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Criteria for People's Honor Award vague as left up to political decision

Yuzuru Hanyu thrusts his right forefinger into the air after performing in the men's figure skating free program at the Gangneung Ice Arena at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, on Feb. 17, 2018. (Mainichi)

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on March 2 instructed his government to look into conferring two-time Olympic gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu with the People's Honor Award, raising the possibility that the figure skater will become the seventh recipient of the prestigious prize since Abe returned to power in late 2012.

The criteria for selecting the awardee of the prize, however, remain ambiguous, and some speculate that the government is expecting to ride on Hanyu's popularity to bolster its public support ratings.

Hanyu, who suffered a right ankle injury last fall, captured the gold medal in men's figure skating at the Pyeongchang Olympics, becoming the first male skater to defend his Olympic title in the event in 66 years. At a press conference on March 2, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said about Hanyu, "He was once based in Sendai and overcame difficulties from the Great East Japan Earthquake." The government apparently took into consideration the fact that Japan will soon mark the seventh anniversary of the March 11, 2011 disaster.

The government's rules for bestowing the People's Honor Award stipulate that the prize will go to someone who is widely beloved by the people and who made distinguished achievements in giving hope to society. The selection of recipients is left up to the prime minister. "There are no clear standards," a senior official at the prime minister's office noted.

When asked if the government would give the People's Honor Award to other medalists at the Pyeongchang Games as well, where Japanese athletes netted a winter Olympic record of 13 medals, Suga dodged the question and just said, "Each athlete overcame challenges with their sincere devotion and made people realize the power of sports."

Some distinguished Japanese Olympians from the past, however, have yet to receive the People's Honor Award. These include: three-time gold medalist in men's judo Tadahiro Nomura, two-time double gold medalist in men's swimming Kosuke Kitajima and two-time Olympic champion in men's all-around individual gymnastics Kohei Uchimura.

Since the People's Honor Award was established in 1977, a total of 19 individuals and one organization had been granted the prize by the end of 2012. Six have already received the award since Abe's return to power in late 2012, showing his aggressive stance toward the honor. This year, his government already honored Shogi champion Yoshiharu Habu and Igo master Yuta Iyama with the award.

When Japanese pro baseball legend Shigeo Nagashima and former major leaguer Hideki Matsui received the People's Honor Award in May 2013, an aide to the then prime minister explained that the two figures won the hearts of wider generations "from older men through to grandchildren." Opposition parties, meanwhile, criticized the move, saying that the government was using the award as a means to boost its own popularity ahead of the House of Councillors election that summer.

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