TOKYO — When Tokyo staged the Olympics in 1964, the Games marked Japan’s reemergence from the ashes of defeat in World War II and symbolized its readmission in the post-war international order. It was a moment of immense national pride.
The Games also crowned what author Robert Whiting calls “the greatest urban transformation in history.” Thousands of buildings were put up in a furious rush, new subway lines and highways carved out of the city, five luxury hotels constructed, and the world’s fastest train line, the bullet train to Osaka, opened just days before the Games.
“The Olympics signified Japan’s reentry into the global community and Tokyo’s change from a third-world, disease-ridden backwater into a high-tech megalopolis,” said Whiting, who first arrived in Tokyo in 1962 “as a raw 19-year-old GI from small-town America” and ended up staying.
It was always going to be hard making a sequel to live up to the original. So far Tokyo 2020, as the postponed Games are still being branded, looks to be falling distinctly flat as it moves toward Friday’s Opening Ceremonies with the pandemic setting the mood: No spectators at venues in the Tokyo area and athletes confined to an Olympic bubble.
When Japan’s Olympic bid was first conceived, it was billed as a chance to show the world the country had emerged from another trauma: the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident that ravaged its northeastern prefecture of Fukushima.
But it also soon took on a nationalist aura for the country’s conservative leadership: a counter to Beijing’s dazzling 2008 Games and China’s rise, a chance to reclaim Japan’s lost status as the leading Asian nation and a way to support its emergence from a long economic slump.
“The idea was to re-create and relive Japan’s moment of glory, when it rose from the ashes and became a major player on the international scene,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.
Japan is still billing these Games as the Recovery Olympics. But it rings hollow to the many critics of the Games, including those who thought it should be further postponed or called off entirely. At first, overseas spectators were banned. Then domestic spectators were also barred in all but a few outlying venues. Almost all the events meant to celebrate Fukushima’s reemergence from the triple disaster have now been canceled, officials say.
“A lot of people in Fukushima were supposed to be a part of the Olympics, whether it was through volunteering or in local events, but now that many of these opportunities have been taken away, people are really disheartened,” said Kosei Shoji, an official working in the prefectural government’s Olympic and Paralympic promotion section.
“And a lot of people also were excited for the Games itself, and providing omotenashi [“hospitality”] for the people coming to Fukushima from overseas, so they are really disappointed.”
The Japanese government had initially hoped the Olympics would have attracted 40 million high-spending foreign visitors last year, boosting its tourism and hospitality industries, fueling consumer demand and helping the nation finally escape from the doldrums that have becalmed its economy for three decades.
It’s not only the loss of an estimated $800 million in ticket revenue that is hurting. With tourism crushed by the coronavirus pandemic and spectators banned, Economic Revitalization Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura was forced to acknowledge in a television interview last week that he was “not expecting any effect” from the Olympics at all.
Japanese sponsors have poured more than $3 billion into the Games, only to find themselves associated with a brand that has become toxic in many people’s eyes. They have been forced to cancel most of the client entertainment and hospitality events they had planned — mainstay perks of past Olympics. Returns on their investment will be very meager, experts say.
“Before the pandemic, we were really excited for the Olympics, and really wanted to show omotenashi, but now is just not the right time,” he said, echoing a widely held view. “I really wish the Olympics could be postponed for one more year.”
When tickets first went on sale for the Games, demand was intense and domestic lotteries were massively oversubscribed. Gradually, the enthusiasm has given way to weariness, indifference and even hostility.
Critics argued the government viewed holding the Olympics as more important than fighting the pandemic and that the IOC put its revenue ahead of public health — accusations that are strenuously denied by organizers who insist their top priority has always been to ensure the safety of athletes and people here.
Barred from attending the Games, unable to profit in any way, facing a huge tax bill for the Olympics and now facing barricaded streets and walled-off venues around their city, many residents of Tokyo are asking themselves two questions: Why are we making this sacrifice and for whom?
“I have been a critic of the Olympics for a long time, and this has to do with the corruption, the lack of accountability, the nationalism and commercialization, but I have to admit Japanese people in general were very naive and very positive about the Olympics in general,” said Nakano, the Sophia University professor. “But for the first time, people start to know what the Olympics is all about. It’s really quite striking how the Japanese people have turned against the Olympics because of their experience.”
“Omotenashi” is a word you hear all the time when it comes to these Olympics, and the Games were also supposed to show Japan’s welcome to the world. But, in many ways, that spirit has been superseded during the pandemic and the Games by a different vision of Japan: insular, inward-looking and wary of foreigners.
It’s an impression that has been fueled by politicians who insist Japanese people have avoided the worst of the pandemic because of higher cultural standards — like wearing masks, washing hands and avoiding physical contact — and by fears that the Olympics will bring tens of thousands of foreigners carrying dangerous variants of the coronavirus.
So when a hotel in Tokyo gave its elevators separate labels for the Olympics — one for Japanese people, the other for foreigners — there was outrage last week, but no surprise.
So far, around 20 percent of Japan’s population are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. With infections rising in recent weeks, the government decided last week to impose a fourth state of emergency in Tokyo that will last throughout the Games, which wrap up Aug. 8.
Takamatsu Oku has been coordinating the Ugandan national team’s welcome in Japan and speaks warmly about the special bond that was formed with when marathon runner Stephen Kiprotich, an Olympic gold medalist, came to host town Tateshina in 2017 and ran with elementary schoolchildren. But plans for any similar moments during the Tokyo Games have all been shelved because of the virus.
“Without real contact, the same level of emotional connection isn’t really possible,” said Oku, who was appointed by Uganda’s government for the liaison role.
News that two members of the Ugandan delegation had tested positive for the coronavirus after arriving in Japan left Oku “absolutely heartbroken and shocked,” and worried that negative reactions would undermine all his good work.
“I’m seriously worried about the rise in xenophobic sentiment in Japan and casual racism,” Nakano said. “The association of foreigners being dirty or dangerous is a centuries-old Japanese issue, and even though people have been trying to overcome these prejudices, a lot of them may be reactivated under the present context.”
After the Olympics were postponed last year, the International Olympic Committee and Japanese government said they hoped the delayed event would signify “human victory against the coronavirus.” Even now, Seiko Hashimoto, the president of the organizing committee, said the Games can be a symbol of peace and of overcoming the great challenge posed by the pandemic.
But for many critics, the empty venues will be a constant reminder of the government’s inability to vaccinate its own people in time for the Games.
Jeff Kingston, a political science professor at Temple University Japan, says there’s a chance that the best athletes of the world can rescue the organizers and reignite some of the Olympic magic, just as Usain Bolt did for the men’s 100 meters in Beijing in 2008.
“As a branding opportunity, the 2020 Olympics has been a disaster, showcasing Japan’s problems rather than its virtues,” he said. “The Olympics need a Bolt moment or three to capture the global imagination and provide the inspiration organizers have not delivered.”