Tokyo Olympics: 'My Japan looking ahead'
Writer Motoko Iwasaki looks at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games, explaining the less understandable cultural elements. Japan staged a sober show, alternating elements of tradition and modernity, showing above all the will to put difficulties behind.
Milan (AsiaNews) – Billed as the “Recovery Olympics”, Tokyo 2020 began with an opening ceremony centred on the idea of rebirth, of recovery after COVID-19 and almost two years that disrupted the life of the world, jeopardising the Games themselves.
As the first scene showed a young Japanese getting up and casting the shadow of an unfolding sprout, athletes were shown training in abnormal conditions.
Called “Moving Forward", the first part of the ceremony expressed the desire to look to the future and leave the pandemic behind after all the difficulties. For Japan, this also means overcoming the triple disaster of Fukushima.
The Olympic torch had in fact begun its journey in that city back in March. Later, in May, its residents planted sunflowers to bloom in time for the start of the Games.
The torch completed its journey when Naomi Osaka lighted the Olympic cauldron. Choosing a still active athlete as the last torchbearer was a courageous move since Osaka is a woman, black, and American-raised, thus showing that Japan is projected towards the future and takes into great consideration the development goals of the United Nations, a topic often referred to.
Elements of Japan’s popular culture were presented during the Parade of Nations, the entrance of the various national delegations. Following tradition, the Greek delegation appeared first in the stadium, followed by the IOC Refugee Olympic Team, with the host country coming in last.
All the other teams entered according to the Japanese alphabet (Gojūon). The country names were written in manga-style bubbles and the accompanying music was a mashup of video game music.
Following the delegations’ entrance, the artistic programme was a mix of modern and traditional elements with Ichikawa Ebizō and Hiromi Uehara stealing the show.
The first is a kabuki actor. Kabuki is form of theatre that combines music, dance and very expressive acting, reminiscent of manga and anime characters, inspired by the actors of this ancient art. The second is a world-famous jazz pianist. Together, they blended tradition and modernity in a union that never clashed, representing the very idea that Japan projects in the world.
At the start, the victims of COVID-19 were also remembered. After the Olympics ceremony director was fired over a Holocaust joke, the Israeli athletes killed by Black September in 1972 were, for the first time, remembered as well.
Throughout the show, white and red, the colours of the Japanese flag but also of blood, disease, death and health, weaved together. The songs were melancholic.
The next segment of the show focused on the history of the city of Tokyo, once named Edo. At one point, wooden tables and boxes similar to those used in traditional Noh (Nō), Kabuki and Kyogen (Kyōgen) theatre entered the scene.
The wood came from trees grown from seeds brought to Japan by delegations for the 1964 Olympics. Mirai Moriyama danced the Japanese tap on one of these tables creating a sense of unease and death.
Next came an energetic team of people wearing the traditional jacket worn by firefighters from the Edo period (1603-1868).
At the time, Japanese buildings were made of wood and fires were very frequent. if a big one broke out, firefighters had to tear down neighbouring buildings as quickly as possible to prevent the flames from spreading to the whole city.
Once fires were out, rebuilding could start, which is why we Japanese are used to destruction and recovery.
People in wheelchairs were part of the programme as well. In old Edo, the disabled were welcomed; for example, the blind were offered the opportunity to learn the profession of masseur.
Disabilities were also highlighted by a Paralympic athlete who carried the torch in the last stretch of its journey.
The organising committee had announced that the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics and the Paralympics would share themes; but the final passage of the flame, which shone in a torch shaped like a cherry blossom, showed some of the ceremony’s opening scenes.
A doctor and a nurse also carried the torch and passed it to six children from the prefectures most affected by the 2011 earthquake.
Three legends of Japanese baseball, a very popular sport in Asia, were also among the torchbearers.
Shigeo Nagashima was supported in his walk by Sadaharu Oh, an athlete of Taiwanese origin who was one of his great rivals in the 1980s and 1990s.
I'm sure it was exciting for the Japanese to see them together with Hideki Matsui, who grew up watching their games and now plays in the Major League Baseball, a US-based professional baseball league.
Many Japanese were against these Olympics. Since the Los Angeles Games in 1984, more and more money has been spent on the event, focused on glitz and competition; not this time, because of the difficulties (and scandals) that have plagued Japan.
However, now that the Games have begun, support for the government and the organising committee is up amid a spirit of solidarity and unity, with people “United by Emotions”, just like the Games’ motto.
* Motoko Iwasaki is a Japanese writer living in Italy, author of the book Un cuore da nutrire (A heart to feed).