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Unicycling Growing More Popular from Kids Up

March 26, 1999

The one-wheeled sport is taking off in Japan. (Japan Unicycling Association)

Unicycling may seem to many like an unusual sport, but for children in Japan, which boasts the world's highest ratio of unicycling fans in the population, it is one of the most familiar. The number of unicyclists, particularly among elementary schoolchildren, has shot up since 1992, when the activity was added to the elementary school physical education curriculum. The boom is now reaching into the adult sphere--in many cases when children get their parents hooked on one-wheeling. According to the Japan Unicycling Association, there are now several million unicyclists in Japan.

Boom Sparked in Elementary Schools
Until 1992, the only schools offering unicycling instruction were the few that had unicycling clubs. When education guidelines were revised in 1992 to include the sport in physical education programs, lessons for schoolteachers were held throughout Japan. At first the teachers themselves were the ones struggling to master the unicycle. Thanks to their efforts, though, the sport is now taught at 95% of all Japanese elementary schools. Some schools have even built special unicycling courses on their grounds, with obstacles including slopes and even stairsteps along the way.

It naturally follows that the majority of Japan's unicycling population are elementary schoolchildren. One sixth-grade boy says, "Unicycling is tough but worth the challenge. It's a lot of fun because you can do things like turn suddenly and go backwards." For children, one fascination of unicycling is that it allows them to do tricks not possible on their bikes.

Follow the Kids
At the Ninth International Unicycling Convention held in Bottrop, Germany, in summer 1998, a seventh grader from Japan took the female title. Mio Ueta, from a middle school in Shizuoka Prefecture not far from Mt. Fuji, became world champion with the highest total score after winning three events, including the 100-meter sprint. Mio began riding when she was five years old, following in the footsteps of her two older sisters. Participating in the Bottrop tournament, though, was another person who had been influenced by all three of them: their father, Shigefumi.

Many adults like Shigefumi take up the sport after watching their children master it. Unicycling is actually easier than it appears--the average person can learn to ride the vehicle with an hour's practice each day for a week. Nowadays there are families that enjoy it together. One mother says: "I've become able to ride around on a unicycle without too much trouble--and I'm a person who can't stay steady on a bike!"

The unicycle is not only fun, but has considerable benefits for health. One-wheeling provides a good workout, and helps train riders' concentration, balance, and agility. Moreover, pedaling on it is much easier on the heart than jogging.

World's Only Ekiden Unicycle Race
In January 1999, the Fifth All Japan Unicycling Ekiden was held in Tokyo. A variety of unicycling competitions are held throughout the world, but this is the only one that uses the ekiden (long-distance relay road race) format. Each team, composed of six members, cycles a total of 42.195 kilometers (26.2 miles--the standard distance for a full marathon) in the elementary school division and 50.37 kilometers (31.3 miles) in the adult division.

The number of participants has been growing year by year. When the first race was held five years ago, 350 people took part; at the 1999 race this number had nearly doubled to 613. The Adachi Unicycle Association, which sponsors the event, hopes that this race will continue to grow to a national level, becoming an event where prefectural representatives compete against each other, and that eventually unicycling will become an Olympic sport.

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.