long history dating back to 1976. Currently not owned by a company, the team is popular among locals as a ‘citizen’s club.’
On our first stop to the Iga City Office, we visited the mayor Sakae Okamoto. His office door, stuck with ‘Shuriken’ (throwing star), was frightening enough to make us believe ninjas were hiding somewhere inside. Naturally, the interview was a little tense with fear.
The mayor Sakae Okamoto is an athlete, who does Kendo (Japanese fencing), Kyudo (Japanese archery), long-distance swimming, fencing, and horse riding. He was wearing a mask made with delicate, beautiful Iga Kumihimo (braided cords).
The city of Iga, where marathons have been popular since olden times, attracts runners from afar to the “Ninja-no-Sato Iga Ueno City Marathon” and the “Ninja Trail Running Race.” Many participants enjoy ninja-related sightseeing and the taste of Iga beef before their races. Sports have been an incentive to draw people outside the city.
“Traditionally, soccer is very popular here. Since its birth, Kunoichi Mie has been supported by local people, and soccer has become a regional sport. We have a long history,” Okamoto said. “The team now plays a role as a Tourism Ambassador for the city, so I want them to spread the name of Iga throughout Japan. I hope they can do so.”
When asked his favorite player, he responded with a rather unexpected name.
“Kunon-chan is my favorite. She is friendly, and what’s more, her dancing is sharp!”
Every time Okamoto attends occasions such as kick off ceremonies, he looks forward to seeing the team’s official mascot character, Kunon-chan. She seems to be a great ninja, skillful enough to fascinate the mayor.
How can the team gain even more support from the citizens of Iga?
“To become stronger! I want the team to be unique with strength you’ve never seen anywhere else,” he said.
The city is abundant with attractions such as the history of ninjas, the landscape of an old castle town, Ueno Tenjin Festival, Iga ware, Iga beef and more. Okamoto is foreseeing the future, where the team’s soccer will draw nation-wide attention and also be counted as one of them.
Passion of sun-tanned manager is reaching us
Eiichi Matsukawa, President, Sunpia Iga
Not only ninjas hail from Iga. Many historical figures were born there, including the haiku poet, Matsuo Basho. Gaining fame in the city where poetry had already become popular culture, Basho visited scenic spots around Japan to create a lot of haiku. Hill Hotel Sunpia Iga, the team’s conditioning supplier, offers natural hot spring baths on its ground floor called “Basho-no-yu.” Players can show their card and use it for free, but only newcomers usually do so. In fact, most of them have VIP entry because they come every day. Players are also allowed in the gym, “VITALEZZA”, on the second floor. Both facilities help improve each player’s conditioning.
“More locals should go watch their games. I took some of my employee to the stadium, as they had never seen a game before,” said Eiichi Matsukawa, the president of Sunpia Iga. “Once you go, you get hooked. You must witness it for yourself.”
The team’s manager, Naoto Otake, also visits Basho-no-yu. “I think Otake openly expresses his personality. He is so enthusiastic in many ways,” Matsukawa said. “This season is the third year for Otake to be the manager. On top of the three years as manager from 2010 to 2012, he’s overseen the team for total of six years. I’m sure he is attached to the city by now, and I hope he can continue to strengthen the team.”
Iga FC Kunoichi Mie is not the only team to use Sunpia Iga. Teams of various sports come to stay during away games or camps. According to Matsukawa, the hotel provides different meals for general visitors and sports teams. They receive different requests in advance, sometimes by team nutritionists, and the meals for players are changed as requested: with milk, with orange juice, with natto, or without sashimi, etc.
With these accommodations, Sunpia Iga supports the team and contributes to the overall promotion of sports in the city.
Local TV station headed by senior’s club player
Motoji Kosaka, President, and Tomoaki Yamamoto, Production Group, Igaueno Cable Television
With the household market penetration rate as high as 65 percent in its business area (as of November 2020), Igaueno Cable Television is popular among citizens of Iga for its community-based informational programs.
The president, Motoji Kosaka, is a dedicated soccer lover, who himself plays at ‘Iga FC Senior,’ a club team consisting of enthusiastic over-40 players. He also helps Iga FC with its home game operations as a stretcher carrier.
When asked his impressions of the team for this season, Kosaka said, “it’s fun to watch because they chase the ball desperately, playing as hard as male players.” “They move swiftly by stepping up and dropping their defense. I would think it’s pretty hard to keep running for the full 90 minutes,” he added.
Kosaka appreciates the dedication of female players. While respecting their current efforts, though, he hopes for even better performances. It is wonderful the city has a company leader who can describe the home team so accurately.
Kosaka’s broadcasting station provides updates on the team to the public. Naturally, his passion contributes to making programs.
Getting involved with the team’s informational program since 2017, Tomoaki Yamamoto of the Production Group is now primarily in charge. In his first year with the program, the team was relegated to the Plenus Nadeshiko League Division 2, after finishing at the bottom of Division 1. The following year, in 2018, Yamamoto made a show closely covering the players struggling to get the team promoted. His fondest memory was going to Tokyo that year to see them win a playoff match for the Plenus Nadeshiko League Cup Division 2. He interviewed the captain at that time, Ami Sugita.
Recalling the interview, Yamamoto said, “as Sugita spoke through tears, I realized they’d gone through many hardships. Her words expressed the pressure of ‘getting back to Division 1 after a year.’” “The team not only won the 2018 Plenus Nadeshiko League Cup Division 2, but the League Division 2 itself, and was promoted back to Division 1 after a year. I saw the immense strength of those who had to overcome the pressure.”
Yamamoto says covering the team is the most interesting job. By reporting team contributions to the local community in their programs, he hopes to familiarize them with the people of Iga.
“Iga FC Kunoichi Mie is a ‘citizen’s club,’ which can be strengthened through contact with the people. I’m sure this interaction will lead to local support and livening up the community. Our programs will help enhance their visibility.”
Since 1976, the team has grown in the city, and it will continue along with its citizens. The three groups of people we met expressed openly, instead of sneaking, their enthusiastic support to the team. They showed us why many locals call the team a ‘citizen’s club.’
This time, we visited people in Iga, the hometown of Iga FC Kunoichi Mie.
Text by Kazuhiro Ishii