Winter Olympics in Vancouver
How Did Japanese Visitors and Viewers See Our Community?
Now that the Winter Olympics have come and gone, it all seems like a big blur – with an overall impression that Canada did well. Leaving the medal count and the rest of the big news to the mainstream media, I’ve strung together some comments and vignettes, heard personally or seen on the internet, about some cultural facets of the Games and about Vancouver, its setting. Of particular concern for us living in the cusp of Canadian and Japanese cultures must be how visitors from Japan and Japanese TV viewers saw our social environment.
Saving the answer to that for the end, I’ll start with my experiences while accompanying Mr M, a reporter sent by a Japanese provincial daily to cover the Games, for whom I was interpreting. During a quick dinner at a Japanese restaurant near Thurlow and Alberni one night shortly after he arrived, I made a casual remark about how Mr M, some 30 years my junior as a journalist, made the right choice in joining a reputable provincial paper rather than a large bureaucracy-ridden national daily. He nodded, even as he cast uneasy glances toward a group of Japanese out-of-towners at a nearby table. After they left, he explained that they were from one of the big national dailies, and part of a 40-person contingent. By that reckoning, there must have been at least 300 reporters, photographers and so on sent here by Japanese newspapers and TV networks altogether, all ensconced in ad hoc offices at the media centre. I had no press pass so I couldn’t go in, but Mr M had to rush back there, presumably, to keep tab of what everyone else was sending to Japan.
Having to work according to the Japanese news cycle, Mr M and others often couldn’t leave until the wee hours of the morning. I found their most down-to-earth comments in “reporters’ blogs” on newspaper websites. “The volunteers cheerfully greet us ‘good morning” as we walk out of the centre bleary-eyed at 5 a.m., and I wonder if they’re being sarcastic,” one said. A misinterpretation of genuine good will, I would imagine. But I do know from experience how tiring it can be to operate on Japan time when one is in a different country thousands of kilometers away.
One big concern for the Japanese media people was where to find basic sustenance, the food items they’re used to. “I found most of the different brands of instant ramen from home at a Japanese convenience store on Robson Street!” exclaimed one female reporter in her blog. Another was so flabbergasted when a salesclerk in a Robson Street boutique asked her “Nihonjin desuka?” that she did a little photo story on the girl, who turned out to be a Chinese who used to live in Tokyo.
One young sports writer had a shocking experience: Very Dangerous! I Thought He Didn’t Understand Nihongo… was the headline over the account of his eye-opening experience with a “cheerful Oriental guy in his 20s” who was a waiter at a Chinese restaurant he frequented in Whistler Village. On his fourth visit for a dinner of salmon fried rice (which tasted just like in Japan), the waiter was visibly unfriendly. When he eventually came to take the order, he unexpectedly asked “What would you like?” in fluent Japanese. Then the man realized what had upset the waiter. The previous time he was there, he had muttered “It sure took you long enough” in Japanese under his breath, thinking he wouldn’t understand. The reporter later made amends with the waiter, who told him he was born and raised in Japan until age 5 when his family came to Canada. “It’s dangerous to assume Japanese won’t be understood when we are abroad,” the man concluded.
The proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand? Seen from outside, it is surprising how introverted people in Japan can be, even in this global age. They seem blissfully unaware of how pervasive the influence of Japanese culture, even language, has been on both sides of the Pacific Rim and beyond over the last few decades.
If their eyes were turned outward more, they would understand just how much global impact Japanese culture in the broad sense—from sushi, scissors-paper-stone, and karate to Pokemon, Nintendo, J-Pop, Ichiro and Toyota Lexus—is having. Did the Olympics coverage make more Japanese people realize that here, in one of the largest metropolitan/suburban regions on the North American west coast, that influence is microscopically embodied in each one of us who espouse various elements of Japanese culture along with the multi-ethnic Canadian culture at large?
Apart from not having any access to many tastes and amenities of home (something that Japanese living overseas today may take for granted), Japanese immigrants faced many hardships in pre-World War II North America where Asians were second-class citizens. Hopefully, this unforgettable history was also impressed upon more Japanese people during the Games, even if they may not be morally obliged to know.
The daily Yomiuri, for example, told the story of Ms Mary Ohara (long “O”), an 80-year-old Nisei who was interned with some 8,000 other Nikkei Canadians back in 1942 in stables and other buildings next to where Pacific Colosseum, the Olympics venue, now stands. She recalled being rounded up with her family and being taken to these far-from-adequate temporary quarters where they had to spend six months, before being transferred inland. But as her smiling photo shows, she is now a happy Nikkei Canadian who harbors no bitterness, rooting for both Canada and Japan in these Games. She also mentioned increasing inter-marriages between Nikkeijin and other races.
In the way of “sales points” to entice potential immigrants, I thought the strongest was still the Canadian ethos of inherent politeness and consideration for others including foreigners. One Japanese lady reporter said every time someone thanked her for tiny acts of kindness like holding a door open, she felt so good that it made her whole day better. Even one of the occupationally cynical British reporters observed: “Canadians say ‘have a nice day’ and actually mean it!”
I saw an example of this kindness fortified with independent initiative in a volunteer Mr M. and I met at an entrance to the Richmond Oval , the speed skating venue. Mr M wanted to go inside and take some photos, but all that a man in charge of security at the entrance did was to keep repeating “I’ve been instructed not to let the media in today.” Then a young female volunteer nearby, who overheard us, suddenly interjected, saying “I can help you.” What she did was to call a media relations officer inside on her cell phone and ask him to come out and meet us. Because of her initiative, Mr M was able to make a appointment to take photos the following day. She didn’t have to, but she understood we needed help, and decided to do what she could. No “junior” staff would stick his or her neck like that effectively making the security chief “lose face” in a similar situation in Japan, China or Singapore.
I also hope athletes and tourists from Japan and TV viewers in Japan felt the joy of people expressing their unabashed love for Canada in the spectator stands and on the streets—we’ve never heard people breaking out into such hearty reditions of O Canada so spontaneously, so often. In Japan it’s almost impossible to talk about one’s love for one’s country without getting caught up in ideological ramifications of patriotism. Driving around my neighborhood, I never saw so many homes and cars festooned with both the good old Maple Leaf and another national flag, be it Australian, German, Dutch, Greek or even Lithuanian.. In the window of one house along 41st Avenue. I saw a Canadian flag displayed along with Hinomaru, the Japanese flag. When I ducked into a neighborhood pub once to watch a Canadian speed-skater win the gold on the big TV screen, I overheard an old man gush “I LOVE Canada” in a thick foreign (Greek?) accent. A nation of proud immigrants indeed.
Finally, for the answer to the question “What sort of impressions did Japanese visitors and people in Japan get?”, I’d like to quote Daisuke Takahashi, the bronze medal winner in men’s figure skating. The popular skater said: “This is a very liveable city and its scenery is beautiful, so if I’m going to live abroad, it will be in Vancouver.”
I wonder how many people in Japan heard these words?