The Japanese Olympic Committee is trying to improve mental support for athletes, an issue raised in recent years by some of the world's top athletes such as gymnast Simone Biles and tennis player Naomi Osaka.

For the ongoing Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, the JOC has offered contestants time to meet with a counselor without an appointment. They have also set up a relaxation room, where athletes can read manga and other books -- some recommended by former Olympians -- from a selection of about 130.

Supplied photo taken in September 2023 shows athletes playing a board game in a relaxation room set up for the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China. (Photo courtesy of the Japanese Olympic Committee)(Kyodo)

"I go to check out the relaxation room at least once a day, and there is always someone there," Hisashi Mizutori, deputy chef de mission of Japan's delegation, said Friday in an interview with Kyodo News.

Former Olympic gymnast Hisashi Mizutori, deputy chef de mission of Japan's Asian Games delegation, gives an interview in Hangzhou, China, on Sept. 29, 2023. (Kyodo)

The manga cafe-style relaxation room was the first of its kind for Japan in an international multi-sport event, according to the JOC.

Some popular manga titles in the room include Slam Dunk, Kingdom and Demon Slayer.

"I've seen the Tanigawa brothers (gymnasts Wataru and Kakeru Tanigawa) having fun there, and badminton players. I also saw a chess player teaching an athlete how to play the game."

The idea of having a relaxation room came out of Mizutori talking with two-time Olympic judo champion Ayumi Tanimoto, who said the JOC could help athletes achieve their best performance by creating "a place they can relax."

"She told me that there was a need for mental support at the Tokyo Olympics, particularly because it was held during the coronavirus pandemic," Mizutori said.

In the run-up to the event, "Athletes already had enough stress and enough to think about with their competitions but on top of that, they had to worry about other things. They couldn't afford to catch COVID-19, and also had to worry if the Olympics would even go ahead (given the number of infections was rising sharply at the time)."

As for the benefits of receiving counseling, Mizutori said about 90 percent of athletes who undergo two sessions at the early stages of feeling mentally unwell show signs of improvement.

Meanwhile, Mizutori, a member of Japan's 2004 Athens Olympics gold medal-winning gymnastics team, said things have changed a lot since the world went through the coronavirus pandemic.

"Today's athletes are different," the 43-year-old said. "Athletes want to interact more. Athletes from different countries get along better than before. They respect each other more."

"In recent years, Kohei Uchimura and Daiki Hashimoto have made good friendships with Chinese gymnasts. When I was active, our rivalry with China was so intense. We didn't talk to them. We didn't show them what we had."

Supplied photo taken in September 2023 shows manga and other books in a relaxation room for athletes set up for the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China. (Photo courtesy of the Japanese Olympic Committee)(Kyodo)

Mizutori said those positive relationships are definitely a plus and will help create a sense that sports are a social good and needed more than ever.

The JOC will try to create more chances for athletes to have cultural exchanges, he added.

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