Olympics minister Shunichi Suzuki lays out keys for successful Tokyo Games

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

The clock is always ticking at the same speed.

But with exactly two years left until the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, Shunichi Suzuki might feel the hands on his watch are starting to move faster as he shoulders the heavy responsibility of running the global sporting extravaganza and making sure it goes off without a hitch.

In a recent exclusive interview with The Japan Times, the minister in charge of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games said the hosts would enter an “executing phase” with 2020 drawing near.

“We think that we have to make sure we expose issues one by one and cope with them systematically,” said Suzuki, who assumed the post in August 2017.

The Olympics and Paralympics are no longer just urban projects. They are national endeavors that require many resources and the involvement of many different entities.

For Suzuki, the only minister in the Cabinet without a portfolio, it means his major role will be to lead these different entities and organizations as the liaison and coordinator between the Tokyo government, the organizing committee, and the ministries and other government agencies associated with the games.

Suzuki acknowledged it’s a “role like that of a commander” and a “heavy duty to fulfill.”

Hosting the 2020 Games could require investments of up to ¥1.35 trillion (¥600 billion each from Tokyo and the organizing committee and ¥150 billion from the national government). With that much being spent, the only acceptable outcome for Japan is the games being labeled a success.

“Spending as much financial resources as we are, it will not be a games just for Tokyo but games for all of Japan,” Suzuki, a son of former Prime Minster Zenko Suzuki, stressed. “And in order for the citizens of this country to realize it is a games for of all Japan, it is vital for us to give them the feeling they could all be involved in the Olympics and Paralympics in one way or another.

“Otherwise, it will not succeed.”

Host town program

In order to raise the appeal for the games among the public, the Tokyo and Japanese governments have undertaken various projects.

One of the major initiatives the national government is promoting is the “Host Town” program.

The intention of the program is to encourage local governments to register as host towns and have their residents interact with those in countries and regions participating in the Tokyo Games through various ways like sports, culture, economic activities and so on.

Certified local governments can expect to see revitalization through their Host Town activities. Half the expenditures of the exchange activities spent by the local governments will be covered by a special local allocation tax subsidy.

At the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, Nagano Prefecture elementary and junior high schools interacted with the participating nations and regions. In 2002, the Cameroonian national team for the FIFA World Cup had warm cultural exchanges with the residents of Nakatsue Village (now called Hita City), Oita Prefecture, where the African country held its training camp, which drew national attention.

The 2020 organizers are hoping to similarly provide Japanese citizens with opportunities to have international exchanges, on a much bigger scale this time. It’s also seen as a chance for local governments to introduce their own culture and traditions to the world while serving as sites for training camps.

In fact, the nation is offering different types of host towns, such as the Reconstruction “Arigato” host towns (which partner with national team members and others from nations that provided aid after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake) and host towns promoting a “harmonious and inclusive society” (these towns will interact with Paralympians).

The host towns are expected to sustain these exchanges even after the Olympics and Paralympics.

The number of host towns have continued to grow and as of the end of June, a total of 320 local governments have been approved. The figure includes 16 Arigato and 13 Harmonious and Inclusive Host Towns.

So far, a total of 100 countries and regions have become host town partners.

In Tokyo, for instance, Setagaya Ward has become a host town for the United States while Ota Ward will host Brazil.

“The Olympics and Paralympics are not just a festival of sports but a festival of cultures as well,” the 65-year-old Suzuki said. “Japan is a country that has a long history and has traditional cultures based upon the long history. Elsewhere, we have our own youth culture recently as well. Taking this opportunity in 2020, we would like to introduce our culture to the world.”

Message to the world

The games will be an opportunity for Japan to send a message to the world about the country’s recovery from the 2011 disaster, as was the case for the 1964 Olympics to display how Japan rebuilt after World War II.

Suzuki, who spent part of his childhood in Iwate Prefecture, said the 2020 Games would also be a chance “to express Japan’s appreciation for the support from overseas for the disaster.”

Of course, Japan is known as a land of earthquakes. Suzuki, however, is assuring visitors the country is engaged in coming up with the best possible measures and preparation for disaster prevention and other security concerns like terrorism, by analyzing the risks of those threats.

Suzuki, a member of the House of Representatives whose constituency is in Iwate Prefecture, said the government is working on increasing pictograms, which convey meanings through pictorial resemblance to physical objects. For example, pictograms would show non-Japanese readers where to evacuate in the event of a natural calamity such as an earthquake. Suzuki also said that with cooperation between the Japan Tourism Agency and Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, the nation has selected 1,260 medical institutions that can accept non-Japanese tourists.

The hosts will also need to come up with solutions for other potential issues and problems, such as traffic during the events.

In regard to transportation, Suzuki said the government is working on requesting shipping companies reduce their weekday traffic volume by 15 percent during the games. It is also promoting telework for citizens to ease some congestion. The measures for Japan’s summer heat is another issue that has to be worked out.

Olympic legacy

Tackling those potential problems could actually be beneficial for Japanese society beyond the 2020 Games.

Suzuki agreed there is an opportunity for social experiments during preparation for Tokyo 2020.

“Not that it will be over once 2020 ends,” said Suzuki, a former Minister of the Environment.

“What we work toward will continue to be seen after 2020 as well.”

Suzuki said Japan should take advantage of the occasion to turn the country into a genuinely global nation.

With the numbers of non-Japanese residents and inbound tourists expected to rise going forward, Suzuki insisted “multilingualization” would be a big key for the country.

So once again, the Olympics and Paralympics are more than just sporting events. But Suzuki said there are various ways to leave legacies. In particular, he wants to place emphasis on realizing a mutualism society in Japan.

That said, Suzuki insists Tokyo will also have to stage the Paralympics in a successful fashion, not just the Olympics.

He added that as important as it is to enhance infrastructure, it’s even more significant for Japan to become “morally barrier-free.”

“I’ve said on multiple occasions that we can say the Tokyo Games were successful as a whole when the Paralympics end in success,” Suzuki said. “So we would like to establish a society in which both people without disabilities and people with disabilities live together supporting each other in Japan.”