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Best Foot Forward
Steve Rushin
February 16, 1998
As the Nagano Games opened with a spectacle led by sumo king Akebono and choirs on five continents, what dazzled visitors most was that gentlest of Japanese virtues: politeness
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February 16, 1998

Best Foot Forward

As the Nagano Games opened with a spectacle led by sumo king Akebono and choirs on five continents, what dazzled visitors most was that gentlest of Japanese virtues: politeness

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Asswise, these have already been the best Olympics ever, what with the 35 sumo wrestlers who stole the show at the opening ceremonies. The U.S. delegation was led into the stadium by the 440-pound Musashimaru. Knowing that he'd be clad only in a kesho-mawashi, the ceremonial washcloth that passes for a sumo suit, this Hawaiian expatriate had fretted on the eve of the event that "everybody will be looking at my ass." He needn't have worried, for all eyes were on Akebono, the 516-pound sumo superstar from Hawaii, who performed the traditional dohyo-iri ring-entry ceremony, in which the wrestler solemnly stomps out evil spirits. Soon, choirs on five continents were singing a heart-soaring Ode to Joy, and spirits of another kind began flowing. The Games had successfully begun, there would be no call for hara-kiri, and the Japanese turned to another favorite pastime: drinking like Harry Caray.

And why not have the time of your life? Even Akebono referred to his part in m—mm—m the ceremony as "10 minutes of cold, a lifetime of memory," and if a man who is larger than most Japanese cars can be self-effacing, who among us cannot?

Which might explain why Nagano police put out an informal APB for the car owner who left his dome light on, so he might not run down his battery. Passengers on the bullet train apologize when you clock them on the noggin with a suitcase. The karate black belt who runs a Nagano sashimi joint soberly leads you out back after dinner and breaks 15 stacked roofing tiles in half with one shot of his open palm. It's an oddly endearing courtesy extended from a Japanese host to his gaijin guest, and it promises to be repeated over and over during the '98 Olympics.

One is tempted to call these people and these Games old-fashioned, but they're not. Nothing is more new-fashioned than this fortnight of iris-scan and finger-key security and of laser beams bounced off clouds to forecast the weather, lest meteorologists lose face when an event is postponed due to unforeseen forces. So Japanese weathermen are off the hook for the postponement of the men's downhill on Sunday, having predicted the dire weather that came to pass.

The Osaka-based apparel manufacturer Descente outfitted every member of the Swiss team with a butane-fueled jacket that gives its wearer three hours of blast-furnace heat for every cartridge of gas that is stored in a side pocket. The coat also has an exhaust port in back that gives new meaning to the phrase smoking jacket, and all of these $750 beauties that were shipped to Tokyo sold out their first day in stores.

But then you expect high technology and high consumption from the Japanese. "I think the world has recognized Japan as a great economic power," Yoshiya Yamazaki, deputy chief of the Japanese delegation, noted before the Games began. "But I seldom hear the impression of Japan as 'a wonderful country.' "

The Olympics may change that. On Saturday a placard prominently displayed in a building that houses 10,000 members of the international press corps bore the hand-scrawled words FOUND ARTICLE. Taped to that sign was a 50-yen piece discovered by Japanese cleaning personnel. The coin-bless the heart of whoever turned it in—is worth 40 cents. And all that anyone who passed it could think to say was, yes, "What a wonderful country."

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