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Tokyo lures artistic talent ahead of 2020 Olympics

Creators from 29 countries and regions have applied for grants up to $1.8m

A woman performs a traditional tea ceremony during the 'Tokyo Grand Tea Ceremony' event in 2016, organized by Arts Council Tokyo.

TOKYO -- As competitions at the Winter Paralympics in Pyeongchang heat up across the sea in South Korea, following the Winter Olympic games there last month, creators and artists in Japan and beyond are gearing up their own preparations for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.

Applicants numbering 2,436, from 29 countries and regions across the world, have submitted applications in response to a public call for cultural and artistic projects to be held in Tokyo around the time of the Olympics and Paralympics in 2020.

The open call -- one of the largest to be organized by the Japanese capital city to date -- was coordinated by Arts Council Tokyo, an organization founded under the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. The projects are not limited to any particular genre -- anything from concerts and theater performances to visual exhibitions using manga, anime and Japanese traditional arts will be considered.

Each selected project will be provided with a budget of up to 200 million yen ($1.87 million). They will be run over a year running up to September 2020 as a part of the larger "Tokyo Tokyo Festival", a series of engagement events planned for visitors and Tokyo residents around the time of the Olympics.

"The aim of the public call is to explore new possibilities of presenting Tokyo to the world in artistic ways," said Katsunori Miyoshi, who heads Arts Council Tokyo. The council will consider projects that are accessible to everyone, including foreigners, the elderly and physically-challenged people, and have the potential to be expanded on a larger scale -- even beyond Japan -- after the Olympics end.

A musician with a Japanese traditional drum performs at the Nihonbashi Traditional Culture Festival in Tokyo in 2016.

The Olympics presents a perfect opportunity for Tokyo to showcase its creative side. The "festival of sports" has increasingly been appreciated also as a "festival of arts" over recent years, thanks to a strong push by the International Olympic Committee.

This year, the Olympic village in Pyeongchang showcased for the first time artworks by four "Olympian artists" who have taken part in the games at least once and have a passion for art. A series of short films were shot in the village, while visual artists held workshops to complete 15 paintings inspired by the winter games.

These initiatives were a part of Olympic Agenda 2020, the IOC's strategic roadmap which aims to "further strengthen the blending of sport and culture at the Olympic Games and in between".

And Tokyo is not going to miss this opportunity. Arts Council Tokyo was set up in 2012, the year when the selection process began for the 2020 host city. Aimed at turning Tokyo into a globally recognized cultural hub, the organization provides grants to artists and performers and supports various projects including street performances, cultural experience classes and community art projects to regenerate cultural ties within the urban clusters in Tokyo.

Miyoshi said the diversity of arts and cultures within the city -- from the modern and fashionable Harajuku district, to the traditional Asakusa area -- is what attracts artists to Tokyo. "The long history of Tokyo as the capital of Japan has created a diverse range of urban clusters within the city, each with its own culture, providing sources of inspiration for arts to evolve along with the local communities," said Miyoshi.

The open call also serves the purpose of boosting entertainment options for foreign tourists to Tokyo who sometimes find themselves with a limited choices of activities due to language barriers. As the capital gears up for the surge in international travelers during the Olympics in 2020, Tokyo is working to increase entertainment offerings for tourists by extending the operating hours of some museums and offering late-night theater performances.

In 2016, the historic Meijiza Theater in Tokyo launched a new show that combines traditional Japanese sword battle and taiko drums performances with animation and dances that give foreign tourists a taste of both traditional and modern Japanese cultures.

The number of foreign visitors to Japan hit a record high of 28.69 million in 2017. While Tokyo was the most visited prefecture among international travelers to Japan, the year-on-year growth rate of visitors to Tokyo ranked only 33rd out of the country's 47 prefectures, trailing behind other popular destinations including Osaka, Hokkaido and Kyoto.

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