The Olympic Cauldron and Sacred Flame on Yume no Ohashi Bridge. All photos by Roy Tomizawa

 

At the end of the opening ceremonies of the Tokyo2020 Olympics, Naomi Osaka lit the Olympic cauldron as a white ball peeled open like a flower, it’s metallic petals reflecting the light of the ignited Olympic flame.

 

Designed by Japanese company, Nendo, helmed by a Canadian-born Japanese named Oki Sato, the cauldron is a scintillating sight.

 

At most Olympiads, the flame remains in that cauldron for the extent of the Games. But in the 2020 version, a lick of the Olympic flame was moved to a small lantern, and transported about 13 kilometers southwest of the stadium to a bridge that connected two man-made islands in Tokyo Bay – Yume no Ohashi Bridge (or Great Bridge of Dreams).

 

That Tokyo Bay area has many of the Olympic venues, and under normal circumstances, would have been viewed by masses of passersby. I passed by at noon on Thursday, August 5 where about a few dozen people were snapping pictures of the sacred flame.

 

The cauldron on display is not the same one that Naomi Osaka ignited – it is a replica about one third the size of the one still at the National Stadium. Smaller, yet stunning.

 

The sacred flame will be extinguished at the Closing Ceremony to be held on Sunday, August 8. It is unclear whether the flame will again be transferred from the Tokyo Bay cauldron to the National Stadium cauldron, or whether the flame continues to burn within the bigger version hidden inside the stadium.

 

It’s probably the former.

 

The National Stadium was designed without a permanent fixture for the Olympic cauldron. One underlying reason for not including such a fixture was the use of wood in the construction of the stadium. The most common and apparent use of wood are the eaves that adorn the roof and other levels of the stadium, made from cedar sourced from the 47 prefectures of Japan.

 

According to the stadium designer, Kengo Kuma, the cauldron wasn’t in the original specifications and so he imagined that it would be like other Olympiads where the cauldron was situated inside the stadium during the opening ceremony and then moved.

 

The fuel that sustains the flame in the cauldron is hydrogen, a clean-burning gas that represents Japan’s drive to become carbon-neutral by 2050. Hydrogen has fueled part of the torch relay, many of the hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles that transport athletes and officials, as well as one of the buildings in the Olympic Village.

 

So the Olympic flame, born of the rays of the hydrogen-fueled sun in Athens on March 12, 2020, will be extinguished on Sunday, leaving behind water vapors and memories of an Olympiad like no other.

 

Simone Biles_AP Photo/Ashley Landis

In 1964, freestyle Shunichi Kawano was banned from the Olympic Village. The head of Japanese wrestling okayed that act as Kawano showed “a lack of fighting spirit” in a match the day before. It didn’t help that the crown prince and princess were in the audience. His coach said his presence in the village would “adversely affect the morale of other athletes,” according to The Japan Times. He returned to the Village after shaving his head, although he said he did not agree with the assessment of his spirit.

For a few days after the Kawano incident, the press was filled with accounts of the mystery female Olympian who reportedly shaved her head bald in tears. It was finally reported that Soviet javelin thrower, Elvira Ozolina, had cut her shoulder-length chestnut hair completely off. Ozolina, who ended the javelin competition in fifth, was a favorite to win gold.

Various headlines from AP news wire stories on Ozolina

And then there was the poignant tale of Kokichi Tsuburaya, who ran a long 42 kilometers in the Tokyo Olympic marathon, entered the National Stadium to the roar of the crowd expecting their Japanese hero to win a silver medal in track, only to see UK’s Basil Heatley storm from behind, leaving Tsuburaya in third place. A disappointed Tsuburaya took accountability and said he would do better at the 1968. But injuries and a failed wedding engagement, both caused by a superior where he worked in the Japan Defense Forces, may have led to Tsuburaya’s decision to end his life in early 1968.

At all levels of competition, sports show us how people respond to pressure. At the Olympics, the pressure can be extreme. We expect Olympians who do not “win” to be grateful and graceful losers, but we also know that the drive and determination that got them to that point can also manifest itself in anger, frustration, fears and questions of self worth.

In this first week of Olympic competition, mental health is an emerging theme at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, journalists and spectators alike were less concerned about the psychological well being of athletes. But at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, there appears to be a more sophisticated understanding of these issues.

Naomi Osaka may have laid the groundwork for that understanding. After the French Open had started, she  announced she would not engage in press conferences in order to diminish what she said was battles with anxiety and depression. After some online parrying with organizers, she pulled out of the French Open. Then last week, she lost in the second round of the singles tennis Olympic competition, sparking questions of whether the stress of the constant attention had affected her.

On July 16, WNBA Las Vegas Aces star, Liz Cambage, announced she was leaving Australian national basketball team. Suffering from panic attacks, and unable to sleep, she admitted that she would be unable to perform to the best of her abilities.

“It’s no secret that in the past I’ve struggled with my mental health and recently I’ve been really worried about heading into a ‘bubble’ Olympics,” according to the Sydney Morning Herald. “No family. No friends. No fans. No support system outside of my team. It’s honestly terrifying for me.

Then on July 27, just after the start of the women’s gymnastics team competition, American gymnast Simone Biles suddenly announced she was no longer going to compete. The world media had already declared her Olympic champion years before the start of Tokyo 2020. She has been repeatedly called the GOAT (greatest of all time). But after a poor vault at the start of the competition, she realized that she had to put her mental health first. Here’s how she explained it to NPR:

It’s been really stressful, this Olympic Games. I think just as a whole, not having an audience, there are a lot of different variables going into it. It’s been a long week, it’s been a long Olympic process, it’s been a long year. So just a lot of different variables, and I think we’re just a little bit too stressed out. But we should be out here having fun, and sometimes that’s not the case.

In the judo competition, Team Japan has had unprecedented success – out of 14 possible gold medals, they grabbed 9, as well as a silver and bronze.

Judoka Hisayoshi Harasawa lost to two-time Olympic champion Teddy Riner of France in the bronze medal round, one of the few not to medal for Japan. Amidst Japan’s amazing gold rush in judo, Harasawa was devastated, speechless and in tears, struggling to find any words in a painful post-match interview.

But in 2021, at least, we are finding the words to talk about mental health in sports.

Sport is universal. But since many sports either originated in the United States or are big enough businesses to ensure lucrative tournament income, many go to the United States to train.

In these early days of the Olympics, I’ve noticed several stars who were born in Japan, but made in America.

Jay Litherland: Kevin, Mick and Jay were born triplets in Osaka, Japan. Born of a father, Andrew, from New Zealand and a mother, Chizuko, from Japan, Jay came in third on their birthday. But at the 2020 Olympics, Jay came in 2nd to win gold in the grueling 400-meter individual medley swimming finals.

The brothers have done everything together. They all graduated from Chattahoochee High School in Georgia, trained at the Dynamo Swim Club in Atlanta, and swam competitively for the University of Georgia. They all raced with Chase Kalisz, who beat out Jay to win gold in the 400-meter IM.

But Jay, a citizen of both Japan and America, was the only one to make it to Japan. Fluent in Japanese and eager to enjoy his favorite foods around town, he will have to wait till conditions improve in Japan to really celebrate. For now, he has a silver medal and a chance for more.

 

Yuto Horigome: The son of a taxi driver in Tokyo, who used to skateboard, Yuto Horigomo would go the park and skateboard with his dad. Somehow the son became a phenom, who was shuttled to California in 2016 to learn from the best.

Today, Horigomo is considered a favorite to win gold. In fact, he recently defeated another favorite, American Nyjah Huston, at the 2021 Street Skateboarding World Championship held in Rome in June.

As Dew Tour, a sponsor of American tournaments, put it, “Yuto’s skating is a shocking combination of massive rails and gaps and hyper-balanced flip-in, flip-out ledge wizardry. If that weren’t enough, he’s got vert skills, as well—including padless McTwists. Yuto is the definition of an all-terrain vehicle.”

 

Rui Hachimura: Hachimura went to NCAA basketball powerhouse, Gonzaga University from 2016 to 2019, and then was selected 9th in the NBA draft by the Washington Wizards. Gonzaga was famed for its international recruiting, but the coaches were surprised at how little English Hachimura spoke.

Well, that’s par for the course for Japanese. Hachimura is born and raised in Toyama, an out-of-the-way sea-side prefecture, and one of the least populated in Japan. He played basketball through high school in Japan.

His biracial features, a product of a Japanese mother and a father from Benin, make him stick out of the everyday Japanese crowd. But from his respectful nods and his soft-spoken nature, his mannerisms are Japanese.

In Japan’s own nod to the growing importance of being seen as diverse, Hachimura was given the honor of Japan’s flag bearer in the parade of athletes, a very tall, biracial representative of Japan.

 

Naomi Osaka: Born in the city of her last name, Osaka is ranked #2 in the world in women’s tennis. Due to a high level of self awareness and ability to align her values to the times, and communicate them in an authentic and humble manner, Osaka has become one of the most marketable brands today.

The child of a Japanese mother, Tamaki Osaka, and a Haitian father, Leonard Francois, Osaka and her older sister were taken to New York to live with her father’s parents. Francois was impressed by the rise of the Williams sisters in tennis, and sought to emulate Venus and Serena’s father, Richard Williams, and train his own daughters to become a powerful tennis tandem.

Osaka trained primarily in America, but her parents thought it best for Naomi to represent Japan. But in many ways, Osaka’s aura crosses boundaries, and is a global fan favorite. As if to bookend Hachimura’s symbolic role in representing Japan at the opening ceremony, Osaka represented the world by lighting the cauldron with the Olympic flame.

 

Kanoa Igarashi: Kanoa Igarashi, a handsome flashy surfer for Japan, technically, was conceived in Japan. He was actually born in Huntington Beach, California. When Igarashi’s mother, Misa learned she was with child, she and her husband, Tsutomu, decided to move the family to the United States with dreams of creating a star in Surf City.

Like the father of Tiger Woods, who choreographed the golfing great’s career from Tiger’s childhood, Tsutomu envisioned a future champion in his baby’s face. From the age of 3, Tsutomu would take Kanoa to the beaches of California in the early mornings, shaping the habits that would earn Kanoa his first championship at the age of 7.

In 2018, anticipating the benefits of competing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Igarashi changed his nationality from USA to Japan, to become the face of Japanese surfing.

As surfing writer, Daniel Duane wrote, Igarashi is “a smooth-muscled, 22-year-old pro surfer with peroxide-blond hair and the youthful beauty of a boy-band teen idol in a comic book about young rock stars who become space warriors to save the galaxy.”


Naomi Osaka

Naomi Osaka is the 2018 US Open champion, the first Japanese to win a grand slam tennis championship, let alone make it to the semi-finals of one.

And as most sports fans know today, her victory was most bittersweet. Osaka defeated her idol, Serena Williams, who had a monumental emotional meltdown in the second set of the Open finals. Engaging in a battle of wills, Williams and umpire, Carlos Ramos, turned the last 30 minutes of the match into an emotionally charged, penalty-filled drama which helped determine the final outcome.

What should have been the happiest moment in the 20-year-old’s career was instead rendered unexpectedly painful.

Naomi Osaka was crowned champion, after a display of dominant tennis, but thanks to the rain of boos from the New York crowd who sided with Williams, Osaka could only weep for playing a role in the humiliation of her hero. She initially believed the crowd was booing her, which is heartbreaking to think about.

In answer to the question about her dream to play in a finals match against Serena, she replied “I’m going to sort of differ from your question. I’m sorry. I know everyone was cheering for her. I’m sorry it had to end like this.” As soon as Osaka said that, you could hear the crowd groaning in regret for their boos. As the groans turned to cheers, she did something so very Japanese, simply thanking the audience for being there. “I just want to say thank you for watching the match. Thank you.”

With those last two words, she nodded her head in a bow, like so many Japanese do unconsciously every day.

Naomi Osaka, the daughter of a Japanese mother and a Haitian father, does not at first glance appear Japanese. And it is not uncommon for children of mixed race to stick out uncomfortably in Japanese society, sometimes bullied for appearing different.

But in that moment, I suspect many Japanese who watched Osaka’s body language closely, recognized her as their own. Yomiuri, which owns the largest newspaper in Japan, called Osaka a “new heroine that Japan is proud of.”

Terebi Asahi Live_Naomi Osaka
Terebi Asahi Live, September 13, 2018

In the days after Osaka’s US Open championship victory, the Japanese media was thoroughly won over. On the September 13 broadcast of Terebi Asahi Live, the commentators highlighted the reasons why the Japanese of all ages have fallen in love with Naomi Osaka. Among several reasons, they cited qualities that exemplify Japanese values:

  • The gap between her cool on the court and her awkwardness in front of the press
  • Her caring comments about other players
  • Her shy smile and even her broken Japanese.

Awkward Cool: In her appearance on the highly popular talk show Ellen, she answered the first question about becoming the US Open champion by saying, “I’m sorry but it’s so weird…like you’re a real person?” To which, Ellen Degeneres replied that she was indeed real. As many have noted, she puts on no airs in front of the cameras. What you see is what you get.

Caring Comments: In the awards ceremony of the US Open, Osaka was asked what it felt to be the first Japanese, male or female, to win a grand slam final. Again, deflecting the focus off her, she replied that was her dream to play Serena Williams in a US Open Finals. “I’m really glad I was able to do that,” she said looking at Williams. “I am really grateful I was able to play with you. Thank you.”

And again, the head bow to Serena, something so out of place in New York, and so overtly Japanese in its humility.

Naomi Osaka has charmed the world. And Japan has quite unexpectedly made her their own. Even the Japanese government, one run by the fairly conservative Liberal Democratic Party, has slowly eased into the idea that Japan needs to allow greater inflows of foreign immigrants. The Foreign Minister, Taro Kono, explained on September 13 to the World Economic Forum that Japan has to accept more foreigners due to its aging population and low birth rate, citing Naomi Osaka as a symbol for how Japan can benefit from increased immigration.

It’s good to have diversity,” Kono said. “It’s good to have an open policy.”

Before the US Open, there was some hope that a Japanese would win gold at the 2020 Olympics in front of the home crowd. As Naomi Osaka is the newly crowned Queen of tennis, that hope has blossomed into full-blown expectation.