Seizing the opportunity offered by the Olympics

The Olympics are coming to our neighborhood! Signs of it are everywhere. The promenade along the river in my neighborhood is being refurbished. Our apartment building is changing out the elevators to hold more people. One third of all taxis in Tokyo, as well as quite a few buses, are being replaced with larger, more ecofriendly models. Tsukiji Fish Market, the largest fish market in the world, has moved to its new home in Toyosu. Construction is going on everywhere. Twenty-one new residential buildings for 18,000 people are being developed in the Olympic Village, just blocks from our home. New train lines are being built from airports. And this past summer, large touchscreens for buying train and subway tickets were installed at some stations, with English as the main language.

A symbol of hope

The excitement and reconstruction now transforming the city hearken back to 1959, when Tokyo won the bid to host the 1964 Olympic Games, the first city in Asia to receive the honor. At that time, Tokyo looked nothing like it does today. The city was poor and still recovering from the ravages of World War Two. Buildings were poorly made and the sewage system was atrocious. However, with the coming of the Olympics, construction projects inundated the city. The Tokkaido bullet train between Tokyo and Osaka opened the same time as the Games. Thousands of buildings, the Shuto Expressway, stadiums, hotels, and subway lines were constructed. And Haneda Airport, complete with monorail access into downtown Tokyo, was modernized. Symbolizing resilience and hope for the future, Yoshinori Sakai—born in Hiroshima on the day the atomic bomb was dropped—lit the Olympic flame in the Opening Ceremony.

In the midst of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disasters of 2011, Tokyo began its campaign to once again host the Olympics in order to “bring hope and realize dreams” in Japan through the power of sports. They won their bid in 2013.

The mascots, voted on by over 200,000 elementary school children, give a tangible shape to this message. Miraitowa, the mascot for the Olympics, represents eternal hope for the future; and Someity (pronounced “So Mighty” in English), the mascot for the Paralympics, represents the “overcoming of all obstacles to redefine the boundaries of possibility.”1 Because the name Someity comes from a popular version of cherry tree, Someiyoshino, it also reveals Japan’s soft spot for the “mighty” beauty found in fragility and weakness.

These are the “reconstruction games.” Baseball, softball, and soccer will be held in Fukushima, Miyagi, and Ibaraki, prefectures devastated by the disaster. The “Flame of Recovery,” made partly from recycled aluminum from temporary housing in Fukushima, will make its way to Minami Soma, the closest city to the broken nuclear power plant, on Day 1. From there, the flame will continue through every other region of Japan on its four-month journey.

The 2020 Olympic Games will run from July 24 to August 9, followed closely by the Paralympics from August 25 to September 6. Tokyo will be the first city in the world to host the Paralympic Games for a second time. The mission of the Paralympics is huge. It is a sporting event designed to change the world, promoting awareness and reducing stigma of disabilities. Though organizers may have had trouble filling stadiums in past Games, this is not predicted to be the case in Tokyo. Event times were chosen so families can attend and prices are kept deliberately low. Tokyo promises to provide the best Paralympics Games ever.

A role for the church

I will never forget the flurry of activity surrounding the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake. The world’s gaze was on Japan. There was a palpable urgency in our mission. People needed food, water, and supplies, and the Japanese church jumped into action to meet those needs. Nine years later, we still see the fruit of their labor. Churches engaged the communities around them in new and deeper ways, and relationships of trust were built between denominations in ways never seen before. The church in Japan had a new vision and pathway for renewal.

Churches from cities that hosted past Olympics and Paralympics tell me they saw similar fruit from ministries during Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000, Athens 2004, Vancouver 2010, London 2012, and Rio de Janeiro 2016. Now, for the second time in a decade, God is giving the church in Japan a unique opportunity to engage with our society and grow stronger. Once again, the eyes of the world will be on Japan, and this time we have time to prepare. Ministries surrounding the Olympics are not just about one-time events, but about meeting very real needs in the city.

I’ve already noticed a feeling of alienation among Japanese people. Over 90% of those who applied for tickets weren’t able to get a single ticket to even the least popular of sporting events. Although the Olympics motto is “Unity in Diversity,” many do not feel that unity or inclusion. Churches, however, can invite people into their communities with the opposite message—Come celebrate with us! There is nothing more unifying in our diversity than the mysterious love of the Trinity expressed through our community. Ministries are working toward opening cafes and event spaces as ministry hubs around downtown Tokyo, establishing a deeper physical presence in the city where people can always find Christian community and learn about upcoming events, modeled after Christian centers opened in the disaster area after 2011. Performers and speakers, many from overseas, will rotate through these locations with tremendous amounts of energy and activity. This collaborative network working together will provide a firm foundation for the next decade of church growth in Tokyo.

The Olympics also help us understand the gospel in deeper ways. What keeps athletes (and artists) going through all the blood, sweat, and tears? Why do they sacrifice so much for their sport in terms of injury, time, and money? What are they pursuing? Next year, on June 27, at the REACH International Arts & Sports Festival, many will gather to explore these questions in a festival of talks, performances, and art. We will also investigate how the Olympic Games inspire the human heart and create space for transcendence.2

The Paralympics push us to reach beyond our limitations and boundaries in a fallen world (like the mascot Someity) to catch glimpses of how Jesus has overcome the world (John 16:33 NIV). Triumph through suffering, overcoming insurmountable challenges, and the Japanese aesthetic of beauty in the wounded and broken all point us to Christ, who is the ultimate model of victory through weakness. More information on the conference can be found at: https://communityarts.jp/festival2020

A time to pray

“Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jer. 29:7)

The most important role of the church is to pray. There is a spiritual battle going on for the life of our city. In preparation for the 1964 Games, Japan far overstretched itself with building projects and debt. Many worry the same will happen this time. Enormous sums of money are being borrowed to bring hope to post-tsunami Japan. Taxes will rise. Property values will plummet as many new homes, apartments, and hotels flood the market.

Many plan to evacuate Tokyo during the Olympics to avoid crowds and nuisance. Expressways are already being shut down for short periods of time (I experienced this personally the other day) to test optimization of traffic for athletes and spectators. Tolls will be increased. Companies will have to stagger commuting hours or consider having their employees work from home. Already tired, overworked, and on edge, people will experience even more frustration and stress.

The GRACE2020 bilingual prayer app and website (www.grace2020.org) will lead people from June 9 until the last day of the Paralympics on September 6 in 90 days of prayer for Tokyo and the nation of Japan, bringing people together from around the world. OMF and Pioneers are collaborating on a prayer booklet of 30 key topics for Japan that will lead people in prayer long after the Olympics is over. May this city be filled with an abundance of God’s grace through prayer as a foundation for the next decade of church planting in Tokyo and beyond.

You don’t have to be Eric Liddell to be a missionary involved in the Olympics. The church has an important role to pray for our city and nation. As the eyes of the world once again turn toward Japan, let’s turn our gaze towards Christ and seize the day—identifying the needs of Japan and praying for God’s presence to fill this nation.

1. Tokyo 2020 Olympics Guidebook, Tokyo Metropolitan Government https://tokyo2020.org/jp/games/plan/data/tokyo2020-guidebook-en.pdf, accessed Oct. 22, 2019.

2. Making Space for Transcendence in Secular Japan, Japan Harvest, Summer 2019, 12–13.

Photo submitted by author

Roger W. Lowther (US), director of faith and art at Grace City Church Tokyo, director of Community Arts Tokyo, and coordinator of MAKE Collective (international network of missionary artists), has served with Mission to the World since 2005.

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