When former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made remarks at the 125th session of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in September 2013, he said that the essence of the Olympic spirit “taught [Japan] that legacy is not just about buildings, not even about national projects. It is about global vision and investment in people.” Of course, at the time, Abe could not foresee that just seven years later, a menacing pandemic would ravage the world, engendering global immobility in the form of travel restrictions and economic turmoil, and prompting Japan to make the difficult—albeit necessary—decision to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics by a year.
Now, as Japan seeks to continue with the games a full year later, it faces a myriad of challenges: mass vaccination plans, a domestic scandal reflecting sexist attitudes at the highest echelon of Japan’s Olympic leadership, and the most unique logistical challenges ever to be seen in modern sports history. Candidly, much of Japan’s legacy is at stake in this unprecedented year, and it is yet to be seen if they will be able to overcome these challenges.
On February 13, Yoshiro Mori, former Japanese prime minister and president of the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, resigned after international backlash grew surrounding comments he made about women speaking too much in meetings. Initially, he resisted calls to resign, apologizing for his comments but assuring the public his role in organizing the games was critical. Many Japanese government officials, including Mizuho Fukushima, head of the Social Democratic Party, quickly condemned the comments, and Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike announced that she would not attend planning meetings that included Mori. Corporate sponsors of the upcoming games voiced complaints in planning meetings that the comments added yet another detrimental impact to an already difficult situation, with Toyota Motor Corporation President Akio Toyoda calling the comments “regrettable,” and “different from our values.” Various European embassies also took to social media to decry the sentiments as contradictory to Olympic values. Many are hopeful Mori’s withdrawal from the committee reflects the government’s commitment to ensuring the games go on successfully in July, without the baggage of additional scandal unrelated to the ongoing pandemic.
To be clear, the “doomsday” narrative is not new; the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil just as the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics got underway largely overshadowed any positive news surrounding the games. Many athletes withdrew from the games, citing a variety of concerns including the emerging virus, poor infrastructure, and hazardous water pollution. The games continued, even as they were decried as “deplorable and dangerous.” Even so, while the Rio Olympics could not liberate itself from all controversies and concerns, it was nonetheless a sporting success and witnessed stellar performances by American athletes like Simone Biles and Michael Phelps, who won five gold medals at the last Olympics of his career. Thus, although the narrative of a doomed Olympics is nothing new, the scale of global pandemic in the form of Covid-19 certainly is. Japan and the IOC face an enormous task in pulling off a global sporting event in the midst of such an unpredictable era but not an impossible one.
The Tokyo Olympics has reached a critical juncture, and the next month will reveal whether or not Japan can carry off to a compelling comeback story in organizing and pulling off an event of this magnitude during the Covid-19 era. As a reminder, it was nearly a year ago where the Australian and Canadian federations issued statements, unilaterally pulling out of the Games amid communications that the IOC would look into postponing the Olympics by a year. As its mission statement elucidates, if the Tokyo Organizing Committee strives to make the upcoming games the “most innovative in history” and aims to propel “positive reform to the world,” the Japanese government and local municipalities urgently need to coordinate closely in order to collectively showcase an unforgettable comeback story in their Covid-19 response, grounded on a mission to build back better for the Japanese general public and not further damage their morale in government’s efforts to manage the pandemic.
With time not on their side vis-à-vis the Olympics, Japan gave the green light to commence its vaccine campaign on February 17 by administering shots to health-care professionals. Yet, some of the Japanese public remains wary about possible side-effects of getting the vaccine. Hence, this quandary could potentially stymie the efforts that are being made in finalizing the organization of the Olympics. Despite that, unless the committee ultimately decides to reschedule or cancel the Olympics in its entirety, Japan cannot afford to have vaccine rollout encounter further bureaucratic hindrances, nor can it give the impression that the government and the IOC are unable to navigate these uncertain waters.
In addition, when the Tokyo Organizing Committee convened its first meeting since Mori’s resignation, they outlined the guiding principles of which the members will use in anchoring a new president for their committee—one of which included gender equality. Filling this vacancy provides Japan with a rare opportunity—and an obligation—to ensure that the Olympic leadership are not only accountable in addressing the committee’s recent shortcomings, but that they are able to cement trust with the Japanese population and that of all parties involved in making the Olympics possible. Indeed, as former Olympian and former minister for the Olympics Seiko Hashimoto has been appointed as Mori’s replacement, there is hope among the public that the inclusion of a younger woman in planning reflects a new dawn for the Tokyo Games.
As the host-nation, Japan has been shouldering a multiplicity of obstacles in preparing for the Olympics, but if it can demonstrate resolve in actualizing this Olympic vision, Japan will reveal a repeat of its recent history. Nearly ten years ago, a devastating earthquake and tsunami ravaged Northeast Japan, taking the lives of thousands of people, catalyzing a nuclear disaster in Fukushima prefecture. But a few months later, despite all odds, the Nadeshiko Japan female women’s soccer team emerged as the victors of the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup. And at the time, as the mother of then team captain, Homare Sawa, said to the Guardian: “I felt the whole of Japan smile.” Now the question for Japan and the IOC is if they can make the entire world smile by writing a powerful comeback story, hosting Tokyo 2020 (+1) this summer.
Eleanor Shiori Hughes is an MA candidate in Asian Studies at Georgetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. She is also a Research Assistant at Georgetown’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and a contributing writer for EconVue. Her areas of interest are US grand strategy in Asia and security concerns in Northeast Asia, specifically Japan.
Hannah Goda is an MA candidate at the Georgetown University Asian Studies program. She focuses on U.S. grand strategy in Asia, alliance management issues, and Japanese Domestic Politics.
All opinions are the authors’ alone.