Victory Diplomas, The Lesser-known Honour For Olympic Athletes | CoolJapan

After a year’s delay, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games have begun. Met with challenges from the COVID-19 coronavirus and negative public opinion domestically, pushing ahead with the Games this summer is a controversial decision, so it is understandably harder to feel excited about the Games as it would be if they were held without concerns about an ongoing pandemic.

Tokyo Olympics Odaiba

The Olympic Rings at the Odaiba Marine Park. (Image courtesy of Erik Zünder via Unsplash)

However, the split opinions on whether or not the Games should be held does not change how athletes worldwide have put in a tremendous amount of work to earn their places at one of the world’s most prominent sporting events. Most of us are familiar with the scene where the top three winners take their steps up the podium to receive their medals, but did you know that athletes ranking up to eighth place for the Olympics receive a Victory Diploma?

Photo of Vintage Olympic Victory Diploma

Victory Diploma from Stockholm 1912. (Image courtesy of © 1912 / Comité International Olympique)

While the diplomas have been presented to winners since Athens 1896, it was only in 1984 that the diplomas started being presented to the first to eighth place finishers of each Olympic event. According to The Olympics Studies Centre, these diplomas are under the care of each Organising Committee, explaining why every diploma has its distinct look (e.g. Beijing 2008 used silk for the diplomas!).

Copy Of Olympic Victory Diploma

Victory Diploma from Rio 2016. ( Image courtesy of © / Comité International Olympique (CIO) / PETER, Grégoire)

For Tokyo 2020, the diplomas will be made using Mino tesuki washi, handcrafted Mino washi paper produced in Mino City, Gifu Prefecture.

Handcrafted Honmino-shi

Honmino-shi: high quality, handcrafted Mino washi paper. (Image courtesy of the Gifu Prefecture Tourism Federation)

Washi paper is deeply integrated with the Japanese culture, from how it is used in so many aspects — not just in writing and printing, but also in the creation of items such as umbrellas, shoji screens, artwork, and even clothes. In 2014, washi paper was listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage, recognising three washi types in particular: top grade Mino washi, Honmino-shi, alongside Hosokawa-shi from Saitama Prefecture, and Sekishuban-shi from Shimane Prefecture.

Honmino-shi paper

Using a paper moulding screen, the paper pulp mixture is rocked gently in all directions to make sure the paper achieves uniform thickness. (Image courtesy of the Gifu Prefecture Tourism Federation)

It is unclear when Mino washi paper started being made, but the earliest product made from Mino washi paper dates back to more than 1,300 years ago. What distinguishes Mino washi paper from other washi varieties is how it is thin, yet extremely durable. Said to last for as long as a thousand years, the quality of Mino washi paper became known across the country, and during the Edo era, it was even used in official documents by the Tokugawa shogunate.

Mino City flourished in washi paper production due to its access to clear water streams and the abundance of kozo (mulberry trees), essential raw materials to the making of washi paper. To produce top-quality Mino washi paper requires a lengthy production process, including a step where craftsmen bend over the boiled fibres to remove dirt and other impurities manually. This attention to the tiniest details is what allows the craftsmen to create fine, durable paper with exquisitely lined fibres. It is unsurprising then, that Mino washi paper is the choice material for making chochin lanterns, as it lets light through in soft gentleness, illuminating the space with a quiet elegance.

Mino Washi Akari Art Exhibition

Artworks made from Mino washi paper displayed at the Mino Washi Akari Art Exhibition. (Image courtesy of the Gifu Prefecture Tourism Federation)

At the peak of the Mino washi papermaking industry, it is said that there were more than 3,000 shops producing the paper. Today, only about 20 are left. In our fast digitalising world where machine efficiency is preferred over manual dedication, handcrafted paper may soon be deemed unnecessary or irrelevant. But behind each piece of Mino tesuki washi paper lies unmeasurable skills passed down for generations, an unspoken pride, and a warmth that no machine or screen can replicate.

In spite of the difficulties leading up to the games, or perhaps, precisely because Tokyo 2020 was exceptionally difficult and unusual in many aspects, these Victory Diplomas made of Mino washi paper would hopefully serve as one of the items for the top athletes that remind them of Japan, and that they can look back fondly upon many years down the road.