Putting Japan’s Olympic success into words

by Yukari Tanaka

Contributing Writer

In Japan, the Olympic and Paralympics are also known as the 平和の 祭典 (Heiwa no Saiten, Festival of Peace). The first installment of this year’s Heiwa no Saiten came to a peaceful conclusion on Feb. 25, with the Japanese delegation returning home from South Korea on Feb. 26.

Japan’s Olympians received a rapturous welcome after their triumph at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Games, with the country caught up in a 祝賀ムード (shukuga mūdo, celebratory mood) after Team Japan amassed 13 medals, its best ever Winter Games medal haul — even topping the 10 earned at Nagano in 1998.

A friendship without borders

The infamous jinx among Japanese athletes, 主将は金メダルが取れない (Shushō wa kinmedaru ga torenai, Captains can’t win gold medals), was finally broken at the Gangneung Oval on Feb. 18. Nao Kodaira, the national team captain, became the first Japanese female speedskater to win an Olympic gold in the women’s 500 meters.

The sprint queen also made history by setting a new Olympic record of 36.94 seconds, beating world record-holding two-time Olympic gold medalist Lee Sang-hwa — known as 氷上の女帝 (hyōjō no jotei, the empress on ice) in South Korea — on her home turf. But it was her 勝負を超えた絆 (shōbu o koeta kizuna, bond beyond the race) with Lee that captured the imagination of sports fans and media around the world.

Post-race, the two 良きライバル (yoki raibaru, friendly rivals) exchanged a heartwarming hug. Kodaira told Lee “Chal-hae-sso,” meaning “Well done” in Korean, and praised her for giving it her all and performing well under pressure.

At a news conference afterward, Kodaira expressed her respect for Lee not just as a speedskater but also as a person. She said that in the past, “When I lost, she cried with me, and I wanted to return that favor by staying close to her after the race.” For her part, Lee was gracious in defeat, saying that she never regretted losing if it was to Kodaira.

Their relationship is described as 国境の無い友情 (kokkyō no nai yūjō, a friendship without borders), an inspiring companionship exemplifying the core Olympic values of friendship, respect and excellence — a representation of the Olympic spirit that promotes peace worldwide.

On a personal note, this scene was particularly poignant for me, not only because of my Japanese-Korean background, but also seeing it from the standpoint of a “third culture kid.” Their friendship reminded me of those I have with cosmopolitan friends around the world who are thriving as multicultural individuals.

In a league of his own

Yuzuru Hanyu made another piece of history, becoming the first men’s figure skating champion to win back-to-back Olympic golds in 66 years, matching the feat achieved by American Dick Button in 1948 and 1952. As a figure skater, he has been lauded as 異次元 (ijigen, from another dimension). This phrase appeared in breathless coverage of his Olympian skills, with his turns on the ice described as 異次元の演技 (ijigen no engi, out-of-this-world performances) from a man possessing 異次元の強さ (ijigen no tsuyosa, otherworldly strength).

Hanyu was quoted as saying that the Olympics are his 人生そのもの (jinsei sono mono, his life itself). What looked from the outside like an Olympic gold won with seamless ease was in fact earned while enduring the pain of an injury to his right ankle. He later confessed to having had to rely on painkillers throughout the Olympics.

At the Pyeongchang Games, the world witnessed the 23-year-old’s accession from 王子 (ōji, prince) to 王様 (ōsama, king), a fairy-tale ending to what the media called a 完璧な復活劇 (kanpekina fukkatsugeki, perfect comeback drama).

Boards of confusion

Another highlight for Team Japan came in snowboarding, with Ayumu Hirano bagging a second consecutive Olympic silver in the men’s halfpipe behind Team USA’s Shaun White.

Takaharu Nakai — a pro snowboarder who was part of the Japanese team at the Torino 2006 Winter Olympics — was tasked with commentating on 19-year-old Hirano’s outstanding performances, as he did for all the snowboarding events. His choice of words were a subject of much debate, with his Japanese commentary being described as 新感覚 (shinkankaku, innovative) and 印象的 (inshōteki, remarkable), while at times being 分かりづらい (wakarizurai, vague or difficult to understand).

To clear up some of the confusion, Nakai took to his blog to explain to the lay listener what his words meant in the context of board and powder. According to Nakai, スタイル (sutairu, style) or スタイリッシュ (sutairisshu, stylish) are terms used to describe the forms and figures of the body while performing tricks that are distinct and unique to the athlete.

おしゃれ (oshare), which means “polished,” is reserved for when an athlete performs a challenging trick in an unexpected way or with unorthodox timing. かっこいい (kakkoii) is used in its conventional context, to mean something or other is just plain “cool.” 渋い (shibui) suggests “cultured”; this term gets an airing when a trick is minor and hard to pick up on with the untrained eye but where the snowboarder still demonstrates their こだわり (kodawari, quirks or attention to minute detail).

Let the festival continue

It’s been a thrilling ride so far — and quite an education — but remember, the fun and games are far from over. Next up are the Paralympics: With more than 650 athletes competing in 80 events starting Thursday, the second part of the Heiwa no Saiten is sure to serve up many more spectacular stories — and lots of hyperbolic vocab to describe them.