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Monday 26 July 2021

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (44)

Japan Society Chairman's Blog (44)

Dear Japan Society members and friends

So, now they have finally opened, should we be sad, should we be glad, should we be critical, or should we just look at the Olympic Games for what they are and can be, in these most difficult of circumstances, as if we were singing along to Doris Day’s Que sera sera? A bit of all of those is probably the right answer. It won’t be until the Paralympic Games have closed on 5 September that we’ll all be able to judge what balance between those competing feelings we each hold within ourselves.
To this viewer, the Opening Ceremony of these Tokyo Olympics on 23 July felt rather well judged and executed, even if the long, boring obligatory part with the entry into the empty stadium of all the national teams did get somewhat in the way of the brighter and more interesting parts. Yes, I know that to say that is to miss the point that the athletes’ parade is the moment when all the teams come together, ahead of the competition, but it was also the part that seemed most awkward given the presence of only 1,000 or so spectators, for such a parade could not be well choreographed, as it is inevitably rather scrappy and looks a tad old-fashioned, and in normal times depends most critically on a live audience’s reactions. By contrast, the fully choreographed televisual spectacle before and after the parade was done beautifully, subtly, even understatedly – and in Japan above all, such a word can still be used even amongst spectacular fireworks, Kabuki actors and an extraordinary airborne drone display that showed remarkable technological virtuosity. Moreover, before the parade the use of Imagine, the song written in 1971 by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, had given us a memorable touch of UK-Japan collaboration.
This Olympics was never going to be as symbolic as was its predecessor 57 years ago, pandemic or not. With the 1964 Tokyo Games Japan was lucky to find itself hosting the first fully televised Olympics, which made its display of reconstruction, post-war re-emergence and hitherto under-appreciated technological advancement much plainer for all to see. It was a nice touch in 1964 that athletes were asked to bring seeds to plant trees in Hokkaido, and an even nicer touch in 2021 to craft the five Olympic rings from wood harvested from the resulting 160 pines and spruces. One of the most memorable symbols from 1964, however, was the lighting of the Olympic flame by Yoshinori Sakai, a 19-year-old who became popularly known as “Atom Boy” as he had been born on 6 August 1945, within sight of the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima that day. Sakai san was an athlete but not an Olympics competitor, and so was a carefully thought-out choice. Sadly, having spent a career in journalism at Fuji TV, he died in 2014 at the age of 69, and so could not witness his successor as symbolic choice in 2021.
That choice had been speculated about for years but seems nevertheless to have been kept as a closely guarded secret right up to the last minute. It had been stated right from the outset that the so-called “Basic Policy” for the opening ceremony was that “When people look back on the Tokyo 2020 Games in 50 or 100 years’ time, the Games should be seen to have been a catalyst for change in culture, society and values leading to the realisation of a more sustainable, spiritually richer, happier society”. Some of the events in the run-up to the Games, forcing the resignations of the chair of the organising committee, Yoshiro Mori, in February and the creative director Hiroshi Sasaki in March, and then the eleventh-hour removals of both a composer and the show director for the opening ceremony, certainly proved that such change is needed in some elements of Japanese society. Thus it was simultaneously a delight, a relief and a triumph that Naomi Osaka emerged to light the flame on that rather magnificent replica of Mount Fuji. As a woman, as currently the best-known Japanese sportsperson all around the world given her grand slam tennis victories, as a mixed-race, part-Japanese part-Haitian, and as an admired advocate of many causes, she was not just a natural choice as a “catalyst for change” but also the best and surely the most popular one. We can have no idea what Sakai-san would have thought of it, but can hope that he would have found it interesting, thought-provoking and perhaps catalytic.
The basic question floating around in my mind as these Games approached, with the pandemic far from over and cases rising in Japan, albeit from a low base by international standards, has been that of what decision might have been made had the Olympics and Paralympics been due to be held in 2020/21 somewhere else, say in the United States, China or a West European country. Would those host countries have asked for the Games to be cancelled, or would they have gone ahead and if so with what restrictions and precautions? 
It is impossible to be sure, but it feels highly likely that an American host city would have been gung-ho to go ahead. Rightly or wrongly, the US already seems to be in a “post-pandemic” mindset. If Paris had got the nod for 2020 ahead of Tokyo I’m not as confident they would have proceeded, but the way in which the European football championships were held in several European cities during June, eventually in front of quite full stadiums, suggests they might well have, albeit perhaps like Japan with few or no spectators for most events. China’s anti-Covid policy has been heavily based on border controls, but even so it feels likely that the Chinese government would have wanted to show they could put on the Olympics show, as indeed they will wish to for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing next February. All those countries would, however, have made their decisions with larger shares of their populations vaccinated than in Japan, where on the eve of the opening, just 23.2% of the population had been fully vaccinated. We now wait to see what will be the effect, both on the sports and on the host citizenry, of going ahead with the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games in adverse circumstances, but as we watch it will be as well to keep that basic question in mind. I don’t know whether Naomi Kawase, the director commissioned to make the official film of these 2020 Games, will do so, but we can be sure that she will reflect that array of feelings, of sadness, gladness, criticism, enjoyment and acceptance, that surrounds this epic but extraordinary Tokyo summer spectacle.

* Image Source: Naomi Osaka

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