What About a Canadian vs Japanese Situation? It’s Only the Olympics—or Is It?
So we are finally about to see the 2010 Winter Olympic Games go into action at venues around Vancouver and Whistler. For Canada, it’s the second winter games she’s hosted since Calgary ’88, while Japan has already hosted two winter games, Sapporo ’72 and Nagano ’98. In the usual scenario when the Olympics are held in Japan, the officials, spectators, local citizenry and the media come together in a spirit of “let’s show Japan’s best face to the folks from around the world,” the competition between athletes turns out to be as exciting as anticipated and, helped by a push from the commercial sector, the games generate a good deal of excitement. The athletes and spectators from abroad seemingly have a good time and as the whole thing reaches the grand finale, the Japanese as hosts heave a collective sigh of relief.
How about the winter Olympics in Vancouver? Having lived here for nearly 13 years, I feel I still underestimated the resilient side of the Canadian character in matters of principle, as public-spirited as Canadians are.?In opinion surveys one to two years before the games’ opening, more than half the respondents expressed critical views along the line of the Olympics being “a misuse of taxpayers’ money.” And in another opinion survey I heard on the radio, 57% of those responding to the question: “Should we be polite to visitors from overseas during the Games?” replied “If they are polite to me, I’ll be polite too.” “Reserved but solid and reliable” is one way I’ve attempted to describe the Canadian ethos, and the bottom line of the “solid and reliable” aspect might be an aversion to wasting money. Also, most Canadians’ gut-feeling might be “Nothing wrong with the way we always are, so there’s no need to be especially nice just because it’s the Olympics.”
Does that mean the Vancouver-Whistler Olympics will turn out to be a relatively subdued spectacle, minus gushing accolades from excited international media reporters? Quite frankly, we won’t know until the games begin. Depending on the performance of Canadian athletes – again quite frankly, I want the hockey team to win the gold – there could be a lot of excitement. Leaving the actual results to TV broadcasts, sports websites and newspaper reports, I mulled over what these Olympics mean for us in the Nikkei/ijusha community.
From the standpoint, first of all, of our exchanges with Japan, the Greater Vancouver venue is a place of historical ties with Japan going back over a century to the start of Japanese immigration, with incomparably more Nikkeijin and resident Japanese compared to Turin in Italy, Salt Lake City in the US, Lillehammer in Norway, Albertville in France, Calgary, Sarajevo in Yugoslavia or Lake Placid in the US, the previous hoist cities going back to 1980. As a matter of interest, the Japanese national daily Mainichi Shimbun said in its recent pre-Olympics report that “some 20,000 Japanese” live in Metro Vancouver, without going into a detailed breakdown of Nikkeijin, ijusha and Japanese married to Canadians.
Japanese national dailies and sports dailies have been carrying reports of the first contingent of Japanese speedskaters to arrive, along with preparatory activities on the part of star athletes like the figure-skating diva Mao Asada. They’ve also run photo features showing tourist draws like Granville Island and Stanley Park.. And citing its well-balanced urban and natural environment in a setting surrounded by mountains, sea and a river, Britain’s Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) has ranked Vancouver as the most “liveable” city in the world, seven years in a row. As jaded as we locals have become with litanies of praise for our great environment, many of us probably feel pleasantly tickled by our attributes being cited as a big plus for an Olympic venue that will be the focus of world media for a while.
If there is such a thing as the “Olympics effect,” what would it be for those of us making up the Nikkei/ijusha community? First of all, exchanges with Japan from personal and family visits to projects in visual arts, music, sports and other areas, as seen in the pages of this magazine, have probably become more common over the years. We still recall vividly the visit here by the Emperor and Empress last year. And now, over a period of a few weeks, we will see a sudden influx of athletes including media favourites, team officials and tourists from Japan arriving in a locale which already has significant historical and cultural ties with Japan. Not surprisingly, many of the athletes are those from Hokkaido, Tohoku and elsewhere who grew up with winter sports. So some of them might develop an affinity for Canada, which also has a “snow country (yukiguni)” environment.They must try salmon nigiri, the best that “the sushi capital of North America <my theory>” can offer. All these elements above might interact synergistically to trigger an upsurge of good will. (As for economic effects, forecasts mostly appear to be just wishful thinking.)
Japanese media reports leading up to the Vancouver games have inevitably tended to dwell on macroscopic impressions and hardware like competition venues and facilities, which are rather removed from our microscopic day-to-day existence. In the way of personal involvement, keen sports buffs among our readers probably have bought tickets to go watch the events. Some of you might be planning to offer words of personal encouragement to Japanese and other foreign athletes they might run into downtown..
I’m sure there are also those contributing their labor as volunteers during the games. Yet others might be offering their homes as lodgings for officials, visitors and so on. To digress a bit, I’m sure we will be witnessing the likes of both male and female “pin cushions.” Olympic pins and badges…there’s something special about them, as I discovered for the first time during the 1964 Tokyo summer games when I was helping out with media coverage of the Olympic village. Among officials, media reporters and their helpers who come into contact with foreign athletes and team officials, some will inevitably catch the “Olympic pin/badge collection bug,” which also happens to be one small way of promoting international good will as well. People from more or less one hundred countries bringing numerous pins and badges of fancy designs, often in the colors of their national flags, to exchange. So once you start collecting them, it’s hard to stop. I bet some keen collectors even go to the Olympics just for that.
Through such microscopic involvement with the games, it would be nice if one could contribute, however little, to the aforementioned “synergistic interaction” so that Japanese and other foreign athletes, officials and “tourist-spectators” will go home with favorable memories.
Going back some 70 years in time, to August 1939 to be exact, the Japanese daily Tokyo Nichinichi Shimbun (forerunner of today’s Mainichi Shimbun) pulled off quite a feat for the time when a Mitsubishi-built two-prop transport plane the “Nippon,” manned by a crew of seven and sponsored by the newspaper, successfully completed its around-the-world flight in 56 days. Moving is an account of the occasion when the 7–member crew paid a courtesy visit to “Little Tokyo” in Los Angeles. The local men and women who took turns giving speeches welcoming the guests, who had come “all the way” to the US West coast, would inevitably get choked up, overcome with emotion. Pretty soon, everyone including the honored guests was in tears. It gives you an idea of what a momentous occasion the historical visit must have been.
In this day and age, when it’s become so much easier to go back and forth across the Pacific, would people—and not just today’s “cool” youth generation—get worked up over “just a big sports fest” like the Olympics, especially amidst the drawn-out economic depression? Will we get excited when Canadian and Japanese athletes start grabbing gold and silver medals? Again, who knows? Is the “Olympic magic” that seems to transcend generations still alive?
Having followed the Olympics and other big international feats over the years, one thing that makes me happy is that we hardly ever witness any more scenes of athletes and teams choking with unbearable tension, almost paralyzed by their sense of responsibility for representing Japan. It’s a joy to watch victorious young Japanese athletes thrusting their fists up in the air (“yattaaaa!!!”) and exchanging hugs with “foreign” counterparts congratulating them. It’s also a relief that most Japanese athletes nowadays are able to concentrate on their efforts unencumbered by distracting doubts like “are we good enough to compete internationally?”
Finally, allow me to share with you readers, most of whom probably love both Canada and Japan, each for what it’s worth, the “litmus test of patriotism” some of us “multi-culturalists” (thank you Mr SJ Kim) entertain ourselves with. In a situation where a Canadian and a Japanese are competing for a medal, who would you root for? “I’m happy with either one winning,” you might be announcing to those around you . . . and be a little surprised to discover that in your heart, you’re really rooting for one of them. It’s only the Olympics—or is it?