Japan Today
The first time Mai Shoji set foot in the Olympic Stadium on the day of the first rehearsal

The voice of the Olympics and Paralympics heard around the world


The Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics have come and gone, and while no fans were allowed to attend, the Games were broadcast around the world. For the billions of people who watched the Games on TV, one of the voices they heard was Mai Shoji -- the English announcer for the opening and closing ceremonies for both the Olympics and Paralympics.

For most people, that would seem a daunting experience. Japan Today asks Shoji, an experienced announcer, event MC, narrator, teacher, food and lifestyle writer, what it was like for her.

When did you first get offered the job to be the English announcer for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics?

Tamade-san, a Dentsu casting staff member directly emailed me through my official website a few years back. I was suspicious at first, but I had worked with them for the Aomori Asian Winter Games, FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan and other various world competitions, so it started to sink in and I thought, “Whoa!” I still remember that mixed feeling of surprised confusion.

How did you feel last year when the Games were postponed?

As the coronavirus spread, I inevitably felt anxious. There is no doubt saving lives was the priority, but I also believed that the Games would be something that we could look forward to. We were desperate for passion, excitement, dreams and hope - something the next generation can look up to and feel excited about. My contract returned to a clean state, and I went on an emotional rollercoaster ride until the day of the opening ceremony (when we knew for sure that the Olympics would go ahead).

Shoji and the ceremony announcement team and staff whom she calls family

In the lead-up to the Olympics, what were your main concerns? Were there lots of meetings, especially about anti-coronavirus measures for staff? It must have been a very "what if" kind of situation.

My main concern was the contract deal. I’m freelance, but I asked Chris Peppler Office to manage me for this and jobs thereafter that require contract signing.

There weren’t many meetings, but the “what if” situation built up, I guess, right until the day of the opening ceremony. You can imagine the weight of pressure all the staff carried on their shoulders. I have so much respect for all of them.

On the day of the Olympic opening ceremony, were you nervous, excited, tense?

We had about four days for rehearsals, so by opening day, all the staff and the announcer team were like a family. Looking back, we were talking and laughing the entire time together.

Coincidentally, the stage director for the Olympic ceremonies happened to be someone I’ve worked with for years. So no, I wasn’t nervous ... all credit to my team.

However, I have to admit the part where I introduced the emperor at the very beginning was slightly nerve wracking.

Shoji with French announcer Georges Veyssière at the Olympic opening ceremony

How did you rehearse for the opening ceremony?

We had a few dress rehearsals at the venue. When we couldn’t use the Olympic Stadium for both the closing ceremonies (since the Olympic stadium was in use for the Games), we rehearsed in a stadium out in Kashiwa. The long commute and scorching heat are all great summer memories.

For times I couldn’t make the rehearsal due to conflicting jobs, our 'backup' announcers covered for us.

We had standby announcers, for emergency. I know that these so-called backups hungered to have their voices heard around the world. I understand the importance and the weight of my job, that Olympic opening and closing ceremonies are the pinnacle of events. So I carried their ambition on my shoulders and made sure I’d do my best for them too.

Shoji with Japanese announcer Hiroyuki Sekino at a rehearsal for the Paralympics opening ceremony

When the ceremony began, how did it feel with no fans, no usual atmosphere in the stadium, yet knowing that your voice was being heard by billions of people around the world?

It’s different without spectators, but it doesn’t make a difference to what I do (as an announcer or MC). Whether I’m talking to a small audience or being heard by billions of people, my job doesn’t change. It may change a little for those times when I need to get the crowd going as a master of ceremony. But my job as a stadium announcer is to make sure not to make any mistakes and to create the mood or atmosphere.

I guess it’s a huge responsibility, but I’m only a part of thousands of staff involved in making the event a success.

Shoji with Sekino and Veyssière after the Olympic closing ceremony

Overall, what did you think of the opening and closing ceremonies? We know there were last minute changes because of certain scandals but did you think they were a good spectacle of Japanese arts, entertainment and culture for the world to see.

The audience sees the final product, and only the final product. But I want you to know that there are many stories behind the curtains and months and months of training, practice and rehearsals. Most staff were involved for over four years. Certain aspects were lost along the way, which is unbearable to some, but I think the staff did a great job adjusting to each situation.

I think the Paralympics opening ceremony had fewer changes; hence it was a flawless spectacle.

Shoji poses with 13-year-old Yui Wago who gave a much-praised performance as a one-winged airplane at he Paralympic closing ceremony.

Was it hard pronouncing some of the names of countries and VIPs, flag bearers and award winners (at the Paralympics)? You had to say the surnames of Japanese first. For example, Tokyo Governor Koike Yuriko, while your natural instinct might have been to say Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike.   

I don’t want to offend anyone but yes, some of the names of the torch bearers, flag bearers, and some athletes who IOC President Thomas Bach suddenly decided to invite up on stage, were not revealed until the very last minute. They were so difficult to pronounce and I got a little nervous so as not to mispronounce them, but I think I nailed them.

The organizing committee decided on using the surname first a while back. If you noticed, all the Japanese athletes’ names were called by their surnames first for Tokyo 2020.

Since you successfully did the Olympics, were the Paralympics any different? This time you knew what to expect, except you had to go first in English — no French. That must have been significant.

It definitely put more pressure on me and required more concentration. But then again, it’s not any different from other events I work with so I just had to switch my mode.

We built an alliance within our first “family.” As I mentioned, coincidentally, the director for the Olympics was someone with whom I have been working at Roppongi Hills events for years. So we knew each other very well, including how each responds to sudden irregularities.

Then for the Paralympics, we had a different director and the French announcer wasn’t present. But the Japanese announcer and other staff were still there, so we raised another “family.”

When you work on a big project, you automatically build a strong bond each time. So I would say each time is different and significant.

The captured moment of joy after the Paralympic closing ceremony

After it was all over, how did you feel?

I think we all felt relieved but very sad that it was over. Some people have engaged their souls in this for over four years. Imagine that being over, many events canceled due to the ongoing pandemic, and no other events exceeding the magnitude of the Olympics to be held anytime soon.

I also think we all wish for the athletes and everyone involved to visit Japan again once the world settles down in the post-COVID era.

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A big round of applause and hugs for everyone!

-2 ( +1 / -3 )

Hats off to Japan. Tokyo 2020 Games were incredible achievements. Athletes were not let down. Doubters were converted, strengthened, and fortified by the dynamic, constructive, and creative ceremony announcement team and staff. Well done.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

Mei shoji work in Japan today, I feel this in the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo 2020 if pure success. Thank You Mai!!

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

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