What are the Olympic Games without the thunderous cheers from spectators and the adrenaline rush it gives athletes vying for gold? For Japan, this year’s host country, it’s a chance to regain some of what was lost during the pandemic.
With the world’s eyes watching, the games are a chance for host cities to showcase what makes their culture unique. This time for Tokyo, officials have decided to focus on “omotenashi” or hospitality.
Omotenashi is the deeply-rooted Japanese value of caring for one’s guest. It’s said to be centered around care rather than expectation, and always puts the other person first. In this case, Olympic host towns work to deliver “Japaneseness” to visiting athletes.
Designated as the “sailing village,” the small port town of Oiso in Kanagawa Prefecture welcomed sailing athletes with cardboard cutouts of iconic Japanese scenery and yacht-shaped origami. Local elementary school children got busy folding a thousand origami structures a whole month before the athletes started arriving on July 13. The little yachts were then placed in the athletes’ hotel rooms.
Takashi Kobayashi, the group leader of Kanagawa Prefecture’s Sports Bureau Sailing Division, said it was important for athletes to “take a part of their experience home” as souvenirs.
Elementary school children started folding origami yachts for arriving athletes in June. Photo: Courtesy of Kanagawa Prefecture’s Sports Bureau Sailing Division
“Even though we can’t physically interact with the Olympians because of COVID-19 restrictions, we still want them to experience omotenashi. It’s part of how we’re cheering them on,” he told VICE.
The finished products. Photo: Courtesy of Kanagawa Prefecture’s Sports Bureau Sailing Division
The cardboard cutouts depict quintessential Japanese images like Mount Fuji and kimono patterns in ukiyo-e (woodblock print) style, and are another way of bringing Japan to the athletes, Kobayashi explained.
In the “Sailing Village,” athletes can take photos with iconic Japanese landscapes. Photo: Courtesy of Kanagawa Prefecture’s Sports Bureau Sailing Division
“Their movement is limited this year, so we thought it would be nice for them to pose with classically Japanese landscapes and commemorate their time here,” he said.
Host towns are also using traditional art to educate their own people about Olympic sports.
In Saitama Prefecture’s Asaka City, Olympic organizers teamed up with two neighboring cities to develop a manga series about shooting, the sport this region is hosting.
They enlisted a manga artist to write 13 four-panel comic strips for the series Rifle is Beautiful, first released in November 2018. The series follows four high school girls in an after-school shooting club. The girls learn about the sport, the equipment needed, and how to give their best shot. Each new manga was published in the city governments’ newspapers and on their websites.
“Rifle is Beautiful” has become so popular, it was even turned into a TV anime. Photo: Courtesy of Asaka City’s Olympic and Paralympic Office
Masaaki Horikawa, the director of Asaka City’s Olympic and Paralympic office, said they chose manga as their medium because it’s easy for everyone to understand.
“When people think of Japan, they think of manga. So we thought it would be a good idea for people to learn about the sport through these comics. They’re also simple so it’s more accessible to everyone, including children,” he told VICE.
Rifle is Beautiful has gotten so popular, in fact, that it’s now a TV anime series. It’s also been published in some of Japan’s biggest weekly magazines dedicated to seinen manga, or comics targeted at young men.
To prepare for the Olympics, Asaka also hosted numerous events centered on shooting. People could play the sport with beam rifles or play boccia, a ball sport in the Paralympic Games.
Food, one of the many ways one can enjoy another culture, is another popular way organizers have defined Japan for Olympic visitors. Host towns whipped up popular local dishes through the “Omotenashi Cooking Project” and used locally-sourced ingredients to make dishes from their Olympic teams’ home countries. Participating host towns get at least one team, though sometimes, they’ll support more than one country.
Yamaguchi Prefecture, which is hosting the Spanish swimming team, made a “Spain plate de Yamaguchi” using Spanish food to literally represent Yamaguchi, which means “mountain mouth.” Paella in the shape of onigiri (rice balls) make for mountains, and the pinchos around the rice are fashioned to look like a mouth.
Pinchos to surround rice mountains. Photo: Courtesy of Cabinet Secretariat
In Miyagi Prefecture, Natori City hosts Canada’s BMX teams, so Olympic organizers made a rendition of poutine called “tomacutine.” Instead of fries, the dish is made with tomatoes, chunks of potato, cucumbers, and, of course, cheese. Hold the gravy.
Miyagi Prefecture's “tomacutine.” Photo: Courtesy of Cabinet Secretariat
But host towns aren’t the only ones capitalizing on the “Japanification” of this year’s Olympics. Some businesses also increased their omotenashi marketing. Sanwa Koutsu, a taxi company in the greater Tokyo area, started offering “fencing taxis,” with drivers dressed in the sport’s uniform and, upon request, wielding sabres.
Fencing taxis were launched in April. Photo: Courtesy of Sanwa Koutsu
Chiaki Ozawa, a public relations representative at Sanwa Koutsu, said the company thought it would be a fun way for riders to get excited about the sport.
“Japanese taxis are known to be some of the most polite and cleanest experiences in the world, so we wanted visitors to enjoy our take on omotenashi with a sports twist,” Ozawa told VICE.
The choice of fencing may be random, but Ozawa said the company has dressed up their drivers in fun costumes before, like ninja uniforms.
Although Sanwa Koutsu was looking forward to picking up commuters in fencing outfits, they’ve had no customers book this experience yet. They’ve offered the ride since April 19, but “because foreign spectators are banned, there just isn’t a lot of demand for it,” Ozawa said.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has affected our services quite a bit. Of course we were hoping for international visitors, if this were a regular year with no pandemic. That’s the best thing for drivers,” she said. Although “saddened” by the ban on spectators, the company’s employees understand the need for health safety.
Restrictions on foreign visitors has severely affected Sanwa Koutsu. Photo: Courtesy of Sanwa Koutsu
Perhaps on a more practical level, Olympic organizers have even taken the omotenashi spirit to bathrooms. At the Olympic Village, athletes can do their business on toilets decorated with a gold pattern.
According to Japanese sports outlet Nikkan Sports, event planners wanted to cheer on athletes aiming for gold. They may not all win gold medals, but they can at least practice personal hygiene with a golden touch.
Though Japan will welcome far less visitors than expected, the spirit of hospitality is not lost. Many host towns are making the best of their circumstances, and hope Olympic athletes can relish the bits of Japanese culture they can.