Olympic Isolation


Picture Credit: Zengame

On the trains of Tokyo screens play ads depicting non-Japanese tourists politely smiling, bowing, asking for directions, pruning plants, ordering food, sitting in saunas and laughing, playing drums in Taiko performances, smoothing out the interior of newly crafted Japanese lacquerware, taking selfies with locals, and generally being pleasant and fitting-in well. At the end of the ad, the words “Tokyo 2020” appear.


The message is clear: the tourists are coming. The tourists are coming and you have nothing to fear.

The tourists are coming. The tourists are coming and you have nothing to fear.


As early as 2014, the Japan National Tourism Organization began discussing ways to make Tokyo more tourist-friendly in anticipation of the 2020 Summer Olympics. These plans included an overhaul of Tokyo’s infrastructure – already strained to absolute capacity – that included 24-hour buses, easier paths to and from Narita Airport (currently a brutal 1.5-2 hours from the city through a labyrinth of differently ticketed, multi-transfer train routes), and multilingual information centers in heavily visited areas of the city.


Side-by-side this ambitious plan was a proposed marketing campaign dubbed “Cool Tokyo” that focused on inserting well-known elements of Japanese popular culture like anime, cosplay, and J-pop into various printed and digital materials. This now-defunct ad campaign, spearheaded by Administrative Reform Minister Tomomi Inada, typifies the Japanese national belief that the nation constitutes a rare cultural beast, a unicorn incomprehensible to outsiders except through the subtextual murmurings underpinning popular culture.

Picture Credit: Scarper Montgomery

As of now, a scant year before the Olympics are set to begin, not a single one of the aforementioned infrastructure and tourist-preparation measures has gone anywhere.


Instead, there has been bureaucratic bungling and bad omens: the president of the Japanese Olympic Committee, Tsunekazu Takeda, stepped down amidst a French probe into corruption and bribery that involves, amongst other things, $2 million passed through a Singaporean company to supposedly help secure Tokyo’s bid for the 2020 Olympics; the JNTO has done its best to slit the throat of Airbnb by swiftly instituting draconian operational rules that vary per city (and even district) and strangely force travelers into less-traveled areas; and in a final, tragic symbol, “Olympic Ojisan,” a 92-year old businessman who became famous on Japanese TV as a superfan, and was something of an Olympic mascot, passed away and will not be able to fulfill his dream of attending Tokyo’s second hosting of the Olympics.


And then there are the ads aimed at inuring Japanese to the coming influx of tourists, by inculcating them with visions of respectful foreign nationals perfectly inserting themselves into Japanese society, which reveal the discomfort of a city forced to play host to a world many Japanese believe is at odds with their own habits and values.

Tokyo’s train ads reveal the discomfort of a city forced to play host to a world many Japanese believe is at odds with their own habits and values.

Certain parts of the city have within the past year begun a combined hiring and training regimen for employees in the retail and food and beverage industries. More new employees now speak English, and those that don’t are being taught scripts to answer typical questions like, “Can I get this latte with soy milk?” In the absence of bureaucratic competence from the government, individual businesses have started to take these kinds of measures to help cater to non-Japanese speaking customers. This is certainly a positive step, but it seems too little, too late.

Picture Credit: MIKI Yoshihito

On the whole, Tokyo’s preparation for the 2020 Olympics reveals a portrait of a nation woefully underprepared for accepting either the inevitable deluge of Olympic tourists or the inherent multiculturalism of the event. What does this signify about the Japanese national identity and its belief in its own role in the modern world?


Japan, on a whole, about 150 years after the swift modernization of the Meiji Restoration, still believes itself removed from the rest of the world. It is a lonely, misunderstood outlier in East Asia that has built a culture and industry focused almost exclusively on domestic tastes. Time and again, when confronted with this truism, Japanese citizens will recite a similar litany: We’re one race, we only speak Japanese, we’re an island nation, and we’re damned hard to get to.

Many Japanese people in 2019 are still woefully unaware of the rest of the world, even in a place as relatively cosmopolitan as Tokyo (where fewer than 1% of its residents are non-Japanese, despite being the most diverse city in the country). The average Japanese – especially those in other cities or from rural areas – has little contact with people from other countries. It’s notoriously difficult for foreigners to work in Japan, and those who do, aside from English teachers, often come in through educational routes like exchange programs.

Many Japanese people in 2019 are still woefully unaware of the rest of the world, even in a place as relatively cosmopolitan as Tokyo.

Additionally, typical Japanese work schedules often leave little free time and permit vacations around just a few national holidays. This makes domestic travel far more practical, and, in the event Japanese are willing to spend 28 hours of a five day break flying to somewhere in Europe and back, they often still stay in Japanese-language tour groups.

Of course, entrenched cultural xenophobia can’t and won’t be dismantled by a single sporting event, nor does it need to be for the Olympics to be successful. However, it’s a great opportunity for the Japanese people to open not just their country to foreign travelers, but their minds as well, especially in a nation where peace is synonymous with sameness, and the notion that difference can engender cooperation is utterly alien. The Olympics, after all, were founded on the idea that all people can come together in the spirit of friendly competition, regardless of creed, background, nationality, or ethnicity.


Japan needs the diversity that’s being glossed over by train ads to combat the idea that it’s a rare cultural beast that no one else can understand. Japanese society is resilient and adaptive enough to endure military defeat, occupation, and being nuked twice. It can endure an influx of foreigners committing endless, but ultimately harmless, faux pas like talking on trains or sticking chopsticks into bowls of rice. It might even gain something from the experience.