Is Japan’s 2020 Olympic bid going up in smoke?
Visitors to Japan are often surprised to see the kind of cigarette advertising that has long been outlawed in most countries. Ads at sporting events, in particular, seem especially out of place.
At volleyball matches, which are a big deal in Japan, many of the fans are screaming teenage girls, but one tobacco company’s ads are as ubiquitous as the cute mascots, inflatable clappers and TV cameras that broadcast Japan’s games in prime time.
Though Japan has won nothing on the world stage since 1976, but finished fourth in women’s and 10th in men’s events this year, it has hosted the World Cup of Volleyball every four years since 1977, thanks in part to funding from sponsors such as Japan Tobacco.
Arenas are packed for Japan’s games, but empty—sometimes fewer than 100 fans—for higher-ranked teams from the United States, Italy, Brazil, Russia, China and elsewhere.
At this year’s event, Japan national team members wore a Japan Tobacco logo on their shoulders.
Japan, the United States and other nations played in front of court-side digital billboards that beamed the green JT mark to TV audiences in countries that ban any tobacco association with athletics.
The JT logo was even found on free packages handed out to fans, including children, entering Yoyogi National Stadium. The package includes a pamphlet showing Japan Tobacco’s projects with young people and glossy brochures about JT’s national league teams, the JT Thunder and JT Marvelous, which feature Yoshie Takeshita, the idol of many schoolgirls, wearing the JT logo on her chest.
Japan Tobacco says it “abides by all laws and voluntary codes in Japan,” where 40 percent of males and 10 percent of females smoke.
“Nowhere in our corporate sponsorship of volleyball games do we advertise our cigarette brands or products,” the company said in an unsigned email.
Hiroshi Takeuchi, a veteran Kyodo News sportswriter and a press delegate for Japan’s national teams at recent Olympic Games, said in his position as chief World Cup press commissioner that Japan Tobacco is deemed a sponsor “in the beverage category” because it also has a division selling drinks.
Many smokers who come to Japan to enjoy cheaper cigarette prices and the freedom to light up in restaurants, bars, hotel rooms and playgrounds, also see nothing wrong with it since JT, whose stock value is up 30% this year, is pouring money into events that need funding.
But increasing numbers of sports travelers from oversea, and doctors in Japan and at the United Nations, are fuming.
Dr Manabu Sakuta, chairman of the Board of Directors of the Japan Society for Tobacco Control, which includes 2,500 doctors and 12 lawyers, calls it “complete nonsense.”
“It doesn’t matter if Japan Tobacco is doing various [kinds of] work,” he says. “Everybody knows that Japan Tobacco’s main business is tobacco. Their target is young females, and they sponsor volleyball because most young females are fond of volleyball.”
Japan’s Ministry of Health said in a report to the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) in February 2010 that nearly 10% of boys and 5% of girls age 16 to 18 smoke.
The numbers rise to 42% and 14% for people in their 20s. Only 33 percent of Japanese men say they have never smoked. Researchers predict cancer rates will skyrocket in Japan in coming years, especially for women.
The WHO, based in Geneva, Switzerland, says that Japan is legally obliged to comply with a treaty it adopted in 2004 along with 173 other nations—the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which comprehensively bans all tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship everywhere, including at sporting events, says WHO press officer Timothy O’Leary.
Dr Armando Peruga, program manager of the WHO’s Tobacco Free Initiative, said the WHO is contacting the Fédération International de Volleyball (FIVB), based in Lausanne, Switzerland), to “convey our disappointment at their actions and to remind them that in 2002 they publicly committed to have a tobacco-free sport.”
Peruga also said tobacco sponsorship is “ethically reprehensible because it pursues the promotion of a deadly drug that kills up to one half of its customers when used as manufacturers intend.
“Tobacco sponsorship further defines the irresponsibility of the sponsors, of those who take the money and those who make excuses under the illusion that a tobacco sponsor is a multi-product company.”
The Framework Convention Alliance, which includes hundreds of anti-smoking organizations worldwide, is also urging Japan to honor its treaty obligations.
Dr Sakuta, who is also a professor of neurology at Tokyo’s Kyorin University and the Japan Red Cross Medical Center, says his group will petition Japan’s Ministry of Finance, which owns 51 percent of shares in Japan Tobacco, to immediately halt what he calls “illegal” tobacco advertising.
“Even if the Japanese government stays silent, the world is looking down upon it,” he says. “If the Ministry of Finance leaves these things as it is, this is a violation of the Japanese Constitution to obey international law.”
Some activists have urged athletes to boycott playing in Japan in the future. The athletes and coaches themselves have made no public comments on the issue, and the Japanese press hasn’t asked them.
The FIVB, and the Japan Volleyball Association, are not exactly welcoming to the world press. At a sold-out U.S.-Japan women’s match in Tokyo last November, only a Canadian writer and an Italian photographer, both hired by FIVB, were seen working among almost 100 Japanese media.
Though Americans invented volleyball in 1895, U.S. media were denied accreditation.
During last year’s world championships in Japan, police in Hamamatsu, as if preparing for a riot, surrounded many local workers and residents of Brazilian descent, who were harmlessly singing, pounding drums and dancing in the stands to celebrate a Brazil victory.
Dr Sakuta says that Japan’s attitude could ultimately harm Tokyo Gov Shintaro Ishihara’s bid to host the 2020 Olympics, because the International Olympic Committee has enforced a policy against tobacco usage and sponsorship since the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary.
“It is going to be a problem for Japan,” says Dr Sakuta. “What they are doing at the World Cup volleyball is absolutely forbidden in the Olympics.”
Tokyo has already unveiled its Olympic campaign logo, a garland of cherry blossoms, and Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has said he will serve as a “top adviser” to the bid committee.
Tokyo, Doha, Baku, Istanbul, Madrid and Rome are expected to enter bids by the February deadline and the International Olympic Committee will announce the host city in 2013.
Dr Sakuta says his group could stage protests outside venues if JT continues to sponsor future events.
While the world’s greatest athletes huff and puff on the court, the battle over tobacco sponsorship, and Japan’s smoking policies, will continue to smolder behind the scenes.
In 2012, Japan is set to host Olympic volleyball qualifying tournaments for women from May 12 to 20, and for men from May 26 to June 3. Japan’s national volleyball league season, featuring top players from Japan, South Korea, China and elsewhere, runs at arenas across Japan from Dec 10, 2011 to March 24, 2012.