Analysis | Not your typical Olympics

Japan faces domestic and international backlash as pandemic rages.

Eleanor Shiori Hughes

The Olympic Rings on display on the National Mall in Washington, DC, on Monday, July 19th as part of NBC Olympics’ “Rings Across America” tour (Image: Eleanor Shiori Hughes)

Today, at long last, the world watches as Japan raises the curtain for the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 (+1) Games. Times have undoubtedly changed since Tokyo last hosted the summer Olympics back in 1964, when my mother — a native Tokyoite — attended the marathon event as a young spectator. At the time, Japan was still in the process of integrating itself into a dynamic and increasingly interconnected world. But as the 2020 Games mission states, “The Tokyo 1964 Games completely transformed Japan.” Many hoped to relive these transformational days in 2020, and reinforce Tokyo’s place as a truly global city.

Unfortunately, organizers had to scrap this dream to transform the colorful Olympic vision into reality by July 2020, after the coronavirus pandemic forced the IOC and the Japanese government to delay the Olympics by a year. Since then, scandals and unwelcome headlines have hamstrung the Games. This left many in Japan and overseas with the impression that hosting the Tokyo Olympics this year was a quixotic ambition that is doing more harm than good, not least to the government’s reputation at home and abroad.

Although Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide conducted some preliminary Olympic diplomacy by meeting U.S. First Lady Jill Biden and World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus yesterday, he will have few opportunities to deploy the diplomatic toolkit to showcase Japan’s global stature. Before the pandemic, at least 100 foreign leaders and high-ranking officials were set to attend the Opening Ceremony, but that number has since decreased to less than 30, largely due to the Japanese government’s strict COVID-19 guidelines, one of which renders dignitaries unable to interact with athletes from their own countries.

Amidst Tokyo’s recent COVID-19 case surge, Suga and his administration placed Tokyo under its fourth state of emergency on July 8th, which is currently set to expire on August 22nd. Even this week, the Tokyo metropolitan government confirmed 1,839 new cases on Wednesday — the highest since January 16th. As the Games get underway, the challenge to bring the event to fruition continues to test the organizers’ ability to send a strong message that the Games have not permanently tainted Japan’s global standing.

Buyer’s remorse

Originally, former prime minister Abe Shinzo and his administration had high hopes that the 2020 Olympics would boost Japan’s slumping economy and bolster its reputation abroad. According to an October 2018 report from The Board of Audit in Japan, the Tokyo 2020 Committee spent over $7.38 billion between 2013 and 2017 for a myriad of infrastructural and security-related projects for the Olympics. This figure is at least seven times bigger than the amount that the Japanese government had initially agreed to pay. But now, the postponement has an estimated price tag of an additional $3 billion. Moreover, in December 2020, the Organizing Committee revealed the fifth version of their budgeting report, outlining that the Games will cost about $15.4 billion overall.

Now that the Japanese government has made the decision to bar both foreign and domestic spectators from attending any Olympic events, at least 60 domestic sponsors, including EY Japan and Asics, will likely incur heavy financial losses. Moreover, a study from earlier this year estimated that an Olympic Games without spectators could result in up to $23 billion in economic losses, resulting in the paralysis of its tourism industry.

Successive scandals

The Tokyo Olympics have also been plagued with domestic scandals, which have catalyzed global criticism. On February 13th, former Japanese prime minister and president of Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games Mori Yoshiro reluctantly resigned after making derisive, sexist remarks over women speaking too much. He was quickly replaced by Hashimoto Seiko, a former Olympian herself. As a gesture to promote gender equality, she appointed 12 women to the Tokyo Organizing Committee’s Executive Board. However, a few weeks later, the Games’ creative director Sasaki Hiroshi resigned after news broke out that he had suggested Japanese fashion influencer and comedian Watanabe Naomi appear in the Opening Ceremony as an “Olympig.” Then, only a few days ago, Oyamada Keigo, a composer of the Opening Ceremony music, submitted his letter of resignation after interviews emerged from the 1990s detailing his lack of remorse for bullying disabled classmates. And on Wednesday, the Organizing Committee fired the Director of the Olympics’ Opening Ceremony Kobayashi Kentaro after footage from the 1990s emerged of him making jokes about the Holocaust. With such news breaking in the week of the ceremony, more negative headlines may continue to surface.

A public health crisis in the making?

Understandably, many have voiced health concerns about the IOC and the Japanese government’s decision to proceed. Global public health leadership has faltered: on multiple occasions, IOC President Thomas Bach said that athletes do not have to be vaccinated to compete. On the domestic front, the Japanese government has lagged behind in its efforts to advance its vaccine campaign. In anticipation of the Olympics, the rollout has gained more momentum, with many Japanese companies taking the lead in administering the vaccine to their workers and their family members in recent weeks. But concerns about vaccine supply have forced some municipalities to slow the vaccine rollout, increasing tensions between the local and national governments.

Japanese poll numbers and newspaper editorials also suggest that many Japanese remain despondent. In May, an online petition calling for the Olympics to be cancelled garnered tens of thousands of signatures in just a matter of days. Editorials and public letters have continually called on Suga to apply diplomatic pressure to the IOC to cancel. The business community has also been vocal: just this week Toyota, Fujitsu, Nec Corp. and other major sponsoring organizations announced that their CEOs will not attend the Opening Ceremony. Toyota, which is one of the Tokyo Olympics’ biggest sponsors, even pulled the plug on its advertisements.

Is it worth it?

Organizing the Olympics during a pandemic has been a herculean task for Japan. The numerous scandals and public health blunders reflect the fact that Japan has lost the chance to showcase its international prestige in the way that it originally hoped.

However, individual comeback stories also deserve attention and will help shape the Games’ legacy. For example, 21-year-old Japanese swimmer Ikee Rikako was diagnosed with leukemia in 2019, but, against all odds, overcame the disease and made her first appearance at a swimming competition last August. She then became the face of Tokyo 2020’s ”1 year to Go” marketing campaign. Though Ikee will not compete in individual events, she will swim in the women’s 4x100 meter freestyle relay.

Her remarkable comeback highlights how the Games can still deliver touching stories to the world. As Prime Minister Suga noted in an NBC interview a few days ago, the Games’ 4 billion global spectators give Japan the opportunity — and the responsibility — to show the world the country’s resolve in hosting the Games in the midst of the pandemic.

Now that the Opening Ceremony is upon us, the onus is on Japan to make it to the finish line, highlighting the pandemic as a shared human experience while delivering a spectacle to showcase Japan on the global stage.

Eleanor Shiori Hughes is a research assistant at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and a master’s student in Asian Studies in the School of Foreign Service. She is also a contributing writer for EconVue.

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Institute for the Study of Diplomacy

Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy brings together diplomats, other practitioners, scholars, and students to explore global challenges