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Commentary: Can the Tokyo Olympics rebuild Japan's image?

When it comes to changing public perception of Japan as an insular country, the challenge is not about hard infrastructure, but about people’s sentiments, says an observer.

Commentary: Can the Tokyo Olympics rebuild Japan's image?

Olympic rings are displayed in front of the construction site of the New National Stadium, the main stadium of Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, during a media opportunity in Tokyo, Japan on Jul 3, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Issei Kato)

TOKYO: Tokyoites have started the one-year countdown to hosting the Summer 2020 Olympic and Paralympic games. 

Enthusiasm has conquered initial scepticism. By January 2019, 205,000 people had registered as volunteers, exceeding the organising committee’s goal of 80,000. 

In May, the first-round lottery for tickets awarded 960,000 passes to winners from a pool of 5.1 million applicants – roughly one-seventh of the 35 million people in the metropolitan area.


Preparations for Tokyo 2020 have borrowed heavily from London 2012 — another mature host city. The spirit is to build less and reuse more. 

Instead of constructing a new facility, for example, the cycling event will occur at an existing track in Izu, 120km away from Tokyo. All 5,000 medals will be made from 100 per cent recycled metal retrieved from 6.2 million used mobile phones and other IT gadgets collected nationwide.

From plastic bottle recycling to zero-emission fleets, all wheels are in motion to promote Tokyo as a technologically-advanced and environmentally conscious city. 

This is an important message particularly in the face of the global climate challenge. But this is not the only message Tokyo aims to convey while in the spotlight.

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The world has shifted since September 2013 when the Japanese Olympic Committee won the bid for the Summer 2020 Olympics. Globalisation has receded. 

The US-China tariff dispute harms businesses and consumers in both countries, and threatens to spillover into the global economy, the IMF warns. (File photo: AFP/Mark RALSTON)

Rather than enlarging the entire economic pie, countries are rushing to secure their own slice. With the world’s two largest economies – China and the United States – seemingly at odds in every aspect of ideology, economics and society, the global order as we have understood it appears to have evaporated.

Respect for pluralism is the dominant spiritual value of the Olympic Games, which extends beyond sports. Japan has a rare opportunity to shine by personalising this spirit as host. 

Under its core concept of "Unity in Diversity", Tokyo 2020 pays homage to inclusivity. Efforts are underway to make the nation’s transportation barrier-free, from train stations to universal design taxis.

But there remains a larger question. The overall perception of Japan is that it is a country too insular to be truly integrated into the world community, let alone lead the rest of the world. 

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(Photo: AFP/Behrouz Mehri) Greater Tokyo, with a population of more than 30 million people - about a quarter of Japan's total - is notorious for its packed trains and subways during peak morning rush hours. (Photo: AFP/Behrouz Mehri)

How can hosting the Olympic Games shift Japan’s image towards a spirit of mutual respect? The challenge is not about hard infrastructure but rather about people’s sentiments. 

With less than a year to go, there are things that can be done.


First, volunteers are the on-the-ground ambassadors. In interacting with both athletes and overseas visitors, their genuine friendliness is the key to changing perceptions that Japan is inward-looking.

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Second, Japan can strategically highlight its array of host towns. With subsidies from the Japanese government, 323 towns from Hokkaido to Okinawa have volunteered for these roles. 

They offer pre-Games training campsites for athletes, and will host cross-cultural and sports events before and after the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The city of Ise in Mie prefecture, for example, will host a team of para-athletes from Laos and plan cross-cultural events post-summer. 

Host towns will spread engagement with the Games beyond Tokyo and demonstrate the diversity and openness of rural Japan. These impressions will outlive the Games.

The advantage of social media is that local anecdotes can travel fast and wide with visual information. 

Olympic highlights are not necessarily all about achieving world records. They can be about discovering the friendly and charming side of the host country.

The Japanese countryside. (Photo: AFP) Visitors look at sheep on grazing land in Japan. (AFP/File - Toru Yamanaka)


The first Summer Olympic Games in Japan, Tokyo 1964, showcased a young and thriving nation rebounding from the wounds of the last war. 

The Games propelled new constructions such as the Enoshima Yacht Harbour, the Tokaido Shinkansen and the Metropolitan Expressway. 

The message to the world was Japan’s resurgence as an industrial power.

Unfortunately, as a price of economic growth, serious pollution and worsening living conditions were swept under the rug. 

It was not until the so-called "Pollution Diet" in late 1970 that Japanese politics confronted these environmental issues by passing as many as 14 laws. This was a turning point that painfully and methodically paved the way to the clean sky Tokyo enjoys today.

READ: Commentary: Most Japanese think their country’s best days are behind them


About 56 years later, Tokyo’s second Olympics is less about building hard infrastructure and more about being ecologically mindful and technologically smart. 

A mature Japan can play a new role in the troubled world by using the Games as a springboard to turn around its inward-looking image. 

If Japan can rebrand itself as an open and embracing host nation, the soft legacy of Tokyo 2020 will be a success. 

The world will see Japan in a new light and Japan will wake from the complacent pessimism in which it has stewed over the past three decades.

Nobuko Kobayashi is a partner with EY-Parthenon, a strategic consulting group within E&Y Transaction Advisory Services. This commentary first appeared on East Asia Forum.

Source: CNA/el(sl)


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