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How the 2020 Olympics Could Change Japan for Good

The Olympic and Paralympic games are an exciting time for viewers around the world. As the Olympics and Paralympics will be held in Tokyo next year, I have been asking locals if they are excited. The general consensus is a subtle eye roll and an even more subtle shake of their head. When I ask why they often say its ‘mendokusai’ which means too troublesome or more crudely ‘a pain in the arse.’ The influx of tourists, endless construction and lack of perceived benefits have many locals feeling uneasy about 2020.

However, the Olympics could be a turning point for Japan. When Japan hosted the 1964 Olympic games, it signified its reemergence onto the global stage as a tech innovator. They developed infrastructure including the infamous shinkansen, ‘bullet train’ which is still being used today.

The focus for the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics is sustainability with their slogan ‘be better together, for planet and people.’ This is an honourable mission and also an exciting one if they get it right. Although the Japanese Government really need to lift their game to move beyond targets or a few campaigns to ensure they create necessary long term change.

The long road to authenticity

From perceptions on the street and in media, it seems that on the surface Japan is working to deliver sustainability across the nation. However, there is some cynicism brewing. Looking a bit deeper, the Japanese Government does not have a dedicated department for sustainability and sustainable development. Directly from the Japanese Government’s website:

While mechanisms are in place to ensure [sustainability] policy co-ordination, integrated policy-making remains difficult, with ministries and local authorities focusing on the implementation of their respective sectoral and local plans.

Japanese Government website

A top contributor to plastic waste globally, Japan recently refused to sign the ocean plastic charter at the G7 Summit in 2018. Very silent on the rationale, it is still largely unknown why they decided not to sign it. The US (no surprises there..!) was the other to abstain. This lack of coordination can partly be understood by lack of policy and direction.

Further, the Japanese Government’s Paris Agreement target is only 24% renewable energy ratio by 2030. This is compared to over 30% by many European countries, which puts Japan about ten years behind the global leaders.

The Sustainability Plan

Anyway, back to the Olympics. Japan wants to make an impact for the 2020 games and they have outlined a sustainability model to become the most sustainable Olympics to date.

From Tokyo 2020 website

The Medal Campaign

One of their 5 key pillars is resource management. To engage the Japanese population and to minimise the environmental impact, the organising committee has created a campaign to use recycled electronics to make the Olympic and Paralympic medals. Their aim is for 100% recycled materials which would be a first for the Olympics. They have partnered with NTT Docomo, a telecommunications provider as a collection point. To date, there have been more than 5 million phones donated and the targets have almost been met. You can find out the latest collection figure here.

This is a nice campaign that has engaged the nation to contribute to sustainability, but will it change behaviours towards recycling and ultimately consuming less? Are the medals enough to make the Olympics be perceived as sustainable?

Some experts think it is a start, but more needs to be done.

“The medal project is popular, but there are other things we must work on,” Hiroshi Komiyama, a former president of the University of Tokyo who heads the Urban Planning and Sustainability Commission, a panel of experts under the organizing committee, told a meeting July 13. “At least some competition venues should be built from recycled steel, aluminium and wood.”

Hiroshi Komiyama as quoted in the Japan Times

Olympics and the SDGs

The organising committee has made strong targets (including reusing or recycling 99% of procured items and goods (use of rentals and leases). Further, they have mapped their efforts to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), showing progress and tangible actions as a result. I have noticed many Japanese businessmen wearing SDGs pins. When I asked people what they think is being done from business and Government about the SDGs, they tend to say very little. This is an opportunity for the Government and participants to show how they are using the SDGs in a way that is tangible and practical.

The Big Question

It is great that there is a strong focus on sustainability for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The links to SDGs, targets and initial societal engagement scheme (The Medal Project) shows progress and momentum. The big question is if the momentum will continue beyond the 2020 Olympics. Could this be a turning point for Japan to actively manage their growing plastic crisis and slow clean energy transition, or will it just look good for a moment in time.

I really hope the infrastructure the Government is building starts to build a new culture within the Japanese population. One that inspires people to understand the impact their actions have and to embrace change. When I come back to Japan post 2020, I want to see that plastic is a thing of the past, renewable energy is the norm and reducing reigns supreme over recycling.

As they say in Japan, ‘Ganbatte’ which means ‘good luck with the hard work!’

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