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Volume 22 No. 35
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Tokyo 2020: Can Games bring rebirth?

Japan looks forward to 2020, hoping the Tokyo Olympics can be a rallying cry to rejuvenate the country’s image, industry and soul after three decades of economic stagnation and natural disasters.
Enthusiasm for the Games and what they could mean to Japan’s future has been high since Tokyo was selected six years ago.
Photo: getty images

When Tokyo first hosted the Olympics in 1964, the Japanese people used the occasion to make a bold declaration to the world and themselves: The militaristic empire that brought a hemisphere to war 25 years earlier was gone, occupation and reconstruction was over, and here stood a capitalist, hard-working country eager to join the world economy.

As the country prepares to host the Summer Games again 56 years later, Japan and its people need a different message for a more complicated era, said Shu Ishibashi, vice chairman of Bridgestone and lead executive in charge of the company’s global Olympic sponsorship.

From a conference room in the tiremaker’s global headquarters in central Tokyo, with the megacity sprawling in all directions hundreds of feet below, Ishibashi hoped for the Olympics to usher in a period of rejuvenation — not of profit, but of the national soul.

“1964 focused on the economy, economic growth,” Ishibashi said, choosing his words carefully as he looked into the skyline. “There’s nothing wrong with economic growth. That’s basic. But this is more about the spirit, a new mindset that’s important for the Japanese society.”

With one year left until the Olympic Games, Tokyo 2020 officials, top politicians and business leaders again are framing the Games as an inflection point in their country’s history.

This time it’s not war they’re hoping to put behind them, but three decades of meager economic growth and a mounting concern that a complacent, insular culture is falling behind the global economy. 

Japan remains one of the wealthiest countries on Earth but has lost its luster since the 1980s boom times, when its dominance in electronics and automobiles raised alarm bells in the United States. After the early ’90s recession, the Japanese economy stagnated.

Growth was negligible as regional rivals such as China, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan operated on rocket fuel. Then in 2011, the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami killed 20,000 people and devastated wide parts of the main Japanese island of Honshu, costing an estimated $360 billion in economic output. Throughout all of this, the Japanese birth rate remained low, causing slow but inexorable population declines.

Led by Tokyo’s growth, the Japanese economy has some bright spots emerging. But growth is still meager, and leaders worry that the country’s homogenous culture, difficult language and esoteric business practices scare off globalists. They hope the Games will be a rallying point.

That’s partly a marketing challenge — to simply remind the world of its strengths. But Tokyo 2020 wants the Games to usher in tangible changes, too, like bringing about a greater appreciation for diversity in the workplace, a better society for the disabled, more creativity in problem solving, more innovation and simply to be more welcoming.  

“One of the goals is to appeal with our strengths, and show how wonderful the country is to the people around the world,” said Tokyo 2020 Chief Operating Officer Yukihiko Nunomura, speaking through an interpreter. “We’d like to share the latest technologies to bring excitement to the Games, and also for the people, the businesses and the media that show up, we want to draw their attention to our message that this is a country that has the latest technology and is attractive to business.”

For an American traveler in Tokyo, it might seem absurd to suggest Japan is troubled. The Tokyo metropolitan area is nearly twice the size of New York City but operates with a fraction of the congestion, litter and crime. Despite the long-term stagnation, the Japanese still enjoy the world’s fourth-highest standard of living, a strong education system and political stability. Its parks are clean and full on weekends; its boardrooms and schools full during the week.

But the country’s economic future is at risk. The Japanese language has a reputation of being difficult to learn, and global social media platforms that connect disparate cultures have comparatively few users there. “International competition is restricted by a very insular local business culture,” reads guidance for foreign investors published by Santander Trade. In 2017, Japan ranked 28th among all countries in incoming direct foreign investments despite still being the third-largest overall economy.

With the countdown on, Japan looks to the 2020 Games as a means to establish a vibrant future.
Photo: getty images

Peter Jennings, president of Dow’s Japan and Korea operations, said some of the reasons people stay out of Japan are based on perception, not reality. That makes the Olympics’ 17-day advertisement for Tokyo useful from a branding standpoint, even if economists tend to pooh-pooh sporting events’ ability to generate lasting economic impact.

“Look outside today,” Jennings said on a mild spring morning, a week before the city’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival. “It’s a beautiful day. There’s no crime. There’s no pollution. Everything works. And it’s so efficient. They will be wonderful hosts. Having 17 days of this on international television, people are going to say, ‘This is the best-keep secret in the world for a place to invest, live and work.’”

Jennings, who became president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan in February, said Dow was a poster child for the frustrating rush of western capital into China, where the lure of a 1 billion-person market comes in tandem with frequent regulatory, legal and political problems. “We have chased this huge pot of gold in China, and the more money we invest, they keep moving the goalposts further away,” he said.

Japan’s declining population of about 126 million can’t match the upside of its massive neighbor to the west, but Japan offers predictability at a time of global upheaval. Jennings hopes the Olympics will remind the world that Japan is a high-functioning democracy that will stay the course when few countries can say that.

“Stability is great,” Jennings said. “Used to be everything is about growth investment. Now it’s that companies like ours are looking for stable investment.”

Longtime American expat Mike Alfant, a Brooklyn-born technology entrepreneur who’s also president of the upscale Tokyo American Club, said Japan has evolved beyond its insular reputation since he arrived in 1989. There are far more foreigners living and working in the city, he said, transportation signage has added English, and Japan is far better integrated into the global community. But the changes are gradual.

“Fundamentally, Japanese values haven’t changed, and I think that’s one of the things that’s appealing,” Alfant said. “There’s a certain consistency and stability here, and the intent of what you’re doing matters in some ways as much as the action you’re taking.”

For the last three Olympics, there have been major doubts about the organizers’ basic ability to execute the Games. Not this time. Cost overruns have been a problem, but nobody questions the infrastructure will be ready and functional. Hotels have been allocated to the world’s media, and construction on the new Olympic Stadium should be done by December.

That allows Tokyo 2020 to start talking about what it’s doing differently, and to aim higher than simply impressing with new gizmos and robots.

For instance, global sponsor Toyota will be promoting products that make life easier for people who can’t move around well due to age or disability. It’s good business in an aging country, but it’s also a change in perspective, said Masaaki Ito, general manager of Toyota’s Olympic and Paralympic division.

“We are talking about the legacy of Tokyo 2020 with a lot of different people, and our consensus is a ‘universal society,’” Ito said. “A universal society means physically barrier-free, and also mentally barrier-free. This is very important because of very fast aging in Japan. We are taking this opportunity to change our society.”

But Toyota is helping change Japan in another, less obvious way. It’s lending its expertise to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s efforts to keep traffic down and flowing during the Games — a big switch for a manufacturer accustomed to selling as many cars as possible to now helping solve the problems caused by too many cars. “We want to make the Tokyo Games have very secure, smooth and safe transportation management,” Ito said.

Tokyo 2020 leaders know its technology focus can’t just mean robots when it actually means innovation, said Masahiko Sakamaki, executive director of marketing. People already know Japan does robots, and they are working hard to make sure Tokyo lives up to foreign visitors’ expectations on technology. But they aim higher than gadgetry.

Tokyo 2020 officials want to put less technological focus on Japan’s use of robots and more on overall innovation.
Photo: getty images

“Innovation we do believe is not only about technology, but about the way of thinking, and changing the mindset is also one innovative aspect from our perspective,” Sakamaki said, using Kei Torii, director of partner services, as a translator. That includes methods of doing business that are unfamiliar in Japan. To that end, Tokyo 2020 gave schoolchildren final authority over the mascot selection in a vote, and also has collected tons of scrapped electronics to recycle into medals for the Games.

The change in mindset could reach parts of Japanese life as mundane as teleworking. Working from home, or shifting hours to account for child care, is unheard of in Japanese workplaces, but the Olympics may force that to change, said Aykan Azar, managing director of Octagon Southeast Asia, who oversees the Octagon Tokyo office.

“This could maybe shape the future of working in Japan as well, which again is a very traditional model,” Azar said. “I think the government is looking at ways to drive some of the more innovative work models we see in other parts of the world.”

Officials also hope the Paralympics and growing commercial relevance of those Games, to come two weeks after the Olympics, will force restaurants, hotels and the government to become more accessible to the disabled and elderly.

The business of sports itself expects to get a real upgrade thanks to the Games, and to a lesser extent this fall’s Rugby World Cup in Japan. Tokyo 2020 has had to spend time educating domestic sponsors on how to use hospitality to drive business, not just relying on ad units.

It may seem ambitious to use a 17-day festival to drive shifts in global perception of Japanese business, or to change the way Japanese people approach their daily lives. But if it fails, it won’t be for lack of enthusiasm — ticket demand is soaring, hospitality programs are expected to be gigantic and Tokyo 2020 has sold $3.1 billion worth of sponsorships to 64 companies.

It’s a point of national pride, and a hope to recapture the past glory of the first Tokyo Games.

“People do know the impact of the 1964 Games, and they wish 2020 to do the same,” Sakamaki said.