The 2020 Tokyo Olympics is a Manmade Disaster

Just days before the start of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, social media was abuzz over stories in the western press that Japanese organizers created collapsible cardboard beds to prevent athletes from having sex. The reports were quickly debunked – the latest instalment of an enduring orientalist narrative that casts Japan as a wacky and sexless society. Yet one need not invent controversy to criticize the multi-billion dollar mega sports event. The mismanagement of the Tokyo Olympics will have far-reaching economic, political, and social consequences. The path towards hosting a sustainable and profitable Olympics was narrow from the beginning, and the COVID-19 crisis may have made it an impossibility. The issues that the Tokyo Games are about to reveal have nothing to do with “weird Japan” tropes and very much to do with problems that are chronic to both the Olympics in general and to governance in Japan more specifically – maybe more prosaic than anti-sex beds, but a much more urgent problem for Japanese decision makers and any nation thinking about hosting future Olympics.

As the first Asian city to host the Olympics when it held the games in 1964, Tokyo follows a long legacy of cities using the Games to promote tourism and soft power. Tokyo has marketed itself as one of the “world’s safest and most welcoming cities,” capable of hosting a sustainable event. The world was eager for the Tokyo Olympics when Japan played a hip introduction video showcasing its popular culture and modern infrastructure at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Television commentators and the live crowd were delighted to see then-prime minister Abe Shinzo pop out of a warp pipe as Mario; if any country could host safe and environmentally-friendly games, it would be Japan. The Japanese government billed this year’s event as the “recovery games,” highlighting the nation’s reconstruction in the wake of the devastating 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and thus recalling the spirit of the 1964 Tokyo Games that saw the country reemerge as a global player from the devastation of World War II. Such excitement and ambitions have devolved to resignation that Japan will trudge on with the Games regardless of the economic, public health, and reputational costs.

The myriad of issues that have emerged since then have shed light on the Japanese government’s poor management of the Games and the COVID-19 pandemic. The goals of increasing tourism, building the nation’s image as an open country, and rebuilding trust in Fukushima food products were worthy aims but have all been met with significant obstacles. Hosting the 2020 Olympics profitably was always an uphill battle, with some comparing cost overruns to the economic costs inflicted by pandemics, earthquakes, and war – and the current Games now cost at least double the initial estimates. One poll by Bloomberg found that two-thirds of the 43 economists surveyed believe the Games will not have a net benefit for the economy.

Worthy goals like increasing tourism, building an image as an open country, and rebuilding trust in Fukushima food products have all been met with significant obstacles

Part of that is obviously due to the pandemic – the resulting one-year delay and the ongoing travel restrictions have robbed Japan of the economic boon that may have come with hosting the games. Despite significant year-over-year growth in tourism and infrastructure development since 2013, tourism dropped by approximately 90 percent between 2019 and 2020 due to the pandemic. International students, who Japan had hoped to attract to revitalize its stagnant economy, have also become increasingly vocal about stringent travel restrictions that the government has imposed as it tries to get a handle on the pandemic. Not only are spectators banned from events, and thus the economic activity that would have followed severely diminished, but many sponsors have decided not to run Games-related advertisements due to controversy over hosting the Olympics in the middle of the pandemic. 

The Games have also not generated regional goodwill, as dramatically demonstrated when North Korea and South Korea marched under a unified flag at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. In April, North Korea was the first country to withdraw from the 2020 Games due to COVID-19 concerns. Seoul’s presence at the Games are a constant reminder of ongoing tensions between Japan and South Korea, exemplified by provocative political banners in the Olympic Village, demands for a ban on the rising sun flag, and diplomatic row over a now-cancelled meeting between President Moon Jae-in and Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide. The South Korean team’s operation of its own food service at the Olympic Village due to radiation concerns is just the most recent example of ongoing disputes concerning Fukushima food safety and Japan’s post-3/11 recovery plan.

Beyond the pandemic, another part of the issue is due to problems endemic to hosting the Games. Although to a degree less than Brazil, Japanese residents have been displaced, and officials have been caught in bribery investigations. Nor are the Games as sustainable as purported. Public support has wavered too; when Japan was awarded the games in 2013, the government found 70 percent public support in IOC polling, although there was a small yet vocal opposition questioning the need to host the games when Japan was still recovering from the 3/11 triple disaster. That sentiment has increased, and one poll by the Asahi Shimbun in May found opposition to hosting the Olympics in the middle of a global pandemic as high as 83 percent. More recent polls show a more divided public, but still concerned about safety.  

Waving away these issues as “weird Japan” risks missing the lesson that the problems of vested interests are endemic and not uniquely Japanese

Finally, the elite hubris, vested interests, and slow-footedness that plagues governance in Japan deserves blame as well. Less than a week before the opening ceremony, Oyamada Keigo stepped down as composer due to criticism on social media over resurfaced interviews of the musician bragging about bullying of children with disabilities in his youth. Oyamada was the fourth major resignation following creative director Sasaki Hiroshi resigning over insensitive comments and president of the organizing committee, and former prime minister Mori Yoshiro, stepping down for sexist remarks. Mori’s resignation was surprising in that it did not happen sooner. The gaffe-prone Mori demonstrated his lack of qualifications to host the international event early in his tenure by refusing to use English during a press conference, referring to it to the “enemy’s language.” The government’s lack of vetting and tendency to place well-connected men in high positions came to the forefront again less than a day before the opening ceremony when comedian Kobayashi Kentaro was removed as director of the Olympics ceremony because of recently resurfaced footage of an offensive comedy act on the Holocaust. The public was also incensed over a private welcome party attended by 40 people for IOC director Thomas Bach, especially given the government’s public social distancing orders and less than stellar vaccination rollout.

The economic and political consequences of hosting the Olympics continue to plague Brazil, a fate that may be in store for Japan. Even Bach’s visit to Hiroshima to pay respects to atomic bomb victims was met with protests and a petition signed by over 70 thousand people. On the eve of the opening ceremony, Tokyo is experiencing the highest number of infections since January and 71 COVID-19 cases linked to the games have been confirmed. Prime Minister Suga’ s approval rating has plummeted over the last year, and with the deadline for a general election fast approaching, he will soon have to face voters angry over the handling of the Games and the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Tokyo might not be able to cancel the Games even if it wanted to (only the IOC reserves that right) but the government’s insistence that it can deliver a safe and successful event despite the myriad of obstacles suggests hubris is why the games must go on. A government’s ability to lead in a pandemic is tied to its moral authority, which is strong when it can communicate clearly how it balances public good and individual rights. With Japan witnessing the third largest spike in daily new cases since the pandemic began, one could conclude that the government cannot keep its promises, or the public has reached its limit with double standards and is beginning to ignore COVID-19 safety measures. Waving away these issues as “weird Japan” risks missing the lesson that the problems of vested interests are endemic and not uniquely Japanese. If anything, Japan’s missed opportunity was not the chance to host a successful event worthy of its ambitions, but to show that it could kick its worst governance habits.

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Tom Le is an associate professor of politics at Pomona College and research associate at the PRIME Institute at Meiji Gakuin University. Le is the author of Japan’s Aging Peace: Pacifism and Militarism in the Twenty-First Century (Columbia University Press, June 2021). Le received a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California Irvine and BAs in history and political science from the University of California Davis. He is currently a USLP delegate, Mansfield US-Japan Network for the Future fellow, and Mansfield-Luce Asia Scholars fellow.

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