Tokyo 2020 Olympics: Japan Stands Up

03/10/2013 17:19 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 23:58 GMT

Proverbs and folk wisdom can offer a thumbnail sketch of how a country thinks. When it comes to Japan, there's a saying guaranteed to make foreign heads nod in any group with experience of the extreme levels of consensus and conformity in Japanese society - 'the nail that stands up is going to be hammered down'. The standard expectation is that the politeness, efficiency and meticulous detail you receive in Japan comes at the price of the character, passion and emotion for which so much of the rest of the world places a high value.

This commonly held opinion of the Japanese character made Tokyo's barnstorming presentation to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Buenos Aires on 7 September all the more surprising to observers - and compelling enough to carry them over the line, with a clear victory in the IOC's vote on the host city for the 2020 Olympic Games. To insiders, the language used in the IOC's celebrated Q&A following a bid city presentation is always a bell-weather of how the members of this exclusive club are thinking. As the questions for Tokyo came forward, the words 'passionate' and 'emotional' were being freely thrown around by IOC members. Faced with a choice of the three bidding cities, IOC members may well already have concluded that Istanbul's political and regional troubles, and Madrid's uncertain recovery from crisis, made Tokyo in theory the logical choice - the 'safe pair of hands' promised by the city's official message. But the vote that followed showed that the IOC had been persuaded they could choose Tokyo not just with their heads, but also with their hearts.

Olympics and hyperbole are old bedfellows, yet it's fair to say that this did seem like an exceptional - perhaps historic - moment for Japan, as though this vote could just mark the end of Japan's two 'lost decades', twenty years of economic flatlining in a country growing ever less confident and more insular. Minutes after the vote a Japanese friend texted me: 'Hello World. Japan is back!'

So how did Tokyo find the courage to step out of its comfort zone? Which factors ultimately swung the balance in the city's favour? As the person who had the responsibility to coach the speakers and develop their presentation, I would cite three: leadership, narrative, and youth.

First must be decisive personal leadership. The highest and traditionally most reticent levels of national leadership threw themselves into this bid. The extent to which Japan's leaders were prepared to be 'the nails that stand up' was captured on camera and beamed around the world at the moment when the Japanese delegation heard they had won. Prime minister Shinzo Abe literally jumped for joy: he must have been a good foot off the ground. He is not a grey politician - and indeed the IOC had seen some of this form from the PM before, during their official visit to Tokyo earlier this year, when Abe burst into song during a formal presentation. The same mood of dynamic and enthusiastic leadership came from Tokyo governor Inose, bid leader and IOC member Takeda, and bid CEO Mizuno as they spoke. On stage, these senior national figures, all of them of pensionable age, not only took on the significant challenge of presenting throughout in English - they also smiled, punched the air and looked the audience in the eye while doing so.

At a more realpolitik level, Abe's very un-Japanese head-on confrontation with the contentious problems of leakage around the Fukushima nuclear plant, backed by unambiguous guarantees, turned a lingering doubt for the IOC into a non-issue. Meanwhile, the emphatic contribution of Princess Takemada showed that even Japan's Imperial Family, constitutionally prevented from direct intervention in such matters, was prepared to stretch the case and put its discreet charm and prestige on the line. International bodies such as the IOC are finely tuned to such nuances.

Second, finding a passionate human narrative. The 2011 tsunami and its devastating human impact came through as a shining example of how sport can help people overcome adversity. You could literally hear a pin drop as Paralympic long jumper Mami Sato, a native of the region hit most severely by the natural disaster, told her story first of her cancer diagnosis and leg amputation, and second of the Tsunami which left her not knowing if her family was still alive for six days. Sport took her out of the despair of cancer, and sport is what she used, alongside hundreds of other athletes, Japanese and international, to rebuild hope and motivation for kids in her hometown after the terrible storm struck. The power of her presentation and the force of her personality summoned those appalling, and redemptive, experiences and offered them to the IOC members as a reminder of the power of sport in the face of even the bleakest of human experiences.

Third, harnessing the energy of Japan's youth. While the country's elderly, male leadership tends to colour perceptions of the country, Tokyo deployed to brilliant effect the energy of the next generation. Besides Paralympian Sato, heart-throb Yuki Ota (double silver medal in fencing at London 2012) and 'Cool Japan' ambassador Christel Takigawa (speaking fluent French with an authentically Parisian sparkle) showed the young, dynamic, international face of Japan too often hiden behind the obligatory parade of senior figures.

There's a lesson in these three winning factors for the rest of Japan - for all those big Japanese corporates whose faceless leadership struggles to engage a world outside Japan, for Japanese politicians and diplomats - and also maybe for others that don't find it easy to make their mark on the international stage: Stand up, stand out, and you may just find that instead of being hammered down, you win gold.