The first time I came to Japan, in the summer of 2009, all public spots were filled with advertisements promoting Tokyo’s bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics; the Japanese had already to their credit two very successful Olympic events, the one of the 1964 Summer Games, a little shy of the 20th year anniversary of the country’s almost total devastation from WWII and the one of the 1972 Winter Games, while in their bid they didn’t neglect to mention the success of their joint-hosting with Korea of the 2002 FIFA World Cup. A few months later, hundreds of private and state/municipal crews were hard at work silently taking down the advertisements: the International Olympic Committee had announced that Rio would be the city hosting the 2016 but nobody could really suggest that the Japanese were devastated; less than two years later, the Japanese Olympic Committee submitted a new bid targeting the 2020 games and on September 7, 2013, the IOC decided that Japan’s metropolis would host the games for the second time after 56 years.
As much as I have been surprised with the Japanese’s enthusiasm for the games themselves (in the summer of 2012 when the event was held in London there were times that I had a difficulty understanding that they weren’t held in Japan –so extensive were both the coverage and the people’s response), I find equally surprising their indifference towards Tokyo winning the 2020 bid; many seem to believe that one of the reasons that the 2016 bid didn’t go well was precisely this indifference from the public which has actually turned to opposition (albeit mildly expressed) when it comes to the 2020 games. There’s little doubt that the government’s response to the aftermath of the March 2011 triple disaster in the Tohoku region played a major part in this: the question “why waste billions for a fiesta when the wounds in Tohoku are still gaping” seems to overshadow the joy of winning the bid. And even though the government has every reason, financial, political or psychological, to over-stress the benefits of the games for the nation, it seems it hasn’t yet managed to turn the opinion of a significant part of the population.
I’m not superstitious so I doubt that this climate is to blame for the adverse fortune that has accompanied the progress of the preparations so far but the truth is one would be hard pressed to use this progress as an example of Japan’s flawless function: the plans for the new Olympic Stadium were canceled because of the costs involved, the initial logo was withdrawn because of plagiarism claims, there are already serious delays in the progress of the works, the support campaign for the games and the subsequent promotion campaign to tourists seems awkward and sketchy and, once again, the people don’t seem convinced that there is going to be any other benefit besides those for the government and its plans for financial growth. Of course there is little doubt that in the end the Japanese will rise to the occasion, that the games will be extremely successful, that the people’s participation will be high or that the infrastructure will help the country down the line (the 1964 infrastructure is still being used so it’s certain that the same will happen with that of 2020). But concern about the games’ necessity remains and I have yet to hear from any Japanese –with the obvious exception of the government- any satisfactory answer.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes on the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.