Japan going for gold

Noriyuki Shikata outlines how the Olympics will play a strategic role in global communications and public diplomacy

As I am sure readers of Public Affairs Asia are well aware, Tokyo was (from my point of view) fortunately chosen as the host city for the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

This is regarded in Japan as a big boost to “Abenomics”, the exciting economic policies advocated by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In 1964, when Tokyo hosted its first Olympic Games, Japan tried hard to launch the “Shinkansen”, or bullet trains, in time for the Games, borrowing from the World Bank to help make it a reality. The Games, back then, were seen as our coming on to the world stage as a sophisticated and modern nation. And now we have another chance to use the lever of the Olympics to step up again.

We still have almost seven years to go before the actual Games will be held in Japan. If you are in charge of determining a global communications strategy for this type of long-term big events, what would you do?

After the selection of Tokyo, many of my friends kindly extended to me congratulatory messages through twitter or facebook. Since I live in London, when I received such messages from my British friends, I responded, “We have so much to learn from the successful London experiences. The London Olympics significantly boosted the positive image of the capital city and Britain as a whole. Please let us know the secret behind your success.” When I probed further, I received two interesting comments from friends who have a great deal of experiences in managing the London Olympics:
?    “The Olympics should not be only for the sake of the Olympics. Significant investments will be made, but this should be designed to have long-term positive impacts upon the hosting city and beyond.”
?    “We are expecting a lot from Tokyo 2020. Tokyo and Japan should be able to present something very different from the past Olympic and Paralympic Games. Please show us something very creative, which will become a model for the rest of the world. This could be in the context of smart cities, eco-cities or resilient cities, for example.”

When I hear these reactions, I start to wonder what Tokyo and Japan could really offer. Should we invent in something totally new? Will our Olympics and Paralympics be totally futuristic?

Having contemplated the issue for a while, I have begun to think that we should show the way we actually are in Japan. We should “be ourselves”. Of course we will certainly be trying something very modern and new. Japanese society has always tried this. But at the same time, Japanese tradition and culture should be celebrated and the international community will see its value. For example, Japanese “Omotenashi”, or hospitality, has not yet been fully appreciated in the world. If you are flying from Heathrow to Japan, and take a Japanese airline, you will immediately encounter a unique experience upon entering the plane and also when trying the Japanese food. Just read Monocle magazine’s Tyler Brule’s column in the Financial Times.

Japan will try to combine tradition and modernity when hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2020. This is the way we fundamentally operated as a society after the Meiji Restoration—in 1868 when Japan threw of the shackles of feudal society and started to emerge into a modern world.

What challenges will we need to overcome? The language barrier immediately comes to mind. Linguistic barriers could be tackled through introducing more effective English and other foreign languages education in Japan, as well as posting more street signs in English and other languages. Maybe this could all be easily done by making full use of modern technology such as “smarter” phones with simultaneous interpretation capability. If we could realise this effectively in Tokyo and other areas in Japan, while continuing to redouble our efforts for “opening-up”, we could further boost the number of international tourists and students to Japan, and it could also have a positive impact on encouraging more foreign direct investment into Japan.

How about the means of global communications? Looking ahead to 2020, what will be the most popular social media platforms in Japan? Twitter, Facebook or LINE? Or will there be something completely new? What I am certain about is that the broadcasting of the Games will be live through social media, and it would be more interactive. In watching the Games, the world will be simultaneously united across continents. Even if social media comments are posted in Japanese, they will be instantly translated into multiple languages.

What I can expect Tokyo 2020 to be is future combined with tradition, fitting in with the powerful theme of “Cool Japan, Fusion with Tradition”. Cultural tradition will continue to remain important in our societies, but the global community will be more united through the continued rapid progress of the global ICT network.

I hope such progress will contribute to the people of the world sharing more common experiences and values, as well as further promoting international collaboration in a wide-range of fields, going beyond sports.

The Olympics is not just about sports. It has a much broader significance to play in terms of public diplomacy and the promotion of global unity. We still have the luxury of seven years to ponder upon this fascinating subject and develop a very specific action plan that will enhance the “Japan Brand” in the long term.

Noriyuki Shikata is the Political Minister at the Embassy of Japan in London

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