Aoki: Are the Tokyo Olympics a chance for change?

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In a recent panel discussion, Shorenstein APARC’s Masahiko Aoki considered the challenges that Japan faces as it prepares for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and the prospects of the Games being used as an impetus for broader, national change.

“The 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Japan’s Future,” the opening session of the 2014 Yomiuri International Forum “Resurface! Japan” was held April 19 at the Marunouchi Building in Marunouchi, Tokyo.

Cohosted by the Yomiuri International Economic Society and The Yomiuri Shimbun, the forum featured an examination of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, and a discussion on how the Tokyo Games should be carried out, as well as focusing on issues and prospects for using the Olympics as an opportunity for “Japan’s resurgence.”

The forum was moderated by Satoru Watanabe, senior research fellow at the Yomiuri Research Institute.

Priority issues

Watanabe: What advice do you have based on your experiences at the London Olympics?

Jonathan Stephens: Six years can seem a long time, but it is important to be starting now to plan for those benefits to come...It is important to be looking not just to success in 2020 itself but beyond 2020 to the benefits that you want to realize. And I hope that all parts of the country and all parts involved in organizing the Games come together to agree a clear set of priorities for the benefits to be realized for the future so that all can work together to realize those benefits.

Watanabe: The Olympics can also be considered a cultural festival.

Seiichi Kondo: Japan is a compartmentalized society, so just because there are good museums and concert halls, one plus one doesn’t necessarily equal two. How much can these restrictions be done away within six years? I have high hopes for Gov. Masuzoe.

Yoichi Masuzoe: One way to enjoy [the Olympics] would be to watch sports during the day and spend the evening appreciating art. But public museums close at 5 p.m. I’d like to do something about this, even if just during the Olympics.

Watanabe: How should Tokyo change?

Masahiko Aoki: Tokyo needs to face the fact that an earthquake could occur directly underneath the city. The Great East Japan Earthquake and Great Hanshin Earthquake made clear the importance of countermeasures. It is the host city’s responsibility to ensure safety through “flawless disaster preparations.”

Watanabe: How should the costs for the new national stadium be dealt with?

Masuzoe: In principle, it is the responsibility of the national government. But if a park is to be built around it for the benefit of the residents of Tokyo, that’s something for the taxpayers to consider. The issue shouldn’t be decided through top-level, behind-the-scenes negotiations.

Watanabe: What are your thoughts about the philosophy and legacy of the Olympics?

Masuzoe: It is a festival that crosses barriers of skin color, religion, nationality and language. The Olympics are the best opportunity to recognize the diversity of humankind. 

Seiko Hashimoto: Through the Olympics, we can go back to basic questions like, “Why do people play sports?” and, “What do people live for?” Also, in Japan, some things that need to be changed haven’t, and others that shouldn’t be changed have. It’s a chance to take a fresh look at Japan.

Watanabe: Do you have any advice for Tokyo?

Stephens: Now is the time to be thinking about and planning the legacy and the benefits. And I think our other experience is that that planning needs to involve a wide array of organizations and groups across the country. Only a small group of governments and authorities can build the national stadiums and the transport infrastructure that has been spoken about, but to build more people participating in sport, to rebuild communities, to encourage more volunteers—that requires an effort across many local organizations and local community groups and local sports bodies. So it is very important in our experience, to begin to engage those bodies now, both in Tokyo and outside Tokyo, across the country, to encourage them to think about the benefits and how they can realize and use the Games to encourage more participation.


Watanabe: How can the Olympics be used as an opportunity for strengthening athletes? 

Hashimoto: One of the training themes the Japanese Olympic Committee employs is that [athletes’] competitiveness cannot increase without enhancing their strengths as human beings. Although Japanese have inferior physiques, we tend to have the qualities of not giving up, a willingness to strive for the sake of others, and solidarity. To burnish these, [athletes] are trained to acquire virtues such as how to treat objects with care. Athletes who have visited the disaster areas experienced a change in attitude. Records are, of course, important, but so is nurturing memorable athletes who have wonderful humanity.

Stephens: I would just add one thing, that in 2020 Japan will have one big advantage. It will have a home crowd. And in London in 2012, the athletes said that performing in front of their home crowd helped them perform even better. Mo Farah, who was the Olympic gold medalist for both the 5,000 meters and the 10,000 meters, said that it gave him extra yards as he turned the final bend. And that home crowd was based on sort of the enthusiasm, knowledge, participation of the British crowd in sport. And so, ensuring that Japan makes the most of that home advantage and that the home crowd gets behind its athletes, I’m sure, will help them perform to their very best.

Watanabe: How should the Paralympics be coordinated with the Olympics?

Hashimoto: This fiscal year, the jurisdiction for the Paralympic Games was transferred from the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry to the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry. A sports ministry is expected to be created in or after next April. There are also opportunities in business, medical care and other areas related to athletics for disabled people. The activities of Paralympians could be very beneficial in designing a new Japan.

Kondo: One of the strengths of culture and art is “social inclusion,” or their ability to include people from all different standpoints. This is realized at the Paralympics, so they have great significance in that they can change people’s consciousness. 

Aoki: Elderly people have returned to the heart of Tokyo. This is the result of progress made by the metropolitan government in elderly-friendly frameworks in recreation and transportation. Creating a barrier-free city is very important not just for impaired people, but also when thinking about how to build a city that is comfortable to live in.

Stephens: [The Olympics were] an opportunity for London as a city to review how, in terms of public transport and public accessibility, it treated disabled people, but it also, most of all, transformed attitudes. I don’t know if anyone has watched Paralympic wheelchair rugby, but you cannot watch wheelchair rugby and come away thinking that disabled people are weak or need protecting. They bring their wheelchairs together with great crashes; the wheelchairs sometimes break; and the Paralympic athletes just continue going. And I think that portrayed to people that disabled people could be strong, competitive and deserved a full part in society. And that was one of the most lasting benefits from the Games.

Collaboration with disaster-hit areas

Watanabe: It is also important to think about collaborations with the areas affected by the Great East Japan Earthquake.

Kondo: Almost all of the competitions will be held in Tokyo, but cultural events can take place nationwide. We could invite artists from around the world to the Tohoku region, so they can be inspired by living in mountain villages or other experiences. They can learn from Tohoku’s wonderful spirituality. 

Aoki: Internationally, it’s vital that the decommissioning of the reactors at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant is carried out in all seriousness. Instead of just thinking about what to do about compensation for the disaster, we should consider whether a framework that has something to say to the world can be linked to the decommissioning effort. It’s also important to learn from Fukushima when thinking about how to prepare for a possible earthquake directly under the capital. 

Hashimoto: There has been some discussion about wanting to hold some competitions in Tohoku, but that might be difficult in the present situation. However, serving Tohoku cuisine in the athletes village is one way to convey the message of “Cool Japan.” I also hope all the children in Tohoku can participate in the torch relay. As an event that would give children hopes and dreams, and bring the country together, I hope it can be realized. 

Watanabe: How can the Olympics contribute to international relations?

Kondo: I’d like to make them a place where Japanese athletes and athletes from countries that have delicate relations with Japan can share some enjoyment. Although leaders may have their hands tied in politics, I think it’s possible to create a groundswell of grassroots sentiment.

Stephens: The Olympics can be a positive opportunity to bring together people from across the world to participate in a celebration of peaceful competition. And that sets a great example, I think, to the world. Nations want to come together; they want to participate in the Olympics and the Paralympics. The Olympics can’t solve every problem; it’s important to be realistic, but they can be a great symbol of what’s to be gained by competing peacefully with one another.

The English article was originally carried by The Japan News (The Yomiuri Shimbun) on May 10, reposted with permission.