The Tokyo Olympics and politics of the pandemic

Frederick Dickinson, a professor of Japanese history and director of the Center for East Asian Studies, explains Japan’s history with the Olympics and why he’s certain this year’s games will happen.

Globe and relief sculptures on bridge
The Gorinbashi Bridge in Tokyo, created for the 1964 Olympics. 

If all goes according to plan, the 2021 Tokyo Olympics will kick off on Friday, July 23, at Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium—one day shy of a full year since the original Summer 2020 games were scheduled to begin.

This year’s Summer Olympics has been rife with will-they-or-won’t-they speculation, debating the risks of holding the massive sporting event amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Critics warn of the potential for a superspreading event in a country that is still early in its vaccination campaign. Proponents, meanwhile, advocate the symbolism of pressing forward with the global sports event—and note the many strict safety protocols put in place. 

On June 21, days after an emergency declaration was lifted in Tokyo and other prefectures, Japan and the International Olympic Committee announced that the Olympic games venues would operate at half capacity and be limited to domestic spectators.

Here, Frederick Dickinson, a professor of Japanese history and director of the Center for East Asian Studies, places this year’s Olympic games in context, describing Japan’s history with the Olympics and what international media misunderstands about how the games are perceived domestically.

How would you describe Japan’s sense of investment in the Olympics?

Japan has been part of the Olympic community for decades. Tokyo first hosted the Olympics in 1964, but Japanese enthusiasm dates well before 1964. In 1912, Japan became the first Asian nation to participate in the Olympic games, with one marathon runner and one sprinter at Stockholm. In the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, Japan came in fifth in the overall gold medal count, and Japanese swimmers blew everyone away—including the Americans. That was the foundation for the successful bid to become the first Asian state to host an Olympics. 

That was originally supposed to happen in 1940. The war quashed those plans, but Japan got its chance in 1964. I teach the 1964 Tokyo Olympics in my Modern Japan course as a sort of second Meiji Restoration. The 1868 Meiji Restoration marked the start of modern Japan and a new level of Japanese global engagement. Likewise, after losing a traumatic war in 1945, the 1964 Olympics marked a new level of Japanese global engagement. Older Japanese have vivid memories of that event. In his interpolation in the Diet a couple weeks ago, Prime Minister Suga described how inspired he had been by the Olympics as a high schooler, particularly by the gold-medal-winning Japanese women’s volleyball team and by Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila, who captured gold in the marathon for the second time in a row. There is also a much larger younger crowd with vivid memories of the 1998 Nagano Summer Olympics. 

The Olympics are, in other words, an important part of life in Japan. They are a strong reflection of a powerful Japanese global presence that dates back at least to Japan’s pivotal role in the allied victory of the First World War.

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics was a key step in Japan’s rehabilitation on the international stage. But this second Olympics is of even greater potential significance for Japan. Barring a possible ‘superspreader’ event, Tokyo 2020 will feature Japan at the helm of a major global return to a semblance of normalcy.

That’s contingent on the games going well, right? 

Yes, but the same thing could be said of 1964. Many things could have gone wrong then as well. Tokyo 1964 was known as the ‘science fiction’ Olympics, because there were so many high-tech innovations. The bullet train came into use for that; touchpads were used for the first time in the swimming competition; photographs with lines judged all sprint finishes; seventy cameras filmed the marathon; the opening ceremonies included cutting-edge electronic music; and the proceedings were transmitted around the world for the first time via satellite.

Luckily, there were only minor glitches in these new technologies. The stakes this year are, of course, much higher—life and death. But I see the Olympics differently than most mainstream American media. ‘This is a disaster waiting to happen’ is the common refrain. And while the Japanese are well aware of the stakes, they’re doing their best to mitigate the risks. The story that you don’t get in mainstream American media is that, to date, Japan has been crushing the COVID pandemic, especially compared to the U.S.

We continue to hear of low vaccination rates in Japan—only 4%, compared to 46% in the U.S. But look at the infection and mortality numbers and you get a very different picture. In Japan, only six-tenths of one percent of the population has been infected, compared to 10 percent in the U.S. You have 13,800 deaths in Japan, compared to over 600,000 in the U.S. The population of Japan is, of course, smaller, but while the U.S. has 2.6 times the population of Japan, the death rate is 44 times higher. And Japan is much closer than the U.S. to the epicenter of the original outbreak, China. Comparatively speaking, in other words, the Japanese are managing COVID well, and they’ve been planning meticulously for a safe Olympic games. Things could certainly go wrong, but I have great confidence that they are taking all necessary precautions.

What’s with the public polling that suggests the public doesn’t want the games to happen?

This, again, is American media run amok. There is certainly polling in Japan that suggests significant Japanese concern. But the story in Japan is not that everyone is against the Olympics; rather, it is the same as the story in the U.S. regarding social distancing: It’s a debate. There’s a serious debate in Japan over whether the Olympic games are a good thing, just as there continues to be a serious debate in the U.S. about how much social distancing we need to continue in an era of vaccines.

And the pattern is the same: liberals are much more cautious and want to keep social distancing and don’t want everything to return to normal overnight; conservatives in both Japan and the U.S. are the ones saying, ‘Forget this stuff, we need to get back to business.’ The big difference is that the conservatives are in charge in Japan. 

That means the Olympics will take place. But there is a very vocal liberal opposition that has significant grassroots support, especially when it comes to concerns about COVID. You get this story particularly in the left-leaning Japanese press: the Asahi and Mainichi news, for example. American mainstream coverage has consistently followed this critical Japanese liberal press on COVID. After all, accentuating Japanese failure reflects better on us.

So, it’s a partisan issue in Japan?

Yes, just like it’s a partisan issue in the United States.

The mainstream American story of Tokyo 2020 offers another means of distinguishing ourselves from the Japanese. We focus on low vaccination rates in Japan and Japanese voices of concern to accentuate Japanese failure. Meanwhile, more Americans have died of COVID than in any other country. And vaccine hesitancy is most pronounced in America’s red states.

What has changed since former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe left in how this has been approached?

Nothing. Despite significant liberal sentiment at the grassroots in Japan, particularly regarding social and public health issues, Japan continues to elect conservative national governments. Prime Minister Suga represents the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which has been in power for 62 of the 76 years since the end of World War II. As chief cabinet secretary for the entire second Abe cabinet (2012-20), Suga has, to date, followed Abe-era policies, Olympics included.

Tokyo won its bid for the 2020 Olympics in September 2013, just nine months into Abe’s second term as prime minister and Suga’s term as chief cabinet secretary. At the time, the second Tokyo Olympics were widely celebrated in Japan as a sign of yet another comeback on the international stage, this time following two decades of economic distress and a calamitous earthquake and tsunami in 2011. COVID seriously challenged that aspiration. But only after six years of enthusiastic and widespread anticipation, which did more to boost than detract from Abe, Suga and LDP power. It is no wonder that neither Abe nor now Suga has wavered in their commitment to the Olympics. Despite the current controversy, Abe before him and now Suga his successor have calculated that a successful Olympics will only facilitate an LDP victory in the upcoming national election in September.

China has its own Olympics in the winter, and there’s been chatter about Japan not wanting China to be the first one to host the Olympics in a post-pandemic world.

The main significance of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics is that it means Tokyo cannot be postponed another year. The conservative Suga cabinet certainly does not want to be upstaged by China. But the main reason for pushing full steam ahead with the Tokyo Olympics this summer has less to do with China, and more to do with the well-established commitment to the Olympics shared by Abe, Suga and the LDP—originally spurred by the strong desire to emerge from the embarrassment of 20 years of economic distress and the calamity of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

At the G7, world leaders seemed to support Japan’s position on holding the Olympics. Was that a surprise or largely expected? 

Prime Minister Suga had already obtained direct U.S. and E.U. expressions of support for the Tokyo Olympics in joint statements issued after the Suga-Biden Summit in April and Japan-EU Summit in May, respectively. The G7 endorsement of the Tokyo Olympics in its final communique last week was, therefore, a foregone conclusion. On the other hand, that the G7 fully appropriated Tokyo’s articulation of the fundamental significance of the games was remarkable. The communique expressed support for the games ‘as a symbol of global unity in overcoming COVID-19.’ This is a complete endorsement of the Suga cabinet’s most basic aspiration to spotlight Japan at the vanguard of an international return to a post-COVID normalcy.

How will the announcement about domestic spectators play in Japan? Is that welcome news?

The announcement has done little to check the ongoing debate in Japan. On the one hand, the ruling party and Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee point to the 50% capacity limit as another indication of their serious resolve to conduct a safe Olympics. On the other hand, the political opposition and many medical professionals continue to insist that the most reasonable solution is no audience or no Olympics at all.

Anything to add?

If the 1964 Olympics was known as the ‘science-fiction’ Olympics, how will we look back at the 2021 games? Unfortunately for Japan, it’s already shaping up to be the COVID Olympics. But the silver lining is that if they play their cards right, the Japanese can show how major sporting events can and should be held both safely and effectively in our new COVID era. We’ve heard about the draconian measures taken by China to deal with the pandemic: mandatory house quarantines, restrictions on numbers of family members outdoors, thousands of health checkpoints at transportation hubs, extensive monitoring of individual cellphone data, and even drones with loudspeakers scolding people to wear masks.

By contrast, Japan next month will demonstrate how 21st-century states can safely host a major international sporting event without imperial overreach. Tokyo has already implemented an impressive regulatory regime, including frequent testing and temperature checks, masks, quarantines, restricted movement, and GPS tracking. But this is a far cry from the control exercised by Beijing.

At the height of the pandemic in July 2020, Japan successfully hosted the annual Nagoya sumo tournament. This was after having canceled the May 2020 summer tournament due to the pandemic. Through methodical planning and key initiatives like relocating from Nagoya to the heart of sumo fandom (Tokyo), using the largest sumo arena in Ryogoku, and drastically reducing audience numbers, Japan minimized unnecessary travel and instituted an effective social distancing regime for a major sporting event in the month originally slated for the 2020 Olympics.

Before May 2020, the last time a sumo tournament had been canceled was March 2011. But the match-fixing scandal that caused this earlier suspension spurred an exodus of Japanese fans that took several years to recover. By contrast, the swift and effective Sumo Association response to COVID in 2020 ensured the enduring popularity of sumo without skipping a beat. One can only hope that strong Japanese leadership and meticulous but reasonable safety precautions will have a similar effect on Japanese and global enthusiasm for the Olympics.