As I was watching the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics after admiring the vibrant colours and aesthetics of the Sierra Leone team, I had a thought; there’s a certain feel to this Olympics that brings to mind a certain Japanese phrase – wabi-sabi.
There are multiple interpretations of the phrase, but wabi-sabi is generally understood as “beauty in imperfection”. Part of a collection of Japanese ideals and aesthetics, wabi-sabi espouses the acceptance of the imperfect nature of things and nature, be it asymmetry, damage, or even incompleteness. One could compare wabi-sabi to the notion “nothing lasts forever” and the romance in it because of the impermanence.
So what do wabi-sabi and Tokyo Olympics have in common?
To get to the bottom of it, I explored the mental gymnastics that resulted in my mind connecting the Tokyo Olympics to the ancient cultural term. This took me back to when I traveled to Tokyo in 2018 and Osaka in 2019. My first time in Japan was a week-long trip to Tokyo. We found a nice new condominium near Ueno, which was close to the exciting parts of Tokyo recommend in most travel sites you can find with a quick Google search. By the end of our trip, other than how mesmerising Tokyo was, it dawned on us how prepared Tokyo was for the Olympics, even in 2018.
To illustrate that, we need to break down what are the things to be prepared for. One of the most vital things to look out for is the language barrier. Japan is a country very proud of its customs, culture, and language, so it is no surprise that the Japanese language “Nihongo” is used widely by its populace. Japan’s pride of Nihongo is so well-known that tourists and non-natives make a point to be adept in the language as an effort to acknowledge the Japanese pride of Nihongo and an icebreaker of sorts, to foster camaraderie.
For a country like that to invest so much in integrating a workforce capable of conversing in English and producing guides and menus in English reflects the dedication and preparedness Japan has in order to welcome the rest of the world to its doors. From the moment we set foot at Narita Airport, we were welcomed with staff and guides in English, good English. As someone who could speak conversational Japanese, I had always dreamed of such interactions. However, the opportunities were scarce as they were more inclined to speak English with tourists for ease of communication. The Starbucks menu even had more English than Japanese dare I say. Everywhere we went there was either staff capable of conversing in English fluently or they are prepared with guides, menus, and signs in English for us to peruse. Some stores even prepare their guides in other languages like German, Chinese and Korean.
During one of my excursions to the many convenience stores near our lodging (there were many), I would make small talk with the staff, to test out my conversational Japanese. I was purchasing a Manga (Japanese comic) when I asked a Lawson’s staff whether it was normal to have salacious books on the shelves, given the fact that everybody can just buy them.
For context, Japan is oddly open about media with salacious material and it has always been something I was curious about, given the nation’s rather traditional and reserved culture. Of course, if a child were to pick it up, they wouldn’t so much make it to the door with them. Coming from Malaysia, It was simply a different matter altogether to have salacious materials on convenience store shelves.
As she was checking out my PG13 Manga, the staff didn’t have an answer to my question. However, she noted that such media will be removed from shelves to prepare for the coming Olympics. Bear in my mind, this was 2 years before the event, so it just goes to show that Japan had thought it through.
This next point is something I noticed even as I went to Osaka and Kyoto in 2019. The food. Malaysians know how important halal food is for Muslims, and there will be Muslims all over the world coming to Japan for the Olympics. This was never an issue as wherever we went there was always halal food. They even had numerous catalogs with locations of halal food (with facilities for Muslims to pray). It was amazing how you could just go to any part of Tokyo and Osaka and still find halal food. I was also told that this was another step taken for the upcoming Olympics and I was impressed, to say the least.
And then the unexpected happened. The pandemic brought many things to a halt, and the Tokyo Olympics was not safe from this. All the preparations the country has undertaken for naught. After resiliently pressing on and fighting against all odds, it’s finally happening after over a year has passed. And it’s not perfect. The Tokyo Olympics is flawed. With no fans attending and a limited number of athletes allowed to participate due to a concern over another outbreak, there’s a somber undertone to this glorious sporting event.
I mentioned earlier that the Tokyo Olympics reminded me of wabi-sabi. It was because of the imperfect nature of the Olympics. But the same imperfection is also what’s beautiful about it. As I was watching the opening ceremony, I’m reminded of the hardships Japan went through to keep this event alive amid polarising views due to the pandemic. There is something admirable about Japan’s resilience. It was perhaps just to make sure the funds invested in this event do not go to waste. Or it could simply be the persistence of the Japanese, a statement that they will not lose to the pandemic. The idealist in me would like to believe in the latter. Like cracked Japanese pottery which can still be used and considered beautiful, there is also beauty in how the land of the rising sun persevered and succeeded to commence the sporting event, regardless of the imperfections. That is essentially wabi-sabi.
Seeing every country come together in these challenging times to the Olympics perhaps means more than it does previous Olympics. When everything is said and done, perhaps many more Olympics after, I believe we can still look fondly back to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and admire how the world got together in a time of crisis for one of the most memorable sporting events in history.
Hartwick is a content writer under Headliner by Newswav, a programme where content creators get to tell their unique stories through articles and at the same time monetize their content within the Newswav app.
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