Chairman singles out two aspects of Japanese traditional culture that people of other nations “wouldn’t understand.”
The Olympics are an athletic competition, but there seems to be as much bated anticipation regarding what Tokyo has planned for the opening ceremony for the 2020 Summer Games as there is for any individual sporting event. While this isn’t Tokyo’s first time to be a host city, Japan set a high bar for itself when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe popped out of a pipe dressed as Super Mario at the closing ceremony of the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
That bit of unexpected cosplay was not only immensely entertaining, it’s a reflection of how much the global popularity of Japanese pop culture has grown since 1964, the last time the Olympics took place in Tokyo. In the 50-plus years since then, Japanese video games, music, and animation have built up passionate fanbases around the world.
That’s a connection Yoshiro Mori, chairman of the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, wants to tap into for the 2020 opening ceremony. In a recent interview, Mori, who was also the Prime Minister of Japan for a 12-month period starting in 2000, spoke about his hopes for the opening and closing ceremonies, saying “We shouldn’t do anything too unusual.” Though that might make it sound like he’s against the idea of using pop culture to promote the Games, it’s actually more traditional things that he thinks the ceremonies should avoid.
“For example. even if we did kabuki or sumo wrestling, the people of the world wouldn’t understand them,” Mori expanded. “What they’ll understand most is anime and manga. Like Doraemon, Hello Kitty, and Astro Boy. A manga parade. Something like that would be good.”
In all fairness, it’s true that you’ll have an easier time finding passionate anime fans than active kabuki or sumo enthusiasts in countries outside Japan. Mori’s logic that “people of the world won’t understand” kabuki and sumo, though, is suspect.
Most people can instantly recognize those two traditional disciplines as symbols of Japanese culture, even if they’re not aware of their fine nuances and complete histories. And while Hello Kitty has achieved immense popularity overseas, Astro Boy and Doraemon have gotten lukewarm responses in most English-speaking regions of the planet, making them much less representative of Japan than kabuki or sumo to people from those parts of the globe.
That’s not to say Mori’s “manga parade” idea is completely crazy. Anime serves as many young people’s first major point of contact with Japanese culture and society. It’s not like other people involved with the Tokyo Olympics haven’t had similar ideas, and in the interview Mori also said that his primary goal for the Games is to put together “an event that will remain in people’s hearts.” Still, with a number of people in Japan not onboard with the prospect of doubling down on the country’s pop cultural appeal for an international event of such a large scale, hopefully there’ll still be room in the festivities for aspects of Japanese culture that go back farther than the last few decades.
Follow Casey on Twitter, where he’d actually be pretty OK with the organizing committee just making Yawara the official mascot character of the 2020 Games.