Globalist Perspective

Olympic Dreams, Tokyo Style

An inward-looking culture must embrace the Olympic spirit of performance and openness to reinvent itself.

Credit: Peter Bernik - Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • The 2020 Olympics may be the last opportunity Japan gets to rebrand and redefine itself on the global stage.
  • Japan must seize the Olympic opportunity to leverage the upcoming games to think outside the box.
  • Olympians and the world’s top athletes, by their very nature, are risk-takers.
  • Olympians are the anti-generalists. They forgo all other possibilities in pursuit of excellence in one field.
  • The Tokyo Olympic games should cause Japanese youth to reconsider the meaning of success.
  • The Japanese value system seems to be entrenched in the ideas from decades past.
  • Both men and women at blue-chip companies still find it nearly impossible to have a healthy work-life balance.

The Japanese stock market is booming as a result of Tokyo winning its bid to host the summer Olympic games in 2020. Shares of companies from athletic wear to construction equipment expect to benefit from the fact that Tokyo has been awarded the 2020 Summer Olympics.

At the same time, around the world there is some apprehension. Other nations are concerned that Japan won’t be able to clean up its nuclear leaks, despite reassurances from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Obviously, tackling the radiation mess from the crippled Fukushima plant in earnest must be the country’s top priority. But Japan must also seize the Olympic opportunity to leverage the upcoming games to think outside the box.

Celebrating Olympians and the world’s top athletes, above all else, means to celebrate risk-takers. Gold medalists, by their very nature, are prepared to put their career eggs into a single basket. They are driven to excel in one select path.

Olympians are also the antithesis of generalists. They are forsaking all other possibilities in pursuit of excellence in one particular sport. Top global business executives share those traits, insofar as they are willing to take the road less taken. They must be able to envision a world of possibilities that currently do not exist.

Such visionaries, however, are still far too few in Japan, where legal and social hurdles still make it tremendously difficult to start up a business in the country. Further hampering the risk-taking spirit is that the allure of the big brand names and the business organizations behind them still loom large in the eyes of far too many Japanese.

Not surprisingly, therefore, the best and brightest Japanese all too often covet moving up the elite domestic corporate hierarchy, rather than striking it out on their own and gambling on their own abilities.

The onslaught of risk-taking, world-class athletes in the Tokyo games should also trigger Japanese youth in particular to reconsider the meaning of success. In 1964, when Tokyo first hosted the Olympics, Japan was still very much on the cusp of breaking out as a global economic powerhouse.

Back then, Japan’s definition of success was clear: catch up and excel as an industrialized nation. Half a century later, the Japanese capital is more cosmopolitan and affluent than it has ever been, but the Japanese value system seems to be entrenched in the ideas of decades past.

For instance, women educated at the best colleges still find it extremely difficult to be on a fast track for professional growth, especially after they have children. And both men and women at blue-chip companies still find it nearly impossible to have a healthy work-life balance if they are a two-income household.

Meanwhile, non-Japanese executives all too often find themselves hitting a glass ceiling at Japanese companies. On the other end of the employment spectrum, lower-skilled foreigners are only begrudgingly welcomed, if at all, despite a severe shortage of workers for many essential tasks.

The celebration of Olympians and their struggles to rise to the top can be an impetus for the Japanese public to reexamine itself and its longer-term aspirations and redefine what the meaning of a happy, successful life is.

In short, Japan must acknowledge the fact that only through diversity and creativity can growth be sustained in mature economies.

The Olympic spirit and dual citizenship

Finally, the Olympics should be an opportunity for Japan to seriously consider something that is very much in the Olympic spirit — the benefits of allowing dual citizenship to develop a robust society. Japan has never allowed its nationals to claim allegiance to another country simultaneously.

Yet, during every quadrennial Olympic season, it turns out that a number of Japan’s star athletes have a non-Japanese parent. One wonders why that is. Could it be a reflection of the fact that such families by their very nature encourage risk-taking?

At the same time, the Japanese media makes a point of celebrating the sporting achievements of Japanese-Americans and other nationals of Japanese descent, especially if they win gold. Granted, there are downsides to dual citizenship and many countries also prohibit the practice.

Yet the benefits of allowing Japanese nationals who live overseas or foreigners of Japanese heritage to claim two homelands would far outweigh the negatives. At the very least, it would certainly strengthen Japan’s Olympic team.

There can be no better time than the run-up to 2020 to consider each and every option that would increase the number of Japanese nationals, given that the country’s depopulation process continues at an alarming rate.

It goes without saying that the host country of the Olympics enjoys great publicity and a big boost in tourism. The games also always lead to a surge in public spending, a surge in interest to get involved with sports, as well as a boon to consumption. That will certainly be the case in Tokyo.

But the real challenge for Prime Minister Abe will be to leverage the Olympics to press ahead with much-needed structural reform. Simply put, he must envision a new economic dawn for Japan.

Mr. Abe cannot afford to squander that chance by going after the low-hanging fruit, mainly improving short-term growth via building stadiums, roads and other parts of the public infrastructure.

The Olympics will bring the most talented, hard-working, driven and inspirational athletes to the Japanese capital at a time when the country is suffering an identity crisis. This may be the last opportunity Japan gets to rebrand and redefine itself on the global stage.

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About Shihoko Goto

Shihoko Goto is the senior associate for Northeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. [Washington, D.C, United States]

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