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EU and Japan hold high-level policy dialogue on loneliness and social isolation

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Democracy and Demography Vice President Dubravka Šuica (pictured) held a meeting with Japanese Loneliness Minister Tetsushi Sakamoto, to exchange knowledge and best practices on tackling the global phenomenon of loneliness and social isolation, heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, a survey has shown that a quarter of EU citizens claim they felt lonely, more than half of the time. Vice-President Šuica said: ”While the pandemic has amplified the effect, loneliness is not a new phenomenon, nor is it limited to the EU. I look forward to the outcomes of our exchange with Japan; we have much to learn from each other to ensure the wellbeing of citizens and to find solutions to this phenomenon that knows no borders.”

The Commission is fully committed to tackling the negative effects of loneliness. Research shows that it has significant impacts on social cohesion, physical and mental health, and ultimately on economic outcomes. To further asses its impacts, Vice President Šuica has launched an evidence-building process with an upcoming report by the Joint Research Centre, which will lay the ground for further work on loneliness, including a pilot project on loneliness at EU level. The exchange is happening against the backdrop of excellent bilateral relations between the EU and Japan and follows last month's EU-Japan summit, underpinning increasing cooperation and the strength of the strategic partnership between EU and Japan. Read the joint statement here.

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Tokyo opening ceremony reflects the true purpose of the Olympics

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While the last-minute sacking of show director Kentaro Kobayashi represented one final, unanticipated distraction in the lead-up to the 2020/2021 Tokyo Olympics, Friday’s (23 July) opening ceremony made it very clear that the long awaited Games are going full speed ahead, carried by the hopes of thousands of athletes and billions of fans watching from Europe and around the world.

Organized amidst unprecedented restrictions as the Covid-19 pandemic continues to disrupt major events and international travel, the Tokyo Games are nonetheless set to offer a brief, cherished respite from the suffering caused by the pandemic, all while serving as a model for global cooperation as the planet struggles to coordinate an unprecedented vaccination drive.

Despite some voices calling for the event to be cancelled, the opening ceremony at Tokyo’s National Stadium reminded the small audience allowed into the stadium, and the much larger one watching on television, of the majesty and magic of the Olympic Games.

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The Olympic Spirit

Earlier this week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres described the Olympic Spirit as bringing out “humanity’s best” in a message of congratulations to the qualified athletes, as well as to the host country of Japan. He continued by saying that the global community can achieve anything if it applies the same principles to global challenges.

While some media outlets began referring to the 2020 Tokyo Games as the “COVID Olympics” the chagrin of the host country, many thousands of people in Japan and around the world worked tirelessly to make the games happen under unprecedented conditions, while thousands of athletes who have now arrived in Japan trained through the uncertainty of the pandemic for the chance to compete.

But while the association with the global health crisis is inescapable, the next several weeks will ultimately decide how that association will be remembered in the years and decades to come. As its organizers have made clear, the Tokyo Games are the perfect opportunity for the entire world to come together and celebrate human achievement in face of adversity.

'Outrageous and unacceptable'

Those organizers have overcome no small amount of adversity themselves in getting these Olympics across the finish line. Just one day before the ceremony, show director Kentaro Kobayashi was dismissed following the emergence of a comedy sketch from the 1990s in which he made a reference to the Holocaust as part of a joke. The Japanese Olympic Committee reacted quickly, sacking Kobayashi mere hours after the video began circulating on social media.

Kobayashi issued a statement of apology in which he said that “it should never be the job of an entertainer to make people feel uncomfortable”. His sacking was accompanied by condemnations from senior political figures in the country, including prime minister Yoshihide Suga, who described the joke as "outrageous and unacceptable".

While Kobayashi’s poor judgement represented the latest headache for an Olympic organizing committee tasked with making sure the Games would go on in the face of unprecedented adversity, Friday’s ceremony demonstrated how the Olympics could still bring people together, even in the middle of the most severe health crisis in living memory.

Adding to a tradition of resilience

Indeed, for over a century, the Olympic Games have served as a stage for celebrating achievements of athletes from wildly different social, ethnic or religious backgrounds. The Tokyo Games, by offering much-needed distraction and wonder for billions of people across the globe, promise to be no different.

Far from ignoring the lessons of the pandemic, the Games have leveraged the historic breakthroughs made in developing COVID-19 vaccines. With a vaccination rate buoyed to above 80% thanks to months of collaboration between Pfizer and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Olympic Village managed to achieve herd immunity by the time the first events of these Olympics took place.

With the International Olympic Committee having more members than even the United Nations, the Games are one of the few truly global events on our planet. At a time of growing international tension, the Olympics can serve as a reconciliatory factor, reminding the world that friendly rivalry and competing excellence is preferable to conflict and resentment.

While this edition of the Games might take place with almost no spectators in the stands, the next few weeks should still help bring people and nations together at a time when global co-operation on issues of public health and climate change have never been so important.

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China’s aggressive foreign policy pushes Europe and Japan towards defence cooperation

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Addressing the European Parliament’s subcommittee on security and defence for the first time last week, Japanese defence minister Nobuo Kishi put forward a clear message from Tokyo as the European Union mulls over its Indo-Pacific strategy ahead of publication later this year: in order to counter China’s ambitions for dominance in the hotly disputed South China Sea, the European Union and its member states must “visibly increase their military presence.”

In some ways, it is a request Europe has already accepted. Since January of this year, Japan’s Self-Defence Forces (SDF) have undertaken a significantly expanded schedule of joint drills with units from partner countries in the ‘Quad’ – a regional grouping that includes Japan, the United States, India, and Australia – but also from Europe, with Japan’s Maritime and Ground SDFs training with French counterparts on multiple occasions. After the EU released an initial version of its Indo-Pacific strategy on 19 April, putting forward its intention to “reinforce its strategic focus” on the region “based on the promotion of democracy, rule of law, human rights and international law” with “like-minded partners,” Brussels castigated Beijing for stoking tensions in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

As European officials themselves will admit, however, symbolic gestures towards military re-engagement in and around the South China Sea – be in the form of joint drills or British and German warships sailing through the region – do not reflect any sort of willingness on the part of EU or UK leaders to challenge China’s bid for regional hegemony directly. Instead, both Asian and European governments concerned by the implications of China’s rise are coming to recognise the urgent need for multilateral engagement to preserve the rules-based international order Beijing is brazenly challenging.

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China’s failed attempt to divide and conquer

Prior to the election of President Joe Biden in the United States last November, it could hardly be taken for granted that the Indo-Pacific and international players impacted by Chinese provocations across Asia would be able to align themselves into a meaningful coalition in opposition to Beijing. With the Trump administration touching off a rapid deterioration in trans-Atlantic relations, Xi Jinping took advantage of the uncertainty surrounding American commitments to its Asian allies to cement China’s position as the economic heart of the Asia-Pacific.

With a new president in office in Washington, however, the direction of the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy makes clear Europe is ready to align its approach to China with that of the US. Thanks in large part to its own “wolf warrior” diplomacy, Beijing has watched its largely successful effort to sow discord between European and American policies towards China during the Trump administration blow up in its face, to be replaced by an unprecedented slate of coordinated sanctions around the ethnic cleansing of China’s Uyghur minority and the collapse of plans for an EU-China free trade deal.

As Europe’s relations with China have deteriorated, its willingness to offer concrete support to allies in the Indo-Pacific has expanded. That support is not limited to security and defence issues, where the EU’s capabilities are obviously limited, but also to the economic and diplomatic interests of key EU partners such as Taiwan and the Philippines. The recent G7 summit in Cornwall, which the US delegation sought to turn into a forum on the shared threat posed to US, UK, EU, and Japanese interests, produced a commitment to develop an alternative to China’s New Silk Road and challenge China’s abuses of human rights and its repression of the Hong Kong democracy movement.

Personnel is policy

Nonetheless, as the experience of the past four years taught policymakers in both Europe and Asia, crafting a multilateral alliance that can survive sudden changes among a set of actors as diverse as the US, EU, and Quad requires the leadership of officials who can successfully navigate political headwinds in any of these countries. Of all the longstanding US allies, Japan’s leadership has done the best job of maintaining healthy working relationships with both the Trump and Biden administrations, thanks to officials such as Shigeru Kitamura, the Japanese National Security Secretariat’s Secretary General.

Kitamura, who played a critical role in establishing productive ties between Japanese premier Yoshihide Suga and the Trump administration after Shinzo Abe left office last year, played a similar role in navigating the transition between Trump and Biden and took part in a key trilateral meeting with his American and Korean counterparts in Annapolis, Maryland this past April. That summit, hosted by Biden national security advisor (NSA) Jake Sullivan, covered many of the thorniest issues facing the three allies, including US policies towards North Korea under the Biden administration but also the security of technologically sensitive supply chains in the region.

While that level of experience in navigating the political whiplash between two radically different American presidents might have been invaluable in navigating the vagaries of the 27-member European Union, recent reports in Japanese media indicate Shigeru Kitamura would be replaced by Takeo Akiba, a veteran diplomat that toes a much softer line on China. The reports have not been confirmed by the government, but the spectre of Tokyo replacing one of the officials with the strongest ties to Washington does not bode well for the bilateral relationship. Suga himself is likely facing new elections in the fall – at around the same time Japan will find out whether the EU has listened to its pleas for expanded engagement in the finalised Indo-Pacific strategy.

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As unpredictable Games looms, Japan’s sponsors struggle to adapt

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With less than two months left until the start of the Tokyo Olympic Games, Japan’s Asahi Breweries still doesn’t know whether fans will be allowed into stadiums to buy its beer, write Maki Shiraki and Eimi Yamamitsu.

Japan has scaled back its Olympic plans amid the COVID-19 pandemic and a slow vaccine roll-out. Now, foreign spectators won't be allowed in the country and organisers have yet to decide how many domestic spectators, if any, can attend.

More than 60 Japanese companies together paid a record of more than $3 billion to sponsor the Tokyo Games, an event most Japanese now want cancelled or delayed again. Sponsors paid another $200 million to extend contracts after the Games were delayed last year.

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Many sponsors are uncertain how to proceed with advertising campaigns or marketing events, according to 12 officials and sources at companies directly involved in sponsorship.

Asahi has the exclusive rights to sell beer, wine and non-alcoholic beer at the stadiums. But it won’t know more until there is a decision about domestic spectators, a spokesman said. That is expected to happen around June 20, toward the end of the current state of emergency in Tokyo.

Even if spectators are allowed, the Tokyo government has no plans to allow alcohol at its public viewing sites outside venues, a representative said.

Asahi hasn't made major marketing changes yet, the spokesman said. In May it started selling its "Super Dry" beer with a new Tokyo 2020 design, as planned.

From the start, Japan seized on the Olympics as a rare marketing opportunity: Tokyo's bid touted "omotenashi" - exquisite hospitality.

But sponsors have grown frustrated with what they see as slow decision-making and have complained to organisers, according to one of the sources, an employee of a sponsor company.

"There are so many different scenarios that we can't prepare," said the source, who like most of the people interviewed at sponsors declined to be identified because the information isn't public.

Companies have vented to organisers, while lower-tier sponsors complain their concerns aren't being heeded, the source said.

Sponsors are divided into four categories, with global sponsors, who usually have multi-year deals, at the top. The other three tiers are companies whose contracts are solely for the Tokyo Games.

In response to Reuters questions about sponsors' facing difficulty because of the delayed decision on spectators, the Tokyo organising committee said it was working closely with partners and all stakeholders.

It also said the committee was still talking with relevant parties about how to handle spectators, and was considering factors such as effectiveness, feasibility and cost.

About 60% of Japanese favour cancelling or delaying the event, a recent poll showed. Japan’s government, the International Olympic Committee and Tokyo organisers have said the Games will go ahead.

LOST OPPORTUNITY

For global sponsor Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T), the Games were a chance to showcase its latest technology. It had planned to roll out about 3,700 vehicles, including 500 Mirai hydrogen fuel-cell sedans, to shuttle athletes and VIPs among venues.

It also planned to use self-driving pods to carry athletes around the Olympic village.

Such vehicles will still be used, but on a much smaller scale - a "far cry from what we had hoped and envisioned," a Toyota source said. A full-scale Olympics, the source said, would have been a "grand moment for electric cars".

A Toyota spokeswoman declined to comment on whether there were any changes to its marketing.

Wireless carrier NTT Docomo Inc had considered campaigns to demonstrate 5G technology, but the company is waiting to see what organisers decide about domestic spectators, a representative said.

Travel agencies JTB Corp and Tobu Top Tours Co launched Games-related packages in mid-May, but their websites indicate those could be cancelled.

Tobu Top Tours "foresaw that situations would change by the minute," but is selling its packages as planned, a spokesman said. The travel agency and JTB said they would refund customers if no spectators are allowed or the Games get cancelled.

Olympic sponsors had planned to offer Japan's top CEOs itineraries that included welcome parties with celebrities and famous athletes, private cars and lounges, the employee at the sponsor company said.

Some companies have now reduced those plans to Games tickets paired with hotel stays or gifts, the person said.

"There's a much more direct and immediate impact, obviously, on local advertisers, local participants and local businesses because of that lack of tourists and attendees," said Christie Nordhielm, an associate teaching professor of marketing at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business.

REPUTATION RISK

Some domestic firms, worried about opposition to the Games, have called off plans for commercials featuring Olympic athletes or supporting Japanese national teams, said a person with direct knowledge of the matter, and the employee at the sponsor, who was briefed on the issue.

"I'm worried that by airing Olympic ads, it could be negative for the company," said a source at a domestic sponsor. "At this point, no amount of publicity we could get would make up for what we paid."

International advertisers still want to focus on Japan because of the Olympics, said Peter Grasse, founding producer of Mr+Positive, a Tokyo-based advertising production company.

But their message has shifted away from the standard images of Olympic triumph.

"I don't think people have written those triumphant scripts," Grasse said. "It's a much more kind of muted respect for humanity."

Some top-tier global sponsors, whose contracts run until 2024, are scaling down Tokyo promotions and deferring budgets for Beijing in 2022 or Paris in 2024, said a second person with direct knowledge of the matter, and the employee of the sponsor company who was briefed on the issue.

But domestic sponsors don't have another Olympics.

"That's why we can't simply quit," said the source at the domestic sponsor. "Even if the marketing is ineffective."

($1 = 109.4000 yen)

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