Connection will boost Tohoku’s regeneration 

Yanai Michihiko says he decided to take the opportunity to know Tohoku properly
Yanai Michihiko says he decided to take the opportunity to know Tohoku properly

Tokyo 2020 Nippon Festival creative director talks about the significance of Tokyo 2020 Games cultural projects to people in the disaster-hit area

As a native of Fukushima Prefecture, YANAI Michihiko is well aware of the mixed feelings some people will have towards the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.

In 2011, a magnitude-9 earthquake struck off the coast of Tohoku which is situated on Japan’s Honshu island and triggered a devastating tsunami. Nine years after the disaster, reconstruction and restoration efforts are still ongoing in the region where Fukushima Prefecture is located.

When Tokyo was chosen to be the host city for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, some of Yanai’s friends from Tohoku were concerned.

“They said it’s not the right time to host the Games. Many people thought that the Tohoku reconstruction should not be delayed because of the Games,” said Yanai, a professor at Tokyo University of the Arts and a professional guitar player.

Over the years, he has been active in empowering the people of Tohoku through his performances and various cultural events.

Despite the divided views, Yanai believes the Tokyo 2020 Games will be a good chance for people in and outside Japan to learn about Tohoku and to visit the region. The Tokyo 2020 Games have been labelled as ‘Reconstruction Games’ and with this in mind, Yanai took on the role as creative director for one of the projects in "TOKYO 2020 NIPPON FESTIVAL" — the official cultural programme of the Games.

Yanai Michihiko, Creative Director of Tokyo 2020 Nippon Festival's Rediscover Tohoku programme
Yanai Michihiko, Creative Director of Tokyo 2020 Nippon Festival's Rediscover Tohoku programme

“I think it would be great if the presence of people from Tohoku brings a better understanding of that area to people from overseas, some of whom think nobody lives in Tohoku or Fukushima anymore. Some think residents there wear decontamination suits in their daily life,” said Yanai.

The role has personal significance to him as well — he was born in 1964, when Tokyo hosted the Olympic and Paralympic Games for the first time.

Yanai collaborated with several renowned Japanese artists and writers to create the project “Rediscover Tohoku - Mocco's Journey from Tohoku to Tokyo” which features a 12-metre-high giant puppet named Mocco.

“The strings manipulating the puppet are connected, so the idea behind the doll is to connect people with each other,” Yanai explains. “We want to bring Tohoku’s messages, food and culture to Tokyo.”

Mocco, a doll which is over 10m high, is a major symbol of the project
Mocco, a doll which is over 10m high, is a major symbol of the project

Mocco’s journey from Tohoku to Tokyo

In the Tohoku dialect, Mocco refers to 'a lively, popular, and mischievous person', and its etymology includes a carrying basket.

Children in the disaster-hit prefectures of Fukushima, Iwate and Miyagi helped design Mocco by contributing drawings at workshops.

“They have witnessed the hardship of their parents, the children from Tohoku have a strong desire to help their community and others,” said Yanai.

Starting from May, they will begin an exhibition tour of Mocco in Tohoku, and the journey will continue all the way to Tokyo ahead of the Olympic Games.

“There are people who are trying their best to keep smiling, who think life has come back to normal, and who want to express their gratitude, but there are also people who feel life has just become harder even though it has been almost nine years since the earthquake,” he said.

By introducing Mocco to different people on the exhibition tour, he hopes the project will help make the people of Tohoku think the Tokyo 2020 Games mean something to them.

Mocco design
Mocco design

He also believes that the culture, personality and recovery progress of Tohoku displayed along Mocco’s journey will encourage people from other disaster-stricken areas both at home and abroad.

“This is important for the people of Tohoku, because some of them felt bad about being helped by others all the time while they could not repay the kindness,” he said. “One of the ideas behind this project is to deliver the Tohoku’s message ‘To help each other, to think for each other’.”

Under the idea of the Reconstruction Games, the Olympic Torch Relay will kick off in Fukushima in late March. Fukushima City will also host the Olympic Baseball and Olympic Softball games.

“I hope people visiting Tohoku during the Games will make many friends and engage in many conversations here. If people from Japan and abroad could come and see the vibrant life in Tohoku, this connection will give a chance to Tohoku’s regeneration.”