Neon sign may steal Olympic Games’ spotlight

NAGANO — An ordinary neon sign here has been advertising a Japanese restaurant for the past 10 years without attracting any particular attention.

One night last February, it suddenly came under the spotlight when the award ceremonies of the free-style skiing world championships were televised. Television cameras captured Taishukappo Seitaro’s neon sign installed atop a four-story building, illuminating its light against the backdrop of poles that hoist the winners’ national flags.

The sign has since become an issue for organizers of next year’s Nagano Winter Olympics, since the restaurant is located just behind Central Square, a newly built plaza where award ceremonies will be held for Olympic winners every evening during the 16-day Games. This means the neon sign will be televised worldwide — every night.

The International Olympic Committee has a policy prohibiting display of business advertisements inside event venues, said Norio Hayashi, a ceremony section staffer of the Nagano Olympic Organizing Committee. But the Seitaro signboard is outside the square, and officials have no say as to whether it can be displayed, he added. “Of course, we cannot regulate it, though it would be better if there were no such sign,” he said. The restaurant, for its part, has been caught by surprise by the sudden turn of events.

Kayoko Maruyama, the restaurant’s manager, did not see the sign being broadcast that night. “I was told later by one of my customers,” she said. “I was really surprised because I had never seen the sign from the square. (The sign appears) between the champion flag poles. What a lucky happening,” Maruyama said.

Most of the 68 events in the seven sporting categories making up the games will take place outside the city of Nagano. “So we are trying to stage the award ceremonies in the center of the city so that many local people can come and enjoy them,” said Hayashi of the NAOC.

The NAOC chose Central Square to provide local people and other spectators with an opportunity to meet athletes and come together in one place to celebrate the awards, Hayashi said. The 4,700-sq.-meter plaza was completed last October. Nagano Central Square Co., founded by a local business circle, funded the project, which is located about a 10-minute walk from JR Nagano Station, behind Chuo Street connecting the station and Zenkoji Temple, one of the most popular tourists spots in the city.

The square, a U-shaped open space with a semicircle covered stage at its center, is surrounded by a bustling district of restaurants, bars and shops. Currently, the space, with national flags fluttering along its periphery, is used for local events, and tourists often stop by at the open plaza to take photographs.

During the Olympic Games, the award ceremonies are scheduled for two to six sports events every day from 7 p.m., and about 10,000 spectators can observe the ceremonies, Hayashi said. “We have examined how we can use this space for the ceremonies and found that the neon sign appears behind the flags,” he said.

The Olympic committee has not made any official stand on the issue, he added. “As one option, we might ask the restaurant to turn off the neon sign during the Olympic Games, though I am not sure whether this would be possible,” he said. The signboard has been there for a long time and was not built to advertise the restaurant to Olympic viewers. “We came later, anyway, and I don’t know how much the restaurant will cooperate with us.”