The 2020 Olympics will make all Japanese a little healthier: Japan

Photo: Monica Müller/Flickr

Photo: Monica Müller/Flickr

Hosting the 2020 Olympics should not only raise Japan’s international profile, it should also make its people healthier. Despite rating well internationally when it comes to sports participation, Japan wants to do even better.

Japanese children and teenagers traditionally do well when their sporting skills are tested in PE classes. Far fewer Japanese children are overweight compared to those in other industrialised countries.

The results are not quite as impressive as they have been, and this has prompted governmental reports on the subject. But they are still fine compared to other nations’.

Japan’s elderly do just as well – or even better – when taking similar types of tests for their age group.  Japanese people who are currently in their sixties, seventies and eighties learned the value of exercise and movement in school during the years of harsh poverty following World War II, and many of them have stayed true to those good habits throughout their lives.

At a national health examination of senior citizens from all over Japan in 2014, men and women aged from 75-79 scored record high results in the tests, which included standing on one leg while catching a ball.

More active citizens will lower health costs
The fact that children and teenagers do well while the elderly do even better can only be interpreted as a weakening of proud cultural traditions. The food that Japanese families eat today is not quite as healthy as it was a few decades ago, and exercising at school and work is not as mandatory as it was back then.

This is causing great concern among ministries and sports organisations throughout the country. Therefore, it is their hope that the 2020 Olympic Games can be a starting point for an extensive campaign aimed at the Japanese population to improve the situation.

“When elite athletes are successful, it inspires ordinary people to exercise. This creates new talent and that way, we can create a virtuous circle,” says former elite swimmer, Daichi Suzuki, a commissioner in Japan’s newly established Sport Council, who won a gold medal himself in 100m backstroke at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

The creation of this “virtuous circle”, however, has not been achieved by many of the previous Olympic host nations. But the Japanese organisers of the 2020 Games build their optimism on the fact that the 1964 Games in Tokyo did, in fact, result in some sort of virtuous circle – or trickle-down effect – and a lot more children and young people at the time began doing sports after being inspired by their Olympic role models.

The government’s primary purpose of this effort is, quite cynically, to keep public health expenses from rising uncontrollably.

Today, due to the demographic development in Japan, one in eight Japanese is more than 75 years of age and over the next decades there will inevitably be more and more elderly people who will need care from fewer and fewer people who are of a working age.

This development will not only mean increased spending on care and hospital stays for the elderly. It will also create a need for a major and costly redesign of Japanese cities, allowing senior citizens to move around and participate more actively in society than before.

But all these elderly-related health expenses will be lower than predicted if the elderly can stay fit and healthy while ageing.

“It is not just about living a long life, it is about living a long and healthy life,” Suzuki explains.

The share of the Japanese population that does some sort of sport or physical activity each week has declined in recent years and in 2015 the share was about 40 percent. The Japan Sport Council has therefore put forward the ambitious goal of raising this share back to 65 percent by the end of the financial year in March 2021 – a few months after the Tokyo Games.

Suzuki promises that “the Sport Council will do its best to create a society in which everyone can live culturally rewarding lives in good health, in spirit and in body”.

No less than ten million people who are not currently active must be engaged in some kind of sports activity before 2021 if this goal is to be achieved.

Raising Japan’s international profile
This is where Japan’s elite athletes and the Olympic Games enter the stage. Japan has declared its goal to raise the country’s profile in international sport – not only to raise the country’s international status and competitiveness, but just as much to improve public health and avoid an increase in health related costs, as Suzuki puts it.

“Japan is aiming at a double-digit number of medals already at this year’s Olympics in Rio. This will give us something like a tenth place in the medal ranking. Then, we will work towards coming in third on the medal table when we are on home turf in 2020, which will require 20, perhaps 22, gold medals,” he says.

This ambition is already visible in the Japanese sports media’s coverage – the state media in particular. Young talented table tennis players, gymnasts and wrestlers of both sexes, who have been moved to special elite schools are being closely followed by the media and their names and faces are well known amongst most Japanese.

Japan’s goals to achieve elite sporting success, as well as increasing its grassroots sport participation, seems very ambitious. But it is worth noting that Japan has done it before.

When Tokyo last hosted the Olympics, in 1964, a similar effort was made against a far poorer backdrop.

“After the decision to host the Games in Tokyo was made, Japan began an effective sports development programme and achieved great success at the Games,” writes the Chinese sports researcher Yuan Shuying from the Japanese Waseda University in Tokyo in an article in the Asia Pacific Journal of Sports and Social Sciences in 2013.

Japan won 16 gold, five silver and eight bronze medals and was the third best nation. It was the country’s best ranking the country in its Olympic history.

In the years that followed, the Olympics had an influence on mass participation in Japan, an impact that, in some ways, is similar to the one that Japan is hoping to repeat through the 2020 Games. However, the situation is very different today. At the time, not even 20 years had passed since World War II ended. Many Japanese cities had been bombed and large parts of the population were physically and mentally stunted after the hardships and ravages and the painful defeat that Japan had suffered.

“To counter the constant deterioration in the nation’s state of health and to be able to live up to the challenges in the social, economic and sports development, Japan formulated a suitable sports policy and focused on making sports popular and increase the national standard,” Yuan writes.

Strong sporting traditions
One of the more long-lived of these initiatives was making the opening day of the 1964 Games, 10 October, a national holiday called the Health and Sports Day, when everyone gathers at grandiose sports arrangements, typically at schools.

The system has undergone some changes, and for the past 15 years the Health and Sports Day has taken place on the second Monday in October. It remains one of the holidays that all Japanese know and respect. Children prepare determinedly for weeks. Parents and grandparents show up to cheer on their sporting achievements. Mothers prepare lunch for the entire family and they all have picnics on blankets on the grass.

There are running competitions and ball games for the youngest ones, dance spectacles and team gymnastics for those who are a little older, and it all finishes off with a festive human-pyramid made by the senior classes balancing on each other’s shoulders. Although the Health and Sports Day does not go back further than the 1960s, there is already a long line of traditions connected to this day.

Another visible token of the significance of mass participation in post-war Japan is the enormous popularity of the national high school baseball championships each year.

Each of Japan’s 47 prefectures sends a high school team that has qualified by beating the other high schools in the prefecture in extensive qualification rounds. The play-offs take place in rough conditions at the old Koshien stadium, located between Osaka and Kobe, in the scorching sun.

An intense, sometimes rather militant, ambiance builds up around every team of young boys, each with their own crowd of cheering and squealing classmates on the stands. The entire prefecture follows the live transmissions on state TV for most of the day – and cheers on their local team.

Although smaller in scale, a similar occasion takes place around New Year’s Eve in connection with the traditional Hakone baton race. This event is a street run on the slopes of Hakone, a mountainous area west of Tokyo, where the country’s universities race against each other. It is also broadcasted live from start to finish on the most popular TV channel in Japan.

A number of the young sports stars from both the baseball championships and the Hakone run later become professional athletes. But the bottom-line is that the entire show is a celebration of organised grassroots sport at schools and universities and an example of how good the best amateurs can become.

A long way from elite to mass participation
Danish sports professor Hans Bonde, from the University of Copenhagen, argues that based on the experiences from the past Olympic Games, “there is nothing indicating that hosting the Olympic Games benefits mass participation”.

“Prior to the Olympic Games in London, there were ambitious plans regarding how to use the Games as a lever for making several million Brits more physically active. But many of the planned initiatives were cut. Moreover, it turned out that people do not get more active by watching elite athletes move,” Bonde argues.

However, in Tokyo, they are determined to make an effort to prove that there is a difference between Brits and the Japanese in that regard.

“With the Tokyo Olympics in 2022, we will create an atmosphere that encourages people to be active in sports,” promises Daichi Suzuki.

  • J.M. Adams, Waseda University, 30.05.2016 05:06:

    Enjoyed your article about Olympics and exercise in Japan. Also, I'm told that Health and Sports Day was created in direct connection with the 64 Olympics. After some research, that time in early October was judged as historically having the best weather, and that was chosen as the time for the Games (although the Olympics are now always held in summer).


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