The Olympic Games 2020 are meant to restore trust in Japan

Photo: vancityhotshots/Flickr

The first Olympic Games in the Tokyo, in 1964, still has tremendous symbolic value for Japanese people today and the 2020 Games are about signalling, both internally and externally, that Japan is still one of the leading countries on this planet. Photo: vancityhotshots/Flickr

Tokyo’s hosting of the Olympic Games in 1964 was a PR triumph, which reflected on the entire population’s self-confidence. The Japanese government and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s vision for the 2020 Games is to repeat this success, but it will be a Japan with all its strengths, weaknesses and inner conflicts that opens its doors to the world.

After 56 years, the Olympic Games will return to Japan when Tokyo hosts its second Games in 2020.

The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) decision to award the hosting right to Tokyo was a huge boost to Japan’s self-esteem. Nothing less. The 2020 Games will be a big show with the obvious purpose to present a new Japan to the world and thereby leave behind three years of crisis.

It is about signalling, both internally and externally, that Japan is still one of the leading countries on this planet. The first Olympic Games in the city in 1964 still have tremendous symbolic value for Japanese people today.

The 1964 Games were not just a successful sports event presenting a peaceful and well-functioning Japan to the world – only 19 years after the crushing defeat of the imperial army during the Second World War. The war had given the entire world an image of Japan and the Japanese as one-eyed, fanatical and rather impossible to understand. Like something from another planet.

The Games were also a gigantic comeback for Japan in the world – mental revenge for a population that had endured much suffering and many losses during the war. Now, people in distant countries could all of a sudden, via black and white photos and video recordings, see a country and a population that in less than two decades had been capable of creating a modern metropolis from the ashes of the war.

When Tokyo was elected as the 1964 host city at an IOC meeting in Munich in 1959, parts of the city were still not rebuilt after the massive conventional bombings that had hit the city in the spring of 1945 and resulted in more casualties than the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The city had to be traversed on miserable roads and there were almost no hotels of international standard. Only a fifth of the population had running water in their toilets. The pollution from the cars was unbearable.

But with the Olympic Games as a deadline, a new Japan managed over the next five years to transform the country’s capital from dusty and messy Asian chaos to a clean and inviting metropolis which could appeal to the entire world. It was one of the most dramatic transformations of a city’s appearance that has ever taken place.

By 1964 Tokyo had impressive, elevated expressways which ran through the city centre. It had the world’s fastest high-speed train, the Shinkansen, which was unveiled just before the Games. It had a new modernised airport and new lines for the city’s extended subway system. And it had beautiful sports arenas built by visionary architects.

Satellites transmitted the Games to the entire world, and it was the first Olympic Games to register its sporting results continuously on computers.

Japan’s new middle class also bought their own TV sets so that the entire family could follow the Games, and suddenly everybody owned a number of electronic household appliances. The Olympic demand gave a giant boost to the Japanese industry’s progress during this period.

The city’s population also felt these changes through a top-level campaign aimed at making the city cleaner and more beautiful. Hygiene in public toilets was prioritised, the sidewalks and squares of the city were scoured and scrubbed every morning, and trees and green enclaves were planted all over. It was like a ‘spring clean’ of an entire city – a standard which is still upheld today.

Repeat the success
It was an international breakthrough for Japan, a major PR triumph and it reflected on the entire population’s self-esteem. The Japanese government and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s vision for the 2020 Games is, by and large, to repeat this success.

Japan’s current economy has been affected by years of deflation and a paralysing awareness of crisis. The north-eastern coast was hit in 2011 by devastating natural disasters in the shape of earthquakes, tsunamis and the world’s second largest nuclear disaster ever in Fukushima. And for demographic reasons, Japanese society faces radical reforms that will challenge the mindset and way of life upon which Japan has been built.

The Japanese really need something positive to gather around. Something they can be proud of together. Something that will make people all over the world open their eyes and change the way they think about Japan – exactly as they did in 1964.

That is why the 50-year anniversary of the day when the young runner Yoshinori Sakai, who was born in Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 (the day the nuclear bomb hit the city) and lit the Olympic flame over the national stadium in Tokyo, was thoroughly celebrated in Japan this fall. The memory of 1964 is deliberately kept alive and since then, 10 October has been one of the most important national holidays, the day of sport.

The Japanese government and the Japanese media do not pass up any opportunity to make a connection between 1964 and 2020.

Once again, Japan is investing in new, impressive stadiums designed to impress the world. Once again, they are investing in new infrastructural projects meant to restart the economy, while also making the city better connected and easing the everyday life of the population. Once again, the Japanese capital is being made more open and accessible for outside visitors. This is a big deal. And it is happening with the echo of 1964 in the background.

“Tokyo was chosen as a host for the 1964 Games in 1959, only 14 years after the war ended. We were much poorer back then than we are today,” Japan’s incumbent prime minister Shinzo Abe explained.

“But back then, the Japanese were passionate about hosting the Games in Tokyo and that passion was the fuel that made the Games a success,” Abe continued.

Green economy Games
Passion or not, this success was also the result of major investments. The big infrastructural projects and buildings we associate with the 1964 Games today cost the equivalent of an annual budget – a striking expression of the growth mentality at that time.

In this area, the years leading up to 2020 will be different. Except from a few newly built showpieces, a sustainable economy image is being built up around the Games – once again following the spirit of the times.

The budgeted costs for the 2020 Games are 773 billion Japanese yen (USD 7.7 billion), less than one percent of Japan’s annual budget today. But it would also truly look bad if too much public money was spent on the Games, while almost 100,000 fellow citizens still live in temporary shelters three and a half years after the tsunami in 2011.

For this reason, a virtue is made of re-using existing facilities wherever possible. Judo will take place in the old Budokan sports hall for Japanese martial arts, the boxing will be in Tokyo’s sumo stadium, the Kokugikan, and even Tokyo’s landmark, Kenzo Tange’s famous swimming stadium with its curved roof, built for the Games in 1964, will be re-used, this time for handball.

The scattered critical voices regarding Tokyo’s hosting of the Games in 2020 are mostly concerned about over-spending and about the Games not being green enough. In particular, the criticism is directed at the size and the architecture of the new Olympic stadium, which will be built on top of the old national stadium in the Tokyo city centre. It will be far too dominant in the streetscape; it will ruin the traditional balance between old and new in the area; and, above all, it will be terribly costly to build, even after the Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid was forced to design a scaled-down version of her original proposal.

Of course, everybody is expecting the initial budgets to burst. With very few exceptions, this has happened to every single Olympic host city in history. But it did not look good for the organisers of the 2020 Games, when it was clear that they had, smartly enough, forgotten to include a planned national rise of VAT in the first budget of expenditures.

Fear of augmented costs has also forced the city council to seek renegotiation with the IOC about the placement of some of the competitions. As it would be much cheaper to place them in existing facilities in the Tokyo suburbs, the organisers have felt they have had to compromise on the idea of everything taking place close to the city centre and close to the Harumi quarter where the athletes will be staying.

Sporting armament
Another recollection that the Japanese sports lovers have of the 1964 Games, is Japan’s sporting success. Japan won 16 gold medals, five silver medals and eight bronze medals and was the third best nation after the US and the Soviet Union. Five of the gold medals were won in wrestling and five more were from men’s gymnastics. The women’s volleyball final, in which Japan beat the Soviet Union, was a drama that the Japanese people who watched it will remember forever.

It is also important for today’s Japan to repeat its sporting success to the full extent. Talented young athletes, who will be at the height of their careers in 2020, are being brought up on governmental funds and massive public support. These shy young people are already well-known faces and often appear on the evening news where their preparations are followed closely.

Physical education classes have always been a central part of the Japanese school day and everyone has practiced some kind of sport in the afternoon with their schoolmates.

But this focus on healthy sports, bodily strength and endurance has markedly weakened since 1964. Worrying governmental reports about Japanese school kids’ poor results in all types of tests have been published, and obese children are visible features of the cityscape. This was a rare sight just thirty years ago.

Since 1964, Japanese kids have become weak, say conservative forces at the top of Japan’s political tier, who are very influential in the Shinzo Abe administration that has run Japan since 2012. (Editor's note: Shinzo Abe has called for an election, which will take place on 14 December 2014)

Even in Sumo wrestling, the national sport, the three current ‘yokozuna’ (grand masters) were all born in Mongolia. Today’s spoiled Japanese boys cannot take the beatings or the hierarchy when growing up in a sumo stable. They cannot live up to the tough boys from the Mongolian steppes. At least, this is how many conservative Japanese see the situation.

Japan’s new nationalism
To the conservatives, it is not just about using the 2020 Games for a sporting armament throughout Japan. They see the Games in connection to an ideological armament consisting of lessons in ‘patriotism’ in all schools, singing the national anthem and respect for the national flag – something that they have been strong advocates for over the past years.

Throughout the past twenty years a strong ‘neo-nationalist’ current has made critics and observers nationally, as well as internationally, express the concern that something resembling the military ideology of the war could be experiencing a renaissance. So-called ‘revanchists’ who want to rewrite the common ‘masochistic’ version of the war history, and who deny that the imperial Japanese army used aggression and committed war crimes, have increased their political influence, not least during the Abe administration.

The Japanese neo-nationalism, which since it began has promoted the idea of a comeback for Tokyo as Olympic host city, is, however, a far more up-to-date phenomenon with far more up-to-date explanations. The World War is now ancient history to most generations of Japanese and re-writing history is not crucial to them. To them, it is important to find things in today’s Japan that can bring them together and of which they can be proud together.

The 1964 Games was the beginning of 25 euphoric years for the Japanese economy, in which Japanese companies pushed themselves forward as world champions in industrial management and economic growth. Gradually, the hectic growth could only be sustained because the government deliberately led a wave of speculation over the country’s financial markets. When this so-called ‘bubble-economy’ burst in around 1990, the Japanese vision of a future dominating the world’s economy also disappeared in a flash, as bubbles do.

Some bad years went by, with the Japanese collective self feeling down in the dumps. The stock and real estate prices fell to a fourth of what they had been, the city of Kobe was hit by a devastating earthquake in 1995, and in the spring of the same year, a stark, raving mad religious cult released toxic gasses in the Tokyo subway. At that time, the debate in Japan was all about how everything the Japanese had stood for and everything that they had believed in was of no use after all.

This collective downfall sparked a backlash, a neo-nationalistic tendency that actively attempted to find and identify all the things in Japanese society that they could still be proud of.

The memory of the 1964 Games was important for this mass-psychological armament and the first ideas about trying to turn Tokyo into an Olympic host city once again arose from this movement.

The Tokyo that athletes, media, tourists and TV viewers across the globe will meet in 2020 will, in other words, be an up-to date Tokyo with an up-to-date challenge. Japan wants to show the world what they stand for today.

1964 is a fantastic memory. Now it will be a Japan anno 2020, with all its strengths, weaknesses and inner conflicts, that opens its doors to the world.


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