Keeping the Olympic Spirit Alive in Nagano

By Maya Katzir

Maya Katzir worked as a Coordinator for International Relations Nagano Prefecture from 2011 to 2015. She currently attends the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.


With the Rio Olympics underway, I’m reminded of the lasting impact the Olympics can have on a local community. This turned out to be a running theme for me during my four years as a JET in Nagano Prefecture.

I was a CIR in Nagano from 2011-2015, working for the prefectural government. My first year I was in a regional office in a quaint town called Ina, a town that to this day has my heart. My last three years were spent at the main prefectural office in Nagano-shi, a mid-sized city with a steady tourism industry. Over my time there, I had several chances to see first-hand how hosting the 1998 Winter Olympics changed Nagano forever.

Maya with her Eikaiwa students

In both Ina and Nagano-shi, one of my main jobs was to travel around to nearby communities and lead monthly adult eikaiwa (English conversation) classes. My students were mostly retired and came from a variety of backgrounds, but they had one major thing in common: they first started studying English because they wanted to volunteer for the Olympics. Some of these groups had formed as early as 1994. Every member passionate about learning English and about learning about the world outside of Japan. Many of them did end up volunteering, but their desire to learn didn’t disappear as soon as the athletes and reporters went home; 15-20 years later, these same groups were still going strong. Teaching them English and helping them explore new ideas was one of my favorite parts of my job.

The M-Wave

Living in Nagano-shi gave me another insight into the Olympics’ lasting impact. All of the events were held either in the mountains nearby, some of the tallest in Japan and famed for their world-class ski resorts, or in Nagano-shi itself, in arenas built especially for the games. As it turned out, one of these, M-Wave, was right across the street from my new apartment. In fact, my apartment itself was part of a complex that was built as media housing for the Olympics. In a strange way, living there felt like being a small part of history. But one of my favorite things to do was go out onto the balcony of my 5th floor apartment and look at the M-Wave, which had large Olympic rings above the main entrance. At night they would be lit up. At sunset, the whole metallic roof of the massive building would reflect the sky around it. The building, which was used for speed-skating events, is now used for various events and festivals during non-winter months, and in the winter it is iced over and becomes a public skating rink. I visited on one of their monthly “free skate” days, where I was surrounded by throngs of kids and families laughing and having fun in this space, still valued even after it had fulfilled its main purpose.

The International game booth

Every year Nagano holds a major marathon, the Nagano Olympic Commemorative Marathon. Thousands of athletes from several countries descend upon the city in late April to run a course through the city that takes them past Zenkoji, one of the oldest temples in Japan, M-Wave, and several of the other Olympic buildings. They end their run at the Olympic Stadium, where the opening and closing ceremonies were once held. Just outside the stadium a festival full of booths with food and games greets these runners and their families. It was here at this festival that, every year, me, the other CIRs in my office, my co-workers, and a number of ALT volunteers would set up an international game booth. We came up with different fun games and activities that represented different countries, like a baseball mini-game for the US, a poi demonstration for New Zealand, or a game called hane-keri for China, which involves kicking a small feathered toy in the air repeatedly, almost like a hacky sack. We would hand out “passports” to the kids who came to visit the booths, and when they did all the activities and got stamps in their passport, they got candy. I had the unique joy of organizing this event for three years. Every year hundreds of kids came to our booth excited to meet foreigners, play international games, and practice their English while the marathon, a celebration of internationalism and athletic achievement, went on around us.
Even all these years later, it’s clear that the people of Nagano still truly value their Olympic legacy. Those who live there are not only proud of their accomplishment of hosting, but 15 years later, they are still constantly striving to create a welcoming international atmosphere in their communities. As JETs, we are sent to Japan to promote grassroots internationalization. However, interacting with all of the amazing and dedicated people I met there, I truly think that during my time in Nagano, I was the student.
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