The 2020 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo will serve as a springboard for the rebuilding of Japan’s image and economy following the triple blow of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in 2011, in the same way that the 1964 Olympics in the Japanese capital showcased the country’s postwar reconstruction, Japan’s ambassador in Athens, Masuo Nishibayashi, told Kathimerini in an interview on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Tokyo Games.
Foreseeing an improvement in economic relations between Greece and Japan, Nishibayashi said that Tokyo must learn from events such as Athens 2004 and make the greatest effort for its post-Olympic legacy. He said the organizers’ motto is “Sport can change the world, so let’s change it.”
Friendly, with a ready smile and unmistakeable Japanese decorum, he expressed affection for Greece, although not so much about its domestic sports scene, with the exception of long-distance races.
How long have you been in Greece?
Just over a year, and my mandate is supposed to be between three and four years. I first came to Greece some 23-24 years ago and loved it. I went on a family trip and a cruise to the islands of Hydra and Poros. But it was a very cold day!
What is your impression of the country and its people?
It is a wonderful place to work. This is my eighth overseas post, and if I compare it with previous ones, such as New York, Geneva, Cuba and others, Athens is the best. That is in terms of crime rate, the great weather… Athens is the ideal post, especially for someone of my age – I am over 60 years old! I enjoy Greek food. You have so much seafood here. The people are also very nice, very kind – that’s the other reason. There also are a lot of places to visit – so many famous places, but I have not had time to visit them all.
What are your memories of the 1964 Games in Tokyo?
I was 12. My primary school organized a trip to a stadium. I just got a taste of the Olympic Games in the stadium that was newly created at the time. Now we are going to dismantle it and create a new stadium for the 2020 Games. It’s the same place but the new venue will have more capacity and a new design by an Iraqi designer [Zaha Hadid].
I remember the most popular athlete, Abebe Bikila, the barefoot marathon runner. The other one was Czech gymnast Vera Caslavska, who recently visited Japan again at the age of 70. She is now a coach. Tokyo 1964 was the Olympics at which Japan won 16 gold medals, the country’s best tally, which was only matched in 2004. So the Japanese people remember the biggest number of gold medals for them being at Tokyo and Athens.
What does Tokyo 2020 mean for Japan?
It is a challenge. We launched a new slogan a few weeks ago: Sport can change the world, so let’s change it. In 1964 Japan had just emerged from the postwar period, we created highways, the new train and so on. Japan, especially Tokyo, changed!
As is known, Japan was affected by a disaster [in 2011] in which an earthquake and tsunami killed more than 20,000 people. We need to reconstruct, we are at that stage and we need to show the world how we are reconstructing the country. This Olympics is a golden chance for us to show the world we are recovering from that disaster. Another big challenge is to cover the [Fukushima] nuclear power station, as that will take some 30-40 years to dismantle, but it’s the time to just show our efforts. The Olympic Games offer a future to the victims. It will also seal the recovery of our economy.
Of course we have to learn from London, Beijing and Athens regarding the post-Olympic use of the facilities. We have already started to learn about the public spending in Athens – I’m sorry to say – and also in Beijing. In London they had already thought about that issue, but they still have some problems, I was told. We have to make the greatest effort after the Olympics.
Were you involved with the bidding committee?
Not exactly, but between 2012 and 2013 I was the ambassador in charge of cultural exchange, so I was indirectly involved in the bidding process, given that the government is not responsible for the bidding, only the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.
Will there be any new works for the 2020 Games, or will the events be held at the old stadiums that were ahead of their time even back then?
It depends on the sport. We are going to create some new facilities but we are also going to make use of those we already have. The plan is to have compact venues, not to spend a large amount of money. Constructing the new venues and reconstructing the old ones will cost money but it will provide a boost to the economy too. We have to provide the right facilities for all the athletes. We want all visitors to experience Japanese hospitality in various ways, in public spaces, at hotels, with train services. That is the most important thing for us.
What investments is Japan making in the field of sport?
We have already started to focus on the younger generation of Japanese who will be around 20-25 during the Tokyo Olympics. We start selecting these people when they are around 16 years old. We must also create facilities for training.
We are making a special effort in the creation of new infrastructure for the Paralympics as well, for people with mobility problems, the visually impaired etc. However it is too early to assess the total cost of the Games.
For certain hosts, such as Athens, the Olympic Games have cost them dearly. Will Japan be studying any of those mistakes to avoid repeating such problems?
Yes. We have already started learning from Greece, from that – I’m sorry to say – bad experience.
Do you keep up with Greek sports?
I follow soccer, of course, but I’m not a very keen sports fan. I do play golf – I went to play at Costa Navarino recently.
Do you intend to use your mandate here to promote any ideas that could bring Greece and Japan closer in the sporting domain?
There is a lot of room for that. We have launched a technical cooperation program to help sport in other countries, developing countries in Africa, Asia etc, but Greece is not included in that. The first pillar of our program, promoting the Olympic movement, obviously involves Greece though, so maybe we will have some room to cooperate there.
Do the Japanese people like sport?
They are crazy about it! They love running, but they mostly adore baseball. It is the most popular sport, followed by soccer.
How many Japanese runners come to Greece to enter long-distance races?
Every year we have two or three runners come from Japan for the Athens Marathon. We have an exchange program between Nagano and Athens, exchanging runners. We invite marathon runners from Greece and we send some runners to Athens every year. This has become a tradition over the last 10-15 years.
At the Spartathlon at the end of September around 55 Japanese runners took part. They were the biggest national group after the Greeks.
The marathon is very popular in Japan. In May we have the so-called Golden Week [which includes four national holidays], and people can take the week off work, including May Day. This year was the first time that a half-marathon was held in Athens and some 40-50 runners [from Japan] joined it thanks to the fact that they could take a week’s leave to come and run here. I think the organizers in Athens targeted the Golden Week in Japan.
I think we can better promote bilateral relations between Japan and Greece through the marathon. Marathon is a very famous place. All [Japanese] high school textbooks mention it, regarding the battles of Marathon and Salamina, and have photographs of the place. The legend of the runner who ran from Marathon to Athens right after the battle to say “We won,” and passed away, is a very famous story. Everybody knows it in Japan.
The tourism flow from Japan to Greece is relatively slow. Do you think Tokyo 2020 could motivate more Japanese to visit Greece to trace the roots of the Olympic movement and ideals?
Greece is a very popular spot for Japanese people. Unfortunately, apart from in shipping, our business relations are not very big. Japanese ships are very popular among Greek shipowners. Historically, we have had a very small number of investments in this country, even before the crisis. Unfortunately, compared to other European countries, we have a very limited presence here.
This is a golden chance for the Japanese to get to know Greece. People will pay more attention to the lighting of the [Olympic] torch, but in general we have to make a greater effort to promote Greek tourism in Japan. The Greek government should promote this country more in Japan, with more advertising in newspapers etc. The Turks, the Croatians and others have attracted more Japanese visitors recently. Greece used to be a very popular spot for the Japanese until 20 years ago. We used to have more than 120,000 tourists from Japan per year here, but now this has dropped to one tenth, between 10,000 and 20,000. It’s a small number.
Before the economic crisis we used to have 60,000 to 70,000 tourists. The crisis provided a very bad image of Greece, as TV programs covered the fighting in Omonia and Syntagma. Although you have recovered more or less and in the last couple of years the country stabilized, people in Japan do not know it. It will cost some money of course, and our office and the Japanese side are cooperating with you to promote Greek tourism.