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Japan fires starting gun on Rugby World Cup and Olympics

Japanese sprinter Chisato Fukushima Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Japanese sprinter Chisato Fukushima will be competing at the Rio 2016 Olympics

To host one major global sporting event might be considered good fortune, but to host two in a couple of years shows not luck but planning and ambition.

At the end of this decade Japan will stage the 2019 Rugby World Cup, and the next year the Olympic and Paralympic Games will be held in Tokyo.

Japan has already joint-hosted football's 2002 Fifa World Cup, but the size of the task ahead is of a much greater magnitude.

However, the country sees there being equally strong economic, touristic, and sporting benefits.

Progress this autumn has been a mixture of highs and lows, with the excitement of the Japan rugby team's showing at the recent Rugby World Cup being counterbalanced by controversy around the 2020 Games logo and stadium.

Both those projects have gone back to the drawing board, but Yukihiko Nunomura, chief operations officer of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, tells me he believes these issues are "slowly starting to recede".

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Back to the drawing board - a new contest is being held to design the 2020 logo

"Both the stadium and logo are in the process of selection for new designs," he says.

"When it comes to the logo, previously this was limited to designers who had [won] an award, however those limits have been taken off. The process needs to be open and involve the public. It is now a much wider selection process."

'Rich attractions'

One of the major targets for 2019 and 2020 is to see an upswing in tourism to the country, with hopes that the number of tourists will rise from 15 million last year to 20 million by Olympic year.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Technology and food are two areas where Japan hopes to lure tourists

"It is not an unachievable target," says Mr Nunomura. "It would bring great economic benefits, not just to Tokyo.

"We have very rich attractions across Japan, including food and natural beauty, to cutting edge technology."

Mr Nunomura also says more than 20 major local firms have already signed up as 2020 partners, including Asahi, Asics, Canon, Eneos, NEC, Fujitsu, ANA and Japan Airlines.

"A lot of Japanese companies are already putting their hands up to be involved with the Olympic Games," he says.

Image copyright Keystone
Image caption Japan previously hosted the Olympic Games in 1964, in Tokyo

Other plans currently in the pipeline include a programme of cultural activities around the Olympics and Paralympics.

And, for the period after the sporting events, a post-2020 legacy plan is also set to be launched next year, looking at areas such as Japanese traditional crafts and sustainability, among others.

Regional cultures

Mr Nunomura's sporting tourism goals for 2019 and 2020 are shared by Masanobu Mikami, executive director at the London office of the Japan National Tourism Organization.

For the Rugby World Cup he says there are target markets such as the UK and Australia, but that Japan will be looking to attract visitors from other competing nations, and elsewhere.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Japan will be holding the 2019 Rugby World Cup in 12 stadiums across the country

The 2019 RWC is being hosted from the north to south of the country, and will ensure sports fans visit a number of regional cities, including such as Fukuoka, Sapporo, Oita, Kobe, and others.

And, for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games a year later, Mr Mikami hopes that visitors will not restrict themselves to the two tourism hotspots of Tokyo and Kyoto.

"Obviously with the RWC being a year before, it gives us a very important opportunity to emphasise the appeal and attractiveness of regional cultures across the country," he says.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Sapporo is one of the regional cities hosting matches in the 2019 Rugby World Cup

"In 2020 we would again like to focus on the attractiveness of regional cities, and different parts of the country. It is really important that we get visitors to visit all parts of Japan."

Public ambassadors

Despite the media attention in the West given to elements of youth culture such as manga and anime, and characters such as Hello Kitty, Mr Mikami says that "most people who visit are interested in traditional things, such as temples, the tea ceremony, culture.

"But of course younger people who visit us are interested in these other things," he adds. "This current image we have is not a bad thing."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The tea ceremony and other traditional attractions remain popular with visitors

Mr Mikami says that one of the biggest cheerleaders for the country during the two events can be the Japanese public.

"We have to explain to them the importance of international visitors, and that if we welcome them with open arms, and get them to spend money then that will be of benefit to the whole country.

"That mindset needs to be encouraged, and if visitors to the Rugby World Cup or Olympic Games experience enough hospitality in Japan, we are hoping they would be back afterwards to enjoy the experience again."

Medals goal

The responsibility for a meaningful sporting legacy for 2019 and 2020 rests with Daichi Suzuki, head of the Japan Sports Agency, whose role is to integrate all the nation's sports administrative bodies under one umbrella.

A former swimmer, who won gold in the 100 metres backstroke at the 1988 Olympic Games, he has ambitions for sporting progress in both the elite and general public spheres.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Daichi Suzuki won gold for Japan at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul

Indeed, he says the two areas are related, as if Japan can grow the number of teams and athletes capable of winning on a global stage, that can inspire citizens to take part in sport.

"One of the goals is for the general population to be fitter and take part in sport," he says, adding that at present there are no set targets regarding public sporting participation, although this could change.

Conversely, he says there are specific targets for Japan's elite athletes, with a goal of finishing among the top three medal winning nations at the 2020 Games.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption At London 2012 Tatsuhiro Yonemitsu won a wrestling gold, a sport where Japan has been strong

"Medals are very important," he says. "In London we got seven gold medals, in Rio 2016 we hope to win more than 10. So Rio will be very important for Japan."

Looking to the 2020 Paralympic Games, he says they can help integrate disabled people more into Japanese society, and put a focus onto issues which affect them, and also ones which affect the nation's elderly population.

'Sense of community'

Mr Suzuki says the country has a strong background in swimming, judo, wresting, gymnastics, and athletics, while there have been encouraging signs recently in archery and cycling.

In addition, team sports - such as rugby and football - are important too.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mr Suzuki's task is to bring all Japan's sports governing bodies together

"We [Japanese] are very good at taking action in a group," Mr Suzuki says, and he hopes that seeing Japanese teams doing well will encourage the public to take part in sport.

"Japan spends 40 trillion yen on health care. That is very high, that could break Japan itself. It is very important to protect your own health and be fit.

"Sport is fun when you start participation, and make friends - there is a real sense of community."

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