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Japan Goes Volleyball Crazy

January 26, 2000

The 1999 volleyball World Cup was held in Japan from the beginning of November to the beginning of December. The host country finished sixth in the women's tournament and a worst-ever tenth in the men's tournament. Formerly a volleyball powerhouse, Japan has clearly gone downhill. And yet the home teams remained extraordinarily popular, with every game involving Japan being virtually sold out. Given the decline in skills, the excitement generated during the recent tournament has all the appearance of a big media hype.

The World Cup, which, along with the Olympics and the World Championships, is one of the three major titles in the world of volleyball, takes place once every four years and has been hosted by Japan continuously since 1977. To understand why it is always held in Japan we need to look at the story of Japanese volleyball. Worldwide, volleyball is still a minor sport. In Japan, however, it has had a strong following ever since the Japanese women's team, known as the Toyo no Majo (Witches of the East), took the gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Popularity translates to high television ratings, which means that TV stations will pay handsomely for the broadcasting rights. This is even more true in the country hosting an event. Payments for the broadcasting rights to the World Cup were said to amount to several billion yen, and the International Federation of Volleyball (FIVB) is heavily reliant on funds provided by Japanese television companies.

Off-Court Entertainment
The TV station that broadcast the 1999 World Cup exclusively introduced a number of innovations to attract viewers, turning what had been just a sports event into an entertainment spectacle. A good example was its use of a young male pop group that appeared to support the Japanese teams whenever they played. Suddenly hordes of young women became hooked on watching volleyball, and every day the venues were filled by screaming fans reminiscent of a pop concert. Furthermore, the station ran a viewers' quiz with a prize of 1 million yen (9,524 dollars at 105 yen to the dollar) whenever Japan was playing, which quelled any temptation viewers may have felt to switch channels.

Made-for-TV Rules
Television money has even changed the rules of volleyball. Most obvious was a reform to the scoring system used for the 25-point sets (or 15-point deciding fifth sets). Under the previous rules, points could only be scored by the serving team, and games going to a fifth and final set sometimes lasted more than three hours. This created programming headaches for the broadcasters. The system was therefore altered starting with the most recent World Cup so that points could be scored regardless of which team was serving. Matches became shorter, taking at most about two hours to complete, which made the sport much more manageable for TV stations.

And so, backed by a semicontrived wave of support, the Japanese players took to the court. Unfortunately, both the men's and women's teams came up against stiff global competition. If either team had finished in the top three they would have automatically qualified for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Now, however, Japan must seek an Olympic spot via either the Continental or World Olympic Qualification Tournaments. The day when the ability of the team matches the fervor of the fans may be a long way off.

Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.