Behind the Scenes
I spent most of the month of October in Japan meeting supporters and friends of the Institute, and planning for future collaborative events with our partners there. It was a busy but productive time. In Tokyo, where I spent most of my time, there was a palpable buzz as a result of the recent gubernatorial election. This post is equivalent to the Mayor of London but with much more political and financial power behind it to actually be in charge of managing one of the world’s largest and most important cities. For the first time in history, a woman has been elected to lead Tokyo and her term coincides with the important years leading up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. Previously as a MP, Ms Koike Yuriko had been appointed to several senior posts in the government, including Secretary for Defense and Environment. While she was the Secretary of Environment, she created the ‘cool bizz (business) style’ which emancipated men from wearing a tie and jacket during the hot and muggy months in Japan from May to October. Her name comes up frequently as a candidate who may become the first woman prime minister of Japan.
However, the journey to her current post was anything but smooth. When Koike could not gain the seal of approval as her party’s official candidate, she decided to run independently amidst heightened fury and anxiety within the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Determined to punish her once the election was over, regardless of the outcome, the male-dominated party resorted to all kinds of negative campaign tactics. However, to their ultimate dismay, the residents of Tokyo supported Koike’s manifesto to put the ‘people first’ and to bring transparency to government. Ms. Koike won a landslide victory making it impossible for the LDP to ignore, let alone punish her. Perhaps this was the moment in Japan when ‘the establishment’ was discredited, similar to the case of Brexit in the UK and the Trump phenomenon in the US. The day after the election, Koike launched her start in office with an audience with Prime Minister Abe and started to rock the boat immediately by announcing that she would review the bloated budget for Tokyo’s 2020 Olympic Games. Negotiations between the central government and the IOC concerning cost-cutting measures and rethinking some of the proposed new construction sites has already begun.
2020 now stands as a sort of a magical year not only for Tokyo but for the whole of the country in both good and bad ways. While some pin their hopes to rebrand Tokyo and Japan as a dynamic growth centre in the world using the Olympic Games as the fulcrum, others feel that the games are an enormous waste of money when the country and in particular the northeast region still suffers from the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami . The decommissioning of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant will go on for years, if not decades, costing billions of yen to both the private and the public sector. It is not very clear how many people in that region had a ‘ feel good moment’ when Prime Minister Abe popped out from a box as Super Mario during the closing ceremony of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. Lately, we hear more ominous predictions that the construction industry will remain strong, likely raising real estate prices in Tokyo until 2020 but after which they will probably plummet. Unlike the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, which helped usher forward the city and Japan as a whole towards a new period of growth and prosperity, one wonders what the future will have in store for the 2020 Olympic Games.
For our readers in the UK, all of this may sound vaguely familiar. I lived in London from 2005 to 2008 when there was much talk about the 2012 London Olympic Games. There was, inevitably, a vocal minority of negativity until the opening ceremony but in the end the event transformed into a symbol of embracing and celebrating British diversity, definitely producing a feel-good atmosphere. Four years later, the United Kingdom has now voted for Brexit, leaving a lot of people questioning what happened during the past four years to reverse the trend. Were the Olympics a London only phenomenon from the outset? More and more cities, including Boston and Rome, are starting to remove themselves from the list of aspirants to host the 2024 Games, and questions such as the significance of the modern Olympics as not only an athletic but also a social and cultural event, test the relationship between big cities and the rest of the country. These gaps need to be addressed and answered.
The Sainsbury Institute has its own project towards this goal. Under the title ‘Tokyo Futures: 1868-2020,’ in collaboration with the University of the Arts London, Research Centre for Transnational Art, Identity and Nations (TrAIN), the Meiji Jingu International Research Institute, and the School of African and Oriental Studies, University of London, last year we held six consecutive lectures, three in the UK and three in Japan. The lectures explored how the concepts of nature, city and arts played a vital role in the modernisation of Meiji Japan and the formation of Japanese national identity. We tried to connect these themes to how the people of Japan regard the 2020 Olympic Games as a process which may or may not help Japan to reassess its role and place in the world.
After completing the first stage, as the second stage of this project, just last month on 22 October we hosted an international symposium ‘Tokyo Futures 1868-2020: City of Symbiosis?’ at the Meiji Jingu Shrine. Over 200 people came to the event where we considered the outcome of the first stage by linking the three elements together – nature, city and arts – to debate whether Tokyo could become a city of symbiosis or not. Two keynote speeches were delivered by Professor Jeremy Till, Head of Central Saint Martin and Pro-Vice-Chancellor of University of the Arts London and Professor Ken Tadashi Oshima from the University of Washington. These talks were followed by a panel discussion titled ‘City of Festivity: Tokyo 2020’ with the addition of another academic, Professor Kuroishi Izumi from Aoyama Gakuin Univeristy and a prominent artist, Nawa Kohei. The event covered an array of issues but focused on several key items, as identified by the moderator of the panel discussion and leader of this project, Professor Toshio Watanabe of TrAIN. He noted, in particular, (1) the importance of the relationship between Tokyo and the regions, with particular consideration given to the regions hit by the earthquake and tsunami, (2) the importance of looking at festivities as an extension of daily life, (3) the importance of participation by the people who breathe life into infrastructures and buildings, and (4) the significance of securing what can be labeled as a ‘ public space’ within the cities.
We intend to move this project to the third stage with an international symposium in London next year. The focus at that time will be the residents of Tokyo and the question we will ask is: ‘Who are the people making up Tokyo in 2020 and beyond in 2050?’ As we move towards Brexit, whatever it means and whatever shape it takes, this question is also a relevant for London and the UK in general, meaning who will be the people that constitute this country in the years and decades to come and how will its culture evolve? Watch this space for answers and we hope to see you at the event next year.