The Issue of Hospitality at the Tokyo Paralympics


After visiting Brazil as the vice-chair of the Japanese national team at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games, Sakurai Seiichi says that smiles on the faces of local residents were a key to the Games’ success. Will Japan be able to welcome visitors from around the world with the same warm hospitality at the 2020 Games in Tokyo?

A Buoyant National Character

I arrived in Rio de Janeiro on August 31, when winter turns to spring in Brazil. Before leaving Japan I was told that I would need long-sleeved clothes because it was still cold, but I arrived to bright sunshine and warm temperatures. Short-sleeved shirts were just fine—it was dry and pleasant, not humid like Japan. The nice weather and hearty welcome at the airport by members of the local Japanese community made a good first impression on me. On the following day, September 1, a ceremony was held to open the Olympic Village to the national teams. It began with dancers in green costumes, which I took to be based on an Amazonian nature motif, moving to the rhythms of samba and bossa nova.

The smiling mascot of the Games was Tom, a creature whose head was covered with leaves of various shades of green said to express the country’s abundant natural flora. In another nod to the national love of samba music, the name “Tom” was borrowed from the nickname of Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, who wrote the global hit “The Girl from Ipanema.” Tom added something extra during the medal ceremonies, when his head of leaves changed color to gold for the gold medalist, silver for the silver medalist, and bronze for the bronze medalist.

At the opening ceremony on September 7, we were treated to a succession of dances expressing the sunny disposition of samba and the Carioca (native Rio) culture. Smiling samba troupes entertained us even in the waiting areas.

The mood was buoyant throughout the Games, with constant samba rhythms and crowds breaking into waves during moments when the competition was tense. This was a natural expression of the soccer-loving national character, I thought. At the slightest of breaks during the action in wheelchair basketball or wheelchair rugby games, fans called out to the supporters of the opposing country and kept the mood upbeat with dancing contests. A noise meter would be displayed on the screen, encouraging the crowd cheer louder for the athletes.

At times I even thought that watching the spectators was more interesting than the matches. During the triathlon and other events that took place at beach resorts like Copacabana, there was a sense of openness not only among the athletes but the spectators as well. Shop employees would often move their hips to the rhythm as they punched the registers.

The closing ceremony on September 18 was also a festival of music and dance. The theme of the performance for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics in Japan was “Positive Switch,” undoubtedly a message from Japan that included a determination to provide a mood as upbeat as that in Brazil.

Cheerfulness Clears Away Many Problems

At the Rio Games there were problems of public safety and many issues with the facilities. In the athletes’ village, for example, problems occurred almost daily with clogged toilets, thefts, bathrooms that were too small for people with severe disabilities, and not enough braille blocks. The event and practice sites had many temporary facilities that gave rise to concern about injuries. Information displays were also not visitor-friendly. And of course the entire village had not been made barrier-free. There were also problems in operation, with some of the swimming events being interrupted and noise from the surroundings hampering goalball games, which require silence.

Overall, however, the Games received high marks. Many in the media reported that the Brazilian national character and the cheerfulness and smiles of Rio residents made the Games a success. I am sure that the people who visited from Japan to support the athletes got the same impression. Some people may credit the very open space design of the event sites and the Olympic Park for the cheerful atmosphere. My feeling, though, is that the positive outlook of the people of Brazil and Rio was the key to the success of these Games.

Smiles Create Feeling of Openness

The crowds at the events really came together in support. Children, youth, and even security guards in the Olympic Park were upbeat and took photos with us. We encountered some minor “problems,” though, when we gave a badge to a child. The child would say “I need more than one, because I have two brothers. Can you give me two more?” Then, when we gave him two, another boy watching would come up and whisper something to that child. Then the child would say, “This boy is my cousin. Can I have another one?” It went on like this until we finally had to say, “Sorry, we don’t have any more.” Then we took a photo together and went our separate ways.

When I talked to other people about this, they said they had had similar experiences. We also asked some Japanese people living in Brazil about the behavior of these children. They told us, “Helping and sharing with each other are rooted in the character here.” They also said that Brazil is a country where children and old people are treated as special and that if someone goes into prison for a crime against a child, he may never come out again. We were told about priority lanes for senior citizens entering event sites and that people on buses and trains would immediately give their seats to the elderly.

The children seemed full of life. From the car window we could see children playing soccer in side alleys. Because of the large gap between rich and poor, children do not see themselves as poor but live with confidence in their skills and have a positive outlook. It was like a glimpse of what Japan used to be, when children were raised not just by parents but by the community as a whole.

How does Tokyo compare? We do not have back alleys like Rio anymore, and the sight of children playing ball on the roadside disappeared years ago. There are even an increasing number of parks where children are not allowed to play ball games, and some adults complain that the voices of children playing in parks or nursery schools are a nuisance. Japanese children are finding it more and more difficult to play freely outside like they do in Brazil.

As I returned to Japan thinking about these things, I felt that something was not quite right about life in Tokyo. People passed each other expressionless on the streets; young people sat in priority seats on trains lost in their smartphones; passengers failed to make room for people wishing to get off crowded trains. Something was missing. Then it hit me; where were all the smiles that I encountered in Brazil?

As we head toward the 2020 Tokyo Games, the best thing we can do for omotenashi (hospitality) may be welcome the many visitors from around the world with a smile. And those smiles should be natural and heartfelt. If the Games help us to create communities where people smile from the heart, that may become the real legacy of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

(Banner photo: Spectators cheering for Brazilian swimmers at the Paralympic swimming pool on September 14, 2016, in Rio de Janeiro. © Jiji.)

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