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The Tokyo Olympics and Japan’s Quest for Unity in Diversity

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Whenever a country hosts a major sports event such as the Olympics, the organizers highlight the “legacy” of putting on such an expensive extravaganza. The delayed Tokyo 2020 Games were meant to promote the value of unity in diversity among the Japanese people. Early results from surveys conducted by Yuhei Inoue of Manchester Metropolitan University in the UK and Steve Swanson of Deakin University in Australia indicate that, despite the efforts of the hosts to showcase inclusion in the ceremonies and on the playing fields and venues, the pandemic-plagued Olympiad had little social impact among young residents of Japan’s capital city.

The Tokyo Olympics and Japan’s Quest for Unity in Diversity

All together now: Tokyo 2020 Olympic athletes from three nations jump in celebration after the women's 4x100 relay race, won by Jamaica (Credit: David McIntyre/DGM Photography)

After a one-year delay and much debate over whether the event should go ahead, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Games concluded on August 8 with the closing ceremony featuring the Japanese word “Arigato” (“Thank you”). Political leaders, sports officials, and athletes across the world have praised Japan’s capability and dedication for completing the Games as scheduled, despite numerous challenges caused by the global pandemic. The country’s sporting success, with its national team winning the most medals in history, has generated a sense of excitement and pride among Japanese citizens, many of whom previously opposed holding the Games this summer.

At a glance, the operational and sporting excellence that Japan demonstrated at the Tokyo Olympics, as well as improved public support, indicates the Games were a success for the host country. We argue, however, that the success of hosting the Games, which cost the country at least US$15 billion, must also be evaluated based on their broader social impact.

Several types of social impact, or so-called legacies, could be associated with a mega-sports event like the Olympics. Of them, one that deserves special attention is the promotion of diversity and inclusion among local residents. After all, the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games had chosen “unity in diversity” as one of the three core concepts for the Olympiad. In their words, this means “accepting and respecting differences in race, colour, gender, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, level of ability or other status.”

Japan’s quest for unity in diversity

The concept of unity in diversity – and the promotion of diversity and inclusion principles – has become more relevant across the world, given a surge of human rights movements. For Japan, a traditionally homogeneous society, this has not only social and political significance but also economic implications. A shrinking and aging population means that Japan must empower every citizen, regardless of their background or characteristics, to become productive members of society. This also includes opening up the country to foreigners who can contribute to the country’s economic development and prosperity.

Symbols of inclusion: Japanese tennis star Osaka Naomi lit the Olympic cauldron in the opening ceremony of Tokyo 2020 (Credit: David McIntyre/DGM Photography)

Symbols of inclusion: Japanese tennis star Osaka Naomi lit the Olympic cauldron in the opening ceremony of Tokyo 2020 (Credit: David McIntyre/DGM Photography)

Nevertheless, Japan has been lagging in achieving unity in diversity in multiple ways. For example, the country has no law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity. In recent years, Japan has been criticized for not accepting their biracial population – highlighted by racist views about high-profile sports celebrities such as Osaka Naomi and Hachimura Rui, who each competed in Tokyo. Japan has also faced criticism regarding its acceptance of non-nationals, with roughly one third of foreigners living in the country reporting being the recipients of discriminatory remarks due to their background, and about 40 percent having suffered discrimination in relation to housing.


In a 2020 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report, Japan was ranked 34th for legal LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) inclusivity among the 35 OECD countries ranked in the report. With more LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning) athletes participating in Tokyo, Japan faced criticism for being behind much of the rest of the world when it comes to acceptance and addressing LGBTQ issues. A similar picture has been painted regarding gender issues, with Japan coming in 120th for gender equality in the “Global Gender Gap 2021 Report” produced by the World Economic Forum. A high-profile example of this lag was Mori Yoshiro, Japan’s prime minister from 2000 to 2001, who resigned in February as the president of the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee after saying in a meeting that women talk too much.

The weight of history: In Tokyo, New Zealand lifter Laurel Hubbard became the first openly transgender female athlete to compete at the Olympics (Credit: David McIntyre/DGM Photography)

The weight of history: In Tokyo, New Zealand lifter Laurel Hubbard became the first openly transgender female athlete to compete at the Olympics (Credit: David McIntyre/DGM Photography)

Unity in diversity on display at the Tokyo Olympics

In direct relation to the national concerns noted above, hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games had been considered a potential catalyst for making Japan and its people place a greater value on a diverse and inclusive society. Several aspects of diversity were featured during the Olympics. Tokyo 2020 were the first-ever gender-balanced Games in terms of the proportion of female athletes. The largest number of LGBTQ athletes of any Olympics participated. Tokyo 2020 also included multiple incidents that raised awareness of diversity and human rights issues. Several athletes and teams (including Japan women’s football team) took a knee to protest against racism. Transgender athletes participated openly for the first time. And at a medal ceremony, Raven Saunders – an African American track-and-field athlete and advocate of LGBTQ rights – staged a podium protest to show support for all oppressed people.

The Olympic Games also showcased the increasing diversity of the Japanese population and the benefits of diversity for the nation. The country’s Olympic team included more than thirty athletes who have mixed-race or ethnic roots. Among them were two who were honored with prominent roles in the opening ceremony. Osaka, one of the world’s top-ranked women tennis players, who has a Haitian father, lit the Olympic cauldron, while basketball professional Hachimura, who has a Beninese father, carried the Japanese flag. Exceeding all expectations and capturing a silver medal in basketball, Japan’s women’s team included biracial and naturalized Japanese players and an American head coach who made calls in his non-native Japanese.

Despite all the positives, the Olympic Games also had incidents exposing Japan’s insensitivity toward diversity and inclusion issues. In addition to Mori’s misstep, other Japanese Olympic officials – all men middle-aged or older who have historically dominated the positions of power in the country – left their posts due to insensitive past behavior. These included talents behind the opening ceremony: The creative director resigned for inappropriate comments about a plus-size female entertainer, the music composer quit after admitting to bullying disabled children during his school days, and the director was fired the night before the show for making an anti-Semitic joke in a comedy routine 23 year ago.

With both positive and negative incidents surrounding the Games’ core concept of unity in diversity, beyond the anecdotal evidence, it is important to examine empirically how hosting the Tokyo Olympics might have affected local residents’ perceptions of diversity and inclusion.

Empirical assessment 

We conducted online surveys in Tokyo to assess the social impact of the Olympic Games. The surveys, commissioned by the International Olympic Committee’s Olympic Studies Centre in Lausanne, Switzerland, through its Advanced Olympic Research Grant Programme, were administered to 648 young people (aged 18-25) from the Tokyo Metropolis shortly before (mid-July) and after (early-to-mid-August) the Olympics. All respondents answered the same sets of survey questions for both the pre- and post-Games surveys, meaning that it is possible for us to examine how their responses changed due to their shared experience of hosting the Olympic Games as residents. By working with a local survey company, we ensured that our sample was proportional to the population in terms of gender (roughly 50 percent female) and included similar numbers of individuals from each target age.

In line with the definition of unity in diversity as reviewed earlier, the Miville-Guzman Universality-Diversity scale was used to assess individuals’ “attitude toward all other persons, which is inclusive yet differentiating in that similarities and differences are both recognized and accepted.” This 15-item scale is classified into three dimensions representing different aspects of an attitude toward diversity and inclusion: (1) Diversity of Contact, which refers to a person’s interest in taking part in diverse internationally focused cultural and social activities; (2) Relativistic Appreciation, which reflects one’s appreciation of both similar and different characteristics and backgrounds of other individuals; and (3) Comfort with Differences, which captures how comfortable an individual is with diverse persons differing in personal and cultural characteristics.

In the surveys, respondents were asked to answer each survey question using a five-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (“strongly disagree”) to 5 (“strongly agree”). After the data collection, we calculated the average values for respondents’ assessment of each of the three dimensions, so that 5 represents the most inclusive/positive attitude toward the dimension while 1 represents the least inclusive/positive attitude.

Figure 1 presents the comparisons of the average values for the three dimensions of the Universality-Diversity scale before and after the Tokyo Olympics. As a benchmark, we also included the results of a survey we conducted in February 2021 of 500 young residents (aged 18-25, 50 percent female) of London, host of the 2012 summer Olympics. As shown in the figure, the average values for each dimension of the Universality-Diversity scale ranged from 3.0 (Diversity of Contact) to 3.4 (Comfort with Differences) for the Tokyo respondents prior to the Tokyo Olympics. These values were around the midpoint of the scale (“neither agree nor disagree”) and about a half to one scale point lower compared to the average values for the London respondents. The values for the three dimensions remained almost the same after the Tokyo Olympics, with 3.1 for Diversity of Contact, 3.3 for Relativistic Appreciation, and 3.3 for Comfort with Differences.

The lack of observable changes in the Universality-Diversity dimensions among the young people surveyed in Tokyo can be explained from multiple perspectives. For example, the Miville-Guzman Universality-Diversity scale primarily considers persons’ attitudes toward cross-cultural diversity. The use of this scale, therefore, might have limited our ability to detect changes in attitudes for other aspects of diversity such as sexual orientation that were also highlighted during the Olympic Games.

In addition, in this investigation, we focused on residents in their late adolescence and early adulthood because of prior evidence indicating that this young age group is highly susceptible to social influences (such as hosting a mega-sports event) in forming their attitudes toward a social issue. The attitudinal impact of an Olympic Games in relation to diversity and inclusion might have been even more evident for younger populations such as schoolchildren. This can be inferred from the higher values provided by the London respondents, who experienced the 2012 Olympics when they were teenagers.

United in diversity: Tokyo Pride parade, 2019 (Credit: Daremoshinarai)

United in diversity: Tokyo Pride parade, 2019 (Credit: Daremoshinarai)

Beyond these explanations, our results also point to the notion that merely hosting an Olympic Games may be insufficient for promoting unity in diversity among residents. As the Tokyo Olympics demonstrated, the Olympic Games can increase the awareness of diversity and inclusion issues. However, valuing diversity and inclusion requires more than raising awareness – it must involve cultural and structural changes supported by a sustained leadership commitment to make them happen. In the case of the Tokyo Olympics, however, some of the actions exhibited by the Games leadership, most notably Mori, were incompatible with the core concept of unity in diversity. It is likely that residents took issue with this inconsistency and found event-related communications highlighting diversity and inclusion issues to be contrived and inauthentic.

Although our results may appear discouraging, with the Paralympic Games – arguably more representative of the unity in diversity concept – the Organising Committee and other officials have further opportunities to promote diversity and inclusion among the public. In addition, Japan will host other international sports events including the 2021 World Masters Games (postponed to next year) for athletes over the age of 30 and the 2026 Asian Games. The hope is that these pageants of sporting prowess will inherit and embrace the unity in diversity concept from Tokyo 2020. Indeed, research suggests that the social impact of sports events on host communities is multiplied when one event is combined with others to create a “portfolio” of such spectacles. For Japan and its quest for the dividends of diversity and inclusion, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics could just be the beginning.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute

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