An office chair race that began as a promotional effort for a struggling shopping arcade is rolling overseas to Taiwan this spring with a "grand prix" scheduled there.
The first “Isu-1 Grand Prix” (chair-one grand prix), held in Kyotanabe in 2010, proved so popular and attracted so much attention on the Internet that similar races are now held in 12 prefectures around Japan.
A group of shopkeepers in Tainan, southern Taiwan, is organizing the first overseas edition, inviting racers from Japan and elsewhere to compete on April 24.
“I will be grateful if there will be a day when local children in Kyotanabe can proudly say that this city is the birthplace of the then world-famous Isu-1 Grand Prix,” said Tsuyoshi Tahara, chairman of the shopkeepers’ association of the Kirara shopping arcade in Kyotanabe, which hosts the annual original office chair race.
After the turn of the century, sales at shops in the arcade in front of Kintetsu Shin-Tanabe Station began to plummet as consumers began to flock to the big, new supermarkets and flashy malls in the area.
It was then that Tahara, the 46-year-old second-generation owner of a photo studio in the Kirara shopping arcade, and other owners came up with an office chair race to attract attention to the street and help revive its businesses.
The first competition, held in 2010, turned out to be a massive success. The race was hectic. Riders toppled over. Chairs broke apart one after another. Internet users loved it.
Teams made up of three riders compete and are allowed to use their own office chairs. It is an endurance race in which the teams complete as many laps of a 180-meter course as they can within a two-hour time limit. The pressure is intense. Chairs often break. Competitors usually wear helmets as well as knee and elbow pads to soften the impact when they hit the concrete.
The number of participating teams has grown over time from 32 in the first race to 57 in the sixth Grand Prix in March 2015. This year’s competition is scheduled for March 26.
“We all remember being scolded driving chairs when we were kids, but this race gives a liberating feeling for all participants by allowing them to ride the chairs just how they like,” Tahara said.
Kenta Kuwamiya, a 22-year-old firefighter from Nagasaki, whose team won last year’s Grand Prix by completing 127 laps, said it felt “super ecstatic” to drive chairs around for two hours, despite the sore muscles.
“It is such an addicting experience, and now I move around my office sitting in a chair,” he said.
The Isu-1 Grand Prix started spreading nationwide when a race was held in Shinjo, Yamagata Prefecture, by a local shopping street that hoped to repeat the success of the original race.
To further promote the competition as a revitalization event for struggling shopping arcades around Japan, Tahara and other organizers set up the Japan Office Chair Race Association in March last year.
With the association members providing know-how to shopkeepers’ unions around Japan, the grand prix races are now held in 12 prefectures across Japan from Hokkaido in the north to Nagasaki in the west.
A spokesperson of the Osaka-based major office supplier Kokuyo Co., from which employees have voluntarily participated in the Kyotanabe Grand Prix each year, said the company sees the growing popularity of the Isu-1 race as a promotional opportunity.
“It is the best opportunity to let people know the durability of our office chairs,” the official said.