Cultural programming at Tokyo 2020: the impossible Olympic festival city?

IOC website screenshot | Olympic Agora (Aug 2021)

The Tokyo 2020 Games will be remembered as the Games without a live audience. They will be talked about as the ‘Covid Games’ that were forced to exclude spectators and collective gatherings.

The sporting competition field was protected to the best of the organisers’ ability — and it looked good on the screen — but, what about the cultural exchange field? And what about the Olympic city? Did it manifest?

Nippon Festival

As every previous Olympic edition since 1912, Tokyo had a mandate to present a cultural programme — the Cultural Olympiad — and this was launched straight after Rio in 2016, with ambitions to show 21st Japan beyond outdated clichés. The Olympic Organising Committee presented the Nippon Festival and a four-year ‘participation programme’ — involving contributions from around the country.

Tokyo 2020 Games Website (screenshot from Aug 2021)

Most of the participation programme has been delivered in Japanese exclusively so it is a programme difficult to understand abroad — despite it delivering symbolic value and opportunities for engagement at a local and regional level. The Nippon Festival, however, aimed to make a mark internationally and was designed to address the main Tokyo 2020 bid themes.

The “reconstruction Games” was a key dimension of Tokyo’s vision, using the Olympics as a platform to help rebuild the areas affected by the earthquake disaster of 2011. This translated into the community-conceived giant puppet Mocco, which journeyed symbolically from the devastated Tohoku region into Tokyo in 2021.

Screen shot from the Youtube film introducing ‘Reconstructing the Tohoku Region’

Diversity and Inclusion’ was also a leading concept, in a country where cultural diversity is not as normalised as in other developed countries, with low visibility for disabled and queer communities within mainstream environments. ONE is the segment of the Nippon Festival dedicated to celebrating diversity, bridging the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The above have been strands of a Festival which has remained true to its original vision but has failed to inspire and stand out within the Games narrative, due to limited — or old fashioned — communication strategies, lack of branding integration within the leading Games platforms and insufficient social media output. Despite the beautiful concept behind the Festival’s visual identity (an intelligent variation of the central Tokyo 2020 logo which demonstrates the coherence and quality of Tokyo’s graphic design identity) the Nippon Festival has not stood out sufficiently during Games time.

TokyoTokyo Festival

Beyond the Organising Committee, the Japanese contemporary arts world also wanted to partake in the Cultural Olympiad. The complexities of Olympic branding and approval processes, however, led to what is a common missed opportunity: a separation of Olympic cultural programming strands with little narrative connectors and no joint branding.

Regardless, a new art festival inspired by the Games was put together by the local authority: the Tokyo Tokyo Festival presented the city’s contemporary art scene and, despite its disconnect from Olympic branding, it has been successful attracting arts media coverage and public attention. It is a good example of a Games-time festival celebrating its host city: from buildings, to public baths and gardens.

Olympic Agora

An unprecedented cultural strand in these Games has been the contribution by the International Olympic Committee itself, which for the first time presented its take on how ‘culture meets sport’, showcasing the official version of what is meant by ‘Olympic spirit’ and ‘Olympic art’. The Olympic Agora opened as a large physical site in Tokyo at the end of June 2021 and combined presential and digital spaces for Olympic culture throughout the Games.

What place for culture and the Olympic city during these pandemic Games?

Commentators note that there has been little opportunity for residents and Games delegations to experience the Olympic city in 2021. Interventions such as the intriguing floating head presented by the TokyoTokyo Festival just before the Opening Ceremony raised eyebrows and encouraged conversation; the Olympic Agora presented eye-catching public artworks; finally, the Nippon Festival and participation programme presented locally sensitive works throughout Japan and materialised Tokyo’s Olympic bid vision. However, crowds were not allowed into any of these interventions — and the international Games narrative did not include sufficient reference to the rich diversity of these activities combined.

Masayume, the floating head presented as part of the Tokyo Tokyo Festival

Live Sites were also discouraged — and the popular hospitality houses that many participating nations present at Games time were considerably scaled down. This means that there was little space for shared physical euphoria during Tokyo 2020. With or without art programming, gathering together to celebrate was not feasible.

Much thinking needs to take place about the future of cultural programming at the Games. There should be less fragmentation, more cross-referencing when promoting activities, and more effective ways of adapting brands and visual identities so that it is possible to appreciate the many dimensions of Olympic arts and culture — and help overcome the sense of isolation audiences may experience.

Reconstruction, recovery, inclusion and togetherness were the Tokyo Olympic keywords. They were meaningful at the time of the bid and even more poignant during a pandemic. The Opening and Closing ceremonies presented this message loud and clear. The associated cultural programmes explored these concepts even further but failed to align sufficiently to make as meaningful a mark as they should have.

Future Olympics need to keep opening-up their understanding of what cultural programming can do, not just as an Olympic Charter requirement but as a platform to address difficulties and turning material challenges into inspirational narratives. The official Games cultural programme should be an opportunity for fun and celebration, connected with the unique characteristics of respective Games hosts as well as the diverse centenary heritage of the Olympic movement. The Cultural Olympiads of the future need to keep working towards a clearer interrelation between organising committee mandates, city-led arts expressions and IOC-hosted Agoras.


This article has been published as part of ‘Olympic and Paralympic Analysis 2020‘, a major academic report involving over 100 research contributors from around the world.

Giant inflatables and flying dancers. Olympic art has always turned heads.

In the days before the Tokyo 2020 opening ceremony, people were treated to the sight of a giant head floating over the city. Entitled Masayume, this oversized balloon installation by Japanese artist collective Me, was part of the Tokyo Tokyo Festival], as an arts response to the Olympic Games. 

Art has long accompanied the arrival of the Olympics in a city. Budgets might vary, but as the largest mega-event out there, local organisations and the Olympic Organising Committee both seek to capitalise on the attention the Games garner by generating extracurricular cultural moments that echo the athletic accomplishments in the stadiums.

In this article, Beatriz García discusses the history of iconic Olympic art interventions and debates the latest experience in Tokyo.

Access this paper via The Conversation

‘Let Space Speak’ | Tokyo 2020 Opening Ceremony

This Olympic Opening Ceremony offers poignant images of what is ‘not’ there

One of the things that struck me the most during Japan’s 2016 Forum of Sport & Culture was a talk by a Japanese living national treasure on the importance of empty space – and nothingness – in Japanese culture.

The opening ceremony of Tokyo 2020 has had to be reconceived beyond anyone’s imagination, with organisers working on myriad alternative narrative threads from the outset. By the 23rd August 2021, we ended up with a ceremony memorable for its restraint and careful waiving of difficult subjects from the go.

It was good to see the inclusion of some humour – a few vignettes, such as the lighting of Tokyo’s iconic sights or the clever representation of all pictograms – were reminiscent of London 2012, the first ceremony to openly include unabashed humour, with the figure of Mr Bean bored while playing Chariots of Fire or the Queen jumping-off a plane – but the most striking visuals involved outstanding markers of emptiness and void.

Markers of empty space were the row after row of unpeopled seats in the 68,000-capacity stadium, a prominent background to flag raising and formal speeches; other such markers included the generous ‘social distancing’ space between performers, particularly during the scenes representing the isolation of athletes in training throughout 2020.

“markers of empty space were … rows of unpeopled seats…
or the generous social distancing space between performers…

These are all iconic images that will survive the test of time and, like the sight of athletes and dignataries wearing masks, they will take a prominent place in future symbolic representations of the Tokyo Games.

Japanese commentators have referred to Japanese culture’s capacity to ‘let space speak’. Space – empty space – certainly spoke during the opening of the postponed Tokyo Games and this added credibility and reflective beauty to the experience of what may have been one of the most expensive ceremonies ever while also, by far, the most understated and sober opening of a Games in living memory.

When the Games can’t go on

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games have been postponed. It is only the fourth time this happens in 124 years, the only three previous occasions being due to World War I and World War II.

The global virus pandemic of 2020 is forcing a halt on all international sport and cultural mega-events and this raises meaningful questions regarding the significance of such large celebrations and the extent to which it is essential or not to see them happen.

In this collection of articles and short film, Dr Beatriz Garcia discusses the importance of finding creative ways of sharing stories about major events and what makes them meaningful. Beatriz argues in favour of artists – as distinct from marketing and communication teams – playing a leading role to tell such stories while on lockdown.


Reflections from Beatriz Garcia

the main test of value for mega-events is their capacity to act as platforms for storytelling that inspire communities worldwide.

As I have argued for the last 20 years, the main test of value for mega-events is their capacity to act as platforms for storytelling that inspire communities worldwide. In this sense, far from seeing current cancellations and postponements as a route into oblivion, organisers should find alternative ways of sharing what it has taken them to prepare for their event and the reasons why hundreds of thousands of people are not just financially but emotionally invested in such grand occasions.

The Tokyo Games organisers were starting their story-telling on the 12 March, with the initiation of their torch relay, which was lit in Ancient Olympia and promoted through pre-recorded promotional films of open air runners and cheering crowds. It was the worst timing imaginable and the narrative, unadapted as it was to the news of the day, felt inappropriate to a week marked by growing numbers of nations going into population lockdown. With the formal postponement of the Games, organisers now have time to rethink and repurpose their narrative. There is much that can be shared about what has taken place since preparations started in 2013, what Japan has been building for and what explains the value and significance of these Games in our times.

Tokyo hosted the Olympic Games in 1964, and this was the chance for Japan to tell the story of rebuilding their nation in the aftermath of World War II. It will be fascinating to observe how Japan may tell us the story of what it takes to host the Games again in the aftermath of a global pandemic. In this sense, it is a valuable challenge to have the leaders of the largest sporting mega-event in the world use their skills and resources to share and explain the stories behind the Games, that is, the cultural and societal context to the sporting competition and theit multibillion infrastructure investments.

Why do the Olympics continue to attract the attention and support of over 206 nations, 124 years after they were originally launched?

Why do the Games matter?

Why do we care?

  • See my article for The Conversationfocusing on Tokyo 2020.
  • See my article for Arts Professional, discussing why now is the time to look beyond mega-events as catalysts for real estate growth and commercial profit and rethink why we need them.
  • See a short (home made!) video, here

Follow additional stories on the Olympic Games via  Culture @ the Olympics.


Tokyo 2020 Cultural Olympiad

Youth, heritage, empowerment and nationwide celebration

Article originally published by Beatriz Garcia via Net TAM in 2018 (In English | In Japanese)

The Cultural Olympiad has been an essential component of every edition of the Olympic Games since 1912. Despite its long history, the Olympic cultural programme is one of the least well known dimensions of the Olympic Games. This is in part due to the varied ways in which the programme has been delivered and named over the years (from Olympic Art Competitions, to Olympic Art Festivals and, since Barcelona 1992, Cultural Olympiad).

Tokyo is committed to delivering a Cultural Olympiad and launched it in 2016, just after the end of the previous Games in Rio 2016. The promise was that of a four year journey (an ‘Olympiad’) in order to ensure a strong cultural foundation for the Games.

olympiad-9-world-forum.jpg

The World Forum on Sport and Culture in October 2016
contributed to launching the Cultural Olympiad
© Beatriz Garcia

I have been observing the positioning and development of Tokyo’s cultural programme and the following are my highlights and expectations for the future.

Explaining Japan to the Japanese

A noticeable aspiration of the Tokyo Cultural Olympiad is its emphasis on reaching out to today’s Japanese youth in order to help them reconnect with Japanese culture. In my discussions with organisers during 2016 and 2017, I was struck by their aspiration to explain Japan to the Japanese first, before going out to explain it to the rest of the world.

During an interview with the team at the organising committee (TOCOG) in 2016, one representative noted that:

“Japanese students don’t experience much Japanese traditional culture. 2020 will feature and involve Japanese students – so that they can experience their own culture.”

olympiad-9-2.jpg

I believe this is a fantastic aspiration and I have already noticed some important steps forward, such as the contributions by kyogen actor Ippei Shigeyama to the World Sport and Culture Forum. Shigeyama, a young actor, was able to explain the ancient traditions of kyogen in a language and style that was attractive to the younger generations and explained how through the Cultural Olympiad and other international initiatives he is working on renewing the genre, combining it with contemporary forms and even inviting international interpretations and collaborations.

Advancing the disability arts movement

Tokyo has been looking into London 2012 as its key referent for the Cultural Olympiad. Representatives from London 2012 have been invited numerous times to give talks and share the learning out of what counts as one of the largest Olympic cultural programmes in recent history. An important aspect of London 2012 was the high profile billing offered to its disability arts programme – Unlimited – which bridged across the Olympic and Paralympic Games and made it apparent the sophisticated and wide ranging approach taken by disability artists across the UK – their work was long established in Britain, but the Games helped reach out to the mainstream and be noticed internationally in ways that had not been possible before.

For Japan, exploring and showcasing the work of disabled artists comes as an important step forward, as there is not as much tradition in supporting and promoting the work of artists with disabilities as was the case in the UK pre-Games. From discussion into how to improve accessibility to existing theatres, to discussion about the diversity of artistic expression regardless of physical ability, this is an important dimension of Tokyo’s Olympic programme that the Cultural Olympiad aims to spearhead across the country. The leading programme in this area is titled Turn and it started with pioneering collaborations taking place between London 2012, Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 disabled artists.

olympiad-9-turn.jpg

Turn is one of the flagship programmes for Tokyo Cultural Olympiad,
involving support and collaboration with disabled artists from London 2012 and Rio 2016.
© Beatriz Garcia

Nationwide programming

Another aspiration of Tokyo’s Cultural Olympiad that has been inspired by London 2012 is the commitment to make the programme nationwide, well beyond Tokyo as the principal host city. This has been broadly welcome by cities and regions across the country, keen to show to the world that Japan is much more than Tokyo and Kyoto, and that Japanese culture flourishes in every region. I am keen to observe how the Cultural Olympiad builds on the extensive work of existing Japanese cultural networks, from the network of Japanese creative cities to the growing positioning of Japan’s cities of culture.

From Tokyo 1964 to Tokyo 2020

But it is clear that Tokyo 2020 does not need to learn everything from London 2012. Tokyo has in fact a rich tradition to look back to, thanks to its hosting of the Olympic Games in 1964, a significant time for national re-building post World War II. Tokyo 1964 was a Games edition that left a noticeable cultural mark, particularly in terms of its world-leading approach to graphic design. I believe that re-telling and re-connecting with the cultural legacy of 1964 offers a great – and relevant – opportunity for positioning and demonstrating what is unique to Tokyo 2020 from a creative as well as Olympic heritage point of view. I would hope the Cultural Olympiad can contribute to telling this story.

olympiad-9-4.png

Copyright © International Olympic Committee (IOC) – All rights reserved. Reproduced under licence from the IOC

An Asian era for the Olympics

Finally, I am keen to see how the relationship between South Korea, Japan and China is explored through the Cultural Olympiad. Having three subsequent editions of the Games in such prominent Asian nations with such rich and complex cultural relationships brings a remarkable opportunity to engage in cultural diplomacy and making a significant contribution to cultural narratives of Asia, well beyond the Games. PyeongChang in 2018 ensured there was a strand of Korea-Japan-China programming within its Cultural Olympiad.

I recommend Tokyo 2020 follows on these foundations and uses the Cultural Olympiad as a platform for this internationally significant dialogue. A possible point of referent for this is the well-established East Asian Cities of Culture network, which is a collaboration and exchange between these three Olympic hosting nations.

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