The idea of the Olympics as a sporting event complemented by culture goes back to Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Games. The Olympic Charter also states that the Olympic Movement is composed of sport, culture and education. These elements were often blended, as in the prewar Games that included such events as poetry and painting. From 1912 to 1948, arts competitions were held in parallel with the sporting events, though growing discontent meant this curiously hybrid system was jettisoned in favour of separate arts and cultural festivals held alongside the sports. From Barcelona in 1992, the idea of a Cultural Olympiad took hold, whereby a series of arts and cultural events would be organised during the four-year Olympiad period to culminate with the Games, though this had already happened de facto at past Games.
Now the leading figures in the protest movement against the 2020 Tokyo Olympics have called for an anti-Cultural Olympiad. In the recently published Anti-Olympics Arts Council Statement of Purpose, activists point to the destruction of public housing and eviction of homeless people as part of the preparations for the Olympics in Tokyo. The statement ends with a call to action:
For residents of urban areas, and especially the poor, the Olympic/Paralympic Games are nothing but a huge catastrophe. We, the Anti-Olympic Arts Council, call for you to resist and protest against these mega events. We call on artists, performers, poets, and all that use the arts as their medium—oppose the Olympic Games.
It is often said that artists in Japan have avoided direct political engagement in past decades, preferring more oblique modes of socially engaged practice, though the post-Fukushima zeitgeist has certainly produced some prominent examples of overtly proliticised art. The prospect of the Olympics and Cultural Olympiad in 2020, given the geopolitical situation in the region as well as such ongoing major socio-cultural questions as Fukushima, Constitutional change and Japan’s demographic time bomb, necessarily conjure up a dilemma for the arts. How will the arts respond? Will artists protest, ignore, borrow or participate?
The most notable and lasting case of an artistic response to the 1964 Tokyo Summer Olympics is surely Kon Ichikawa’s nearly three-hour documentary film Tokyo Olympiad (1965). Arguably, the Olympics “propaganda” film subverts the brief, focusing on many of the small moments and the ordinary people among the spectators. It starts with the rising sun and then a wrecking ball while the narration enumerates the iterations of the modern Games and their host cities. The Olympics have noble aspirations, as Ichikawa acknowledges from the opening epigraph, but the reality, at least initially, is demolition. It ultimately segues into a somewhat more predictable, yet staggeringly meticulous, hymn to the facilities created for the 1964 sporting events, the participating athletes and the competitions themselves, but the underlying social commentary is more subtle.
The 1964 Olympics were more conspicuously satirised by the art collective Hi-Red Center when its members set about cleaning the streets of Ginza in white lab coats, a stunt intended to mock the city’s attempts to spruce up its appearance ahead of the Games. Recent moves in Japan to expunge pornographic magazines from retail outlets is an indication of the “cleaning” likely to take place prior to 2020.
One of the early projects of Akira Takayama’s theatre collective Port B examined both the famous 1964 Games but also Japan’s “phantom Olympics”, the 1940 Games that were cancelled due to World War Two. Tokyo/Olympic (2007) was a tour several hours long around the city on a chartered Hato Bus that took in the sites of the 1964 Games, but finished rather unexpectedly at a rather desolate location in Tokyo Bay. Participants could look across the bay to see the artifical island of Yumenoshima (literally, “island of hope”), which was made from the city’s trash, and a projected venue for the abandoned 1940 Games. (See Peter Eckersall, “Memory and City: Port B and the Tokyo Olympics” in Performativity and Event in 1960s Japan: City, Body, Memory, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.) The bay area will play host to many of the venues for the 2020 Games at a time when the government, say its critics, is attempting to steer the nation back towards its prewar past.
The upcoming Olympics in Tokyo have already succeeded in co-opting many artists for its pageantry. One of them is the singer Ringo Sheena, though she recently got flamed by liberals for her nationalist comments in a July interview with the Asahi Shimbun in which she declared that “the whole population is the organising committee” for the Games. “In that sense, it’s very Japanese in its respect for harmony.” No individual opinions are anticipated.
More specifically, the direction and content of the actual 2020 Games’ cultural programme is the source of much anxiety in the arts world in Japan, since so little is known. Certain commercially driven artists have been announced as part of the Cultural Olympiad, but firm details are still under wraps. So far what we have been shown has largely consisted of the “Tokyo Caravan” performances, overseen by Hideki Noda, beginning in 2015 and then continuing at Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo’s Roppongi Art Night in 2016. Ostensibly this would qualify the programme as an “Olympiad”, even if the events are apparently mere previews without a genuine feeling of sequence or overall curation. Alongside the Roppongi Art Night performance, an event in autumn 2016 “fusing traditional arts and the latest technologies for which Japan is famous”, officially launched the Olympiad as an “ambitious programme of cultural activities”. The veracity of that boast remains to be seen.
It is certainly the case that various celebrities and artists will benefit financially from the Olympics and Cultural Olympic. One of the reasons that Expo ’70 in Osaka was also such an iconic event was the participation of major figures from the arts, though this was not without intense controversy at the time — so much so that an “anti-expo” was held. Now that there is an Anti-Olympics Art Council, perhaps we can expect such a counter-event, an Anti-Cultural Olympiad, in 2020.