Japan’s pivot to sport

Tokyo takes a punt

Simon Chadwick

Economics and finance, International relations, Social policy | Asia, East Asia, The World

24 September 2019

Hosting both the Rugby World Cup and the Olympics, a big year for Japanese policymakers lies ahead. The success, or failure, of those events will be critical for Japan’s future, Simon Chadwick writes.

With the Rugby World Cup now underway in Japan, both the sport and the host nation will be in the spotlight during the coming weeks. For rugby, the tournament represents an important move as the sport seeks to establish itself outside its traditional heartlands.

This was inevitable. Right now, there is a global turf war taking place across sport, with the likes of the Premier League and the NBA pursuing new revenue streams from lucrative overseas markets. For rugby, establishing a strong presence in Japan makes sense. Despite the country’s recent economic woes, it remains the world’s third largest economy.

Yet, it is Japan itself that stands to be the main beneficiary of rugby’s showcase event and also from the staging of next summer’s Olympic and Paralympic Games. The country’s securing of rights to host this year’s World Cup in 2009 served as a prelude to its government passing the Basic Act on Sport in 2011.

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The Act was a call from government for Japan to step up its game in a number of ways, and represents the nation pivoting its focus to sport. As a sporting nation with a population of almost 130 million, the country has often punched below its weight.

Across Rugby World Cups, the national team had lost 22 of its 28 matches prior to the tournament beginning. At the 2016 Olympics, Japan secured only 12 gold medals, despite fielding 338 athletes.

By enacting a new approach to sport, Japan expects that the next twelve months will mark a dramatic shift in its attitude towards its performance. More broadly, the World Cup and the Olympics are intended to prompt a change in attitudes towards sport in general.

Along with many other countries, the Japanese are leading increasingly sedentary lifestyles and face growing health issues. Recent figures indicate that 40 per cent of Japanese people are physically inactive, which far exceeds the global country average of 28 per cent. This is an impending public health crisis, something that will be exacerbated by a rapidly ageing population.

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One third of Japan’s population is aged 60 or above and 25 per cent of the population is 65 or above. Promoting physical – and mental – well-being is a pressing need for the country.

In the face of economic struggle, the government has committed to promoting sport, identifying it as a sector that can make a stronger contribution to the country’s industrial well-being.

Japan already has several high profile, successful businesses involved in sport. For example, communications corporation Dentsu and sportswear brand ASICS.

However, event hosting is now seen as a means through which to attract investment and to generate revenue from tourism.

The desire to attract overseas visitors is not just a simple matter of economics, there are cultural and political reasons for it too. Japan has sometimes been insular, distant and closed-off to global influences.

As such, there has been a growing realisation that the country needs to look outwards, especially if its economic travails are to be more effectively addressed.

By staging two of the world’s largest sports mega-events in quick succession, the intention is for them to effect a cultural change, so that the country’s population and institutions become more globally engaged.

This includes the instruments of government themselves; for instance, Japan has sometimes failed to convincingly play the global soft power game.

Portland Communications in its ‘Soft Power 30’ ranking notes that for Japan, accessibility can be an issue. It also argues that the government could take a more active role in addressing these issues. These events are a chance to do just that.

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Japan will need to project its values and identity strongly over the next year, especially if it is to strengthen its brand and move beyond established, and somewhat tired, associations with electronics, manga, and sushi.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ‘Sport for Tomorrow’ program aims for this by pushing to provide 10 million children in 100 countries with opportunities to engage in sport.

This attempt to diversify and deepen the country’s cultural influence is somewhat belated. China has driven deep into Africa using sports stadium diplomacy. Great Britain, long a soft power giant, uses football to engage its target audiences. In the same way, the next 12 months therefore are crucial in helping Japan play catch-up.

Problems are nevertheless on the horizon. Japanese relations with local adversaries China and South Korea continue to sour, not helped by a lurch towards right-wing nationalism at home.

In a recent incident, the placing of extremist literature in rooms by a well-known Japanese hotel chain led tourism authorities in China to call for Chinese travellers to boycott Japan.

There are other issues too. Japan is a country that is being forced to confront its treatment of a growing number of immigrants. Hosting sports mega-events always shines a light on such matters, something for which Japan may be ill-prepared.

Commercially, it is true that there is a feeding frenzy ahead. The Olympic Games has already attracted more than 60 commercial partners. This might be good news in economic terms, but a mix of opportunism and anxiety may create a complicated and fractious business environment.

While these events will play to a Japanese strength – good organisation – this may not be enough. Toyota Formula 1 motor racing team’s failure comes to mind as an illustration that good organisation is sometimes now enough. But one thing is certain, an important 12 months lies ahead for Tokyo.

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One Response

  1. JimmyH says:

    The irony to me is that focusing more on sport seems like taking your eye off the ball! I believe governments should support health-related physical activity programs, and leave ‘elite’ sport to the market. If no one will pay you to spend you time playing a game, I don’t see why the taxpayer should. It’s nationalism, with no real benefit.

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