Will the Tokyo Olympics Get Lost in Translation ?

11 juin 2021
By Professor Simon Chadwick, Professor and Director of Eurasian Sport at EMlyon

In the 2003 film ‘Lost in Translation’, Bob Harris (played by Bill Murray) travels to Tokyo to record a television commercial for a whiskey brand. Murray finds the recording of this advert a bemusing experience, though it is merely one such episode in a series of misunderstandings and cultural juxtapositions that gave rise to the film’s title.

Murray’s character befriends another American – Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) who is in the city with her new, but apparently distant, husband. Murray himself spends his time on endless phone calls to his wife back home in the United States, often made during the middle of the Japanese night.

Given their respective domestic frustrations, Bob and Charlotte’s relationship simmers throughout the film, culminating in a fleeting final scene where the two briefly kiss then separate, perhaps never to meet again. That is, unless the film’s director – Sophie Coppola – decides to make a sequel.

This summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo is a sequel (the first iteration having taken place in 1964). Yet the sense of disconnection and confusion which Coppola tried to capture in her direction of Lost in Translation, almost seems prescient when set in the context of Tokyo’s extended attempts to stage this year’s Olympic and Paralympic Games. The pandemic caused an initial postponement of last year’s event, which are now scheduled to take place this July and August.

Much like the film, the last fourteen months has been a simmering mixture of disconnection, confusion and bemusement. Indeed, it seems entirely appropriate that Bob Harris was in Tokyo to promote Suntory whiskey in his fictitious TV advert. Earlier this year, it was the actual Suntory CEO Takeshi Niinami, also a Japanese government advisor, who cast doubts on whether Japan would be able to host this summer’s events.

Such doubts have increased as the year has progressed, with some recent opinion polls suggesting that eighty percent or more of Tokyo residents object to the staging of the Olympics and Paralympics. To address such concerns, earlier this year organisers announced that overseas spectators will not be able to attend events during the Games.

However, this hasn’t stopped ongoing calls for the mega-event to be cancelled or at least postponed again. It is significant that among local Games sponsors the latter is their preference, which helps provide some insights into both their investment in the event but also the basis upon which Tokyo 2020(+1) was initially conceived of.

Critics of this summer’s Olympics have consistently pointed towards the International Olympic Committee as being a corporate behemoth that is seeking to enforce itself upon an unwitting and unwilling victim. This criticism is not entirely without substance, though just like Lost in Translation, those from outside Japan may not understand what is really going on with the country.

The country’s long-term relationship with the Abe family, most recently in the form of Prime Minister Shinzo, led to the country bidding to host the 2020 Games in the first place. This coincided with a separate bid to host another global sport mega-event – the rugby World Cup in 2019. – the staging of which were both intended to deliver multiple benefits.

Some people in Japan have observed how hosting these events would be valediction of a country that had suffered the triple disasters of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear peril. Abe’s vision nevertheless went way beyond this, as he looked towards restoring Japan’s waning international image.

A hugely damaging late-20th century recession, allied to the ascent of both China and South Korea, has seen the country’s regional and global positions both weaken. Abe thus conceived of addressing the country’s economic woes through, in part, staging events. One outcome of this is the number of Japanese companies (more than seventy) that are sponsoring the Games.

It was felt that this would not only provide a platform for raising global awareness of Japanese brands and businesses, but also provide the basis for the country to project corporate soft power across the world. Tokyo 2020 was therefore always intended to help Japan compete off-the-track as much as it would on it.

Alongside Abe’s desire to embrace event hosting as a politico-economic opportunity, he also saw the Olympics as a means through which to effect a internal cultural change inside Japan. Whilst its local, and sometimes bitter, rival China has ventured out into the world and built a global network of influence, Japan’s island mentality and history of isolationism is now constraining it.

The combination of an Olympics and a rugby World Cup were intended as a lever that could help the country turn outwards. For many people elsewhere in the world, their engagement with Japan is perhaps a rather jaded one associated with electronics, a sector in which countries like South Korea have now surpass it. Other, more recent, associations with Japan often involve sushi and manga, which are insufficient alone to sustain an economy of its size.

Tokyo 2020 was supposed to be Japan’s big chance at renewal. However, much like the relationships of Bob and Charlotte, Tokyo and the IOC now find themselves asking whether they are with the right partner. In Japan’s case, Shinzo Abe stood-down from his position in 2020 due to ill-health, to be replaced by a rather less strident advocate of the event.

And from the IOC’s side, the event owner now finds itself committed to staging an event in a city that doesn’t even want the Games. Having been seduced by the promise of government support and a willing, compliant local audience, the IOC stands on the cusp of considerable reputational fallout once the event gets underway.

As with Bob and Charlotte, Japan and the Olympics will ultimately be a brief encounter, though the after effects may endure. One hopes that Tokyo 2021’s biggest legacy will not be as a super spreader event. Otherwise, government in Tokyo will be still be hoping for some of the windfalls that it first anticipated when bidding for hosting rights, though what these will be remains to be seen. As for the IOC, its officials must surely be hoping that the organisation’s reasons for wanting to stage the Games in Tokyo don’t get lost in translation.

This article belongs to the GeoSport platform, developed by IRIS and EM Lyon.
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