Tokyo Drift

Marketing the art of Japan

Big sporting events are a window to the world, an opportunity for the host nation to project its best self to the billions of eyeballs that will tune in.

For some, this might be a ‘sportwashing’ – using sport to distract from a country’s political or ethical shortcomings – while for other others it is an opportunity to pull back the curtain and reveal a different or new side to their national character.

Then there are places that can remain enigmatic regardless of the amount of exposure they receive.

Japan is without doubt one of the latter.

2020 will see the country host its fourth Olympics following summer games in 1964 and winter Olympiads in Sapporo in 1972 and Nagano in 1998.

Throw in the dazzlingly successful 2002 World Cup – shared with neighbouring South Korea – and the recent Rugby World Cup and it is clear the Japanese are no strangers to hosting mega events and opening a window to their unique nation.

Despite this, Japan has managed to resist the (largely American) cultural colonialisation that defined the 20thcentury for large swathes of the world, not least the UK.

Beyond a love of baseball, however, a sport introduced by the Americans in the late 19th century, very few imports have managed to radically alter the Japanese way of life.

From a sporting perspective, the list of British imports spending any length of time in Japan is short, to say the least. Gary Lineker’s brief sojourn at Nagoya Grampus 8 accelerated his retirement while James Haskell’s short stint at the Ricoh Black Rams was as much a staging post on the way to a Super Rugby contract with the Highlanders.

A fear of getting lost in translation is perhaps dissuading others from following their path.

When it comes to exports though, Japan is an undisputed heavyweight.

From the obvious – its automotive industry is vast, with Toyota making significantly more cars than anybody else – to the more frivolous – from Tamagotchi to Pokémon the country is responsible for a disproportionate number of childhood crazes – Japan punches way above its weight.

Even in sport, the country has managed to export its athletic talent successfully. The 2002 World Cup threw a spotlight on a generation of footballers, many of whom have appeared in the Premier League including Maya Yoshida, now in his eighth season at Southampton. Meanwhile, 58 Japanese players have featured in Major League Baseball, including record-breaking All-Star right-fielder Ichiro Suzuki.

For at least three decades designers and creatives have looked east for inspiration, riffing off idiosyncratic artistic styles such as Ukiyo-e or Manga. Such cultural reference points will be a starting point for many Olympic sponsors seeking to market their association with Tokyo 2020.

Luckily there is a wealth of examples to draw from previous big events held in Japan.

The BBC trailed their coverage of the 2002 World Cup with a Manga-style film featuring Puff Daddy’s Led Zeppelin homage from the Godzilla soundtrack while more recently ITV fused Manga animation and live action for its Rugby World Cup trailers.

In fact, the hugely successful Rugby World Cup became something of a showcase for Japanese cultural reference points re-imagined through sponsorship marketing.

From the latest iteration of O2’s well-established England Rugby campaign – the Samurai-inspired ‘Wear the Rose: Be Their Armour’ – to’s sponsorship of ITV’s coverage, which brought Japanese philosophy to life through rugby action, there were plenty of examples for Olympic sponsors to ponder.

The ultimate challenge for sponsor brands will be, of course, to find a unique way to take inspiration from Japanese culture while remaining authentic and respectful.

Failure to do so will leave them open to charges of cultural appropriation.

Just ask Dolce and Gabbana.

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