Does Japan Win the Gold Medal for Listening?

October 29, 2021

Does Japan Win the Gold Medal for Listening?

What We Can Learn About Japanese Culture & The Olympics


  • A look at Japanese culture in relation to hosting the upcoming summer Olympics.
  • How the global pandemic will impact what athletes and visitors listen and see at this major international event.
  • What we can learn from a Japanese Olympic official about listening to what is unspoken.

If social media existed in ancient Greece, then there would be a lot of Greeks posting selfies from Olympia. The Olympics were like a pre-pandemic, beach in the Hamptons – you wanted to see and be seen. And you’d want to tweet a humble brag to all your friends that you were there and having a fabulous time.

Spectators would vamoose from all over the Greek empire for a few days of socializing, eating BBQ, listening to the new work of historian Herodotus … and oh yeah, to watch a few sports too – just make sure you weren’t too hungover to attend the chariot races! Olympic athletes were competed naked in “… a time-honored tradition as central to Hellenic culture as drinking wine, discussing Homer or worshiping Apollo.” The thinking was that nakedness stripped away social rank among the status-obsessed ancient world Greeks (who were probably the ones also posting status updates every minute).

 “One of the things that made you Greek was playing sports and going to the Olympics,” noted Paul Christesen, professor of Ancient Greek History at Dartmouth College. “Most ancient cultures are geographically compact … but the Greeks were very weird in that from an early period they were highly geographically dispersed, so that even by 600BC there were Greeks living in what is now France, Spain, Italy, Libya, Turkey, Russia. So a big question they spent a lot of time worrying about was ‘what makes you Greek?’. That is part of the reason they took the Olympics so seriously – it is a fundamental cultural marker for them.”

 Fast forward to modern times, and the Olympics are still one of those cultural markers for many countries around the world. The Olympics play a large role in cultural identity whether you’re from Greece or from any of the other 204 countries that participate in the games. And like Olympia, the host country plays a large role in defining the overall culture of the games and the experience of those who trek there.


Credit: Keystone/Getty Images 


Saving Face Over Saving Lives

Tokyo will welcome the world to the 2020 Summer Olympics on July 23, 2021. The journey to Japan’s second time hosting has been as challenging as a gymnast trying to balance on the beam. It will be the first major international event to be held during the pandemic. There are many rumors swirling that the games won’t even happen despite Japan’s assurances. About 80% of Japanese say this year’s Olympics should be canceled or delayed due to the coronavirus. But Japanese officials are not listening to public opinion. Japan will most likely proceed with the games mainly to “save face” but it remains to be seen if this is the right, and safe, choice to make.

Jigoro Kano is considered the "father of the Olympic Movement" in Japan. In 1909, Kano became the first IOC member to serve from Asia and in 1911 he was the first to send Japanese athletes to the games. Kano is also the founder of judo which became the first Japanese martial art to be an official Olympic sport. However, Kano did not push for judo to be included in the Olympics. His position was,” I have been asked by people of various sections as to the wisdom and possibility of Judo being introduced … at the Olympic Games. My view on the matter … is rather passive. If it be the desire of other member countries, I have no objection. But '''I do not feel inclined to take any initiative. For one thing, Judo in reality is not a mere sport or game. I regard it as a principle of life, art and science. In fact, it is a means for personal cultural attainment.'''


Credit: Issei Kato/Pool Photo via AP 


Hear One, Understand Ten

It is thought that Japan has a different way of communicating compared to many Western societies. One instance of this is their well-known saying “Ichi ieba ju wakaru” which means “hear one, understand ten.” If a Japanese person says ten percent of something, then the listener is expected to be able to deduce ten times more by implication. The most important part of the conversation is left unspoken, so it becomes the responsibility of the listener to pay attention and pick up on what has been implied through contextual clues.

 This idea of saying little yet meaning much is evident throughout the entire Japanese culture, such as with haiku poetry that is recognized for its short form. One less poetic example of this is a recent incident with Yoshiro Mori, the former president of the Japanese Olympic Committee. He sparked backlash with his short but impactful comment, “On boards with a lot of women, the board meetings take so much time.” Mori was responding to a plan to increase female board representation and was essentially saying there should be regulations on the speaking time allotted for female members because they talk too much. A reporter later asked Mori about the incident and he replied, "I don't listen to women that much lately, so I don't know." Mori resigned amongst the uproar. We’re guessing he’ll start working on his “Ichi ieba ju wakaru” especially after he was "thoroughly scolded" by his wife, daughter, and granddaughter.


Credit: AP

Social Distancing Celebrations… with Condoms

The Tokyo Olympics site shares “Culture & Etiquette” to prepare visitors and offers tips “if you want to blend in” such as remembering to check your socks for holes because it is good manners to remove your shoes indoors. The Indian Olympic Association is taking it a step further and hosting a seminar for its Olympic athletes to teach them how to behave properly in Japanese culture. In the crash course, “The athletes will be taught to be polite as it is considered an art there …. In Japan, listening is important and it’s considered bad manners to shout or talk loud in public places as well as eating while walking.” 

 Japan is also preparing for the athletes by releasing a playbook that outlines guidelines for this new pandemic culture we are living in. Among the behaviors being restricted are no hugs, no handshakes, no high-fives, no singing, and no chanting. Only clapping is allowed. And condoms (in a sign of mixed messages there will be 150,000 given out!) It will certainly be interesting to see how these limitations on the usual visual and sound cues will impact the excitement of the games. Remember, this is the same country that encouraged riders of its rollercoaster to avoid screaming to minimize spreading droplets and instead "scream inside your heart."


Credit: IOC

The Olympic Charter outlines the principles of Olympism. It’s a “philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life…” So it is appropriate that this post kicks off our new series “Two Ears, One Mouth” based on another philosophy. The name comes from our old Greek friend Epictetus who was a philosopher that said, “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

Epictetus was probably living it up during ancient Olympic times. He was described as a “sports buff” who “… concluded that the Olympics were a metaphor for human existence itself. Every day was filled with difficulties and tribulations: unbearable heat, pushy crowds, grime, noise and endless petty annoyances. “But of course you put up with it all,” he said, “because it’s an unforgettable spectacle.” And that’s probably what he would have posted on Facebook if social media existed in ancient Greece.

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