TOKYO, March 6 (Reuters) - Nobuyasu and Ayako Arimune are so obsessed with rugby they named their dog ‘Richie’ after former All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw and unsurprisingly they can’t wait until the World Cup comes to their sleepy home town of Fukuroi later this year.
The couple in their 40s are among an army of families opening up their homes to foreign visitors as part of the city’s homestay programme — aimed at helping bridge the gulf between available accommodation and the number of foreign fans expected.
Fukuroi has a population of just 86,000 but will host four matches, including Ireland’s clash with Japan, at the 50,000 capacity Shizuoka Ecopa Stadium — named for the prefecture rather than the nearby city.
While the Arimunes are just hoping for the chance to talk rugby with fellow fans from around the world, city officials are looking to the expanded homestay programme to give other locals a more open outlook towards people from other countries.
Immigration has long been discouraged in Japan, where many prize ethnic homogeneity, but a shrinking, aging population has led to more relaxed regulations and an increase in the number of foreign residents.
Fukuroi is no exception with the number of immigrants fast increasing and over the next decade likely to far exceed the 4,000 who currently call the city home.
“We think the homestay programs will remain as a legacy even after Rugby World Cup ends,” said the city’s International Exchange Office manager Hiromasa Suzuki, who will himself be hosting fans.
“The issue of an aging population with a decreasing birth rate awaits us in the future, and the numbers of foreigners will continue to increase.
“Looking ahead our future, we thought the homestay programs would be a great opportunity to interact with foreign people.”
More than 100 households have signed up to the programme and that number is expected to increase before the tournament starts on Sept. 20.
“The Rugby World Cup will give local people a world-wide view,” Suzuki added.
“The local people can experience different cultures, which will raise their awareness toward new cultures.
“It will become a chance for Japanese residents and foreign residents to cooperate and build a better community.”
Nobuyasu, who has been to New Zealand three times to follow the All Blacks, has an advantage over most of the city’s residents when it comes to communicating with foreigners in that he speaks English.
“We have been watching the past Rugby World Cup through satellite television, but I think this time it is different,” he said.
“In any case, the fact that Rugby World Cup is coming to our town feels very special, and I am excited.
“We don’t usually have much opportunity to talk in depth with foreign people. But I feel excited to get to know them well because we’ll have a common interest, rugby, to talk about.”
Kimiyo and Mitsue Naito, an elderly couple who live with their daughter and granddaughter, have been homestay hosts for years and welcomed visitors from all over the world to their home.
For them, the Rugby World Cup represents the perfect opportunity to share their way of life with their guests.
“We would like the guest to know about Japanese culture,” said 72-year-old Kimiyo, who used to play rugby when younger.
The Naitos have tickets for all four matches and are keen rugby fans but for them the real joy is the interaction with the foreign visitors and the chance to build lasting friendships.
“We had such an experience with a Vietnamese student we hosted,” Mitsue said.
“When she went back home, we flew to Vietnam with her and her family visited us in Japan later as well.
“I would love to have such a nice exchange.”
Being the second smallest World Cup host city behind Kamaishi in Iwate Prefecture, there are very real concerns at Fukuroi’s ability to host the influx of fans on matchday.
Despite efforts to promote the homestay programme, there will still be fewer than 1,000 beds available in Fukuroi itself, which boasts only five hotels.
Officials point to their successful hosting of three matches during the soccer World Cup in 2002 and are encouraging fans to look for alternative accommodation in the larger nearby cities of Shizuoka and Hamamatsu.
While logistical challenges remain for all the host cities, the enthusiasm for the tournament remains undimmed, particularly outside Tokyo.
“I feel more excited about the Rugby World Cup than I do about (the) Tokyo (Olympics in) 2020,” said Kimiyo.
“Japan will be the first place in Asia to host the Rugby World Cup and I am very, very excited!” (Reporting by Jack Tarrant, editing by Nick Mulvenney)