Hot, summer, not yours. How the Olympics will be remembered by the Japanese

Maxim Krylov

Perhaps the best monument to the 2020 Summer Olympics stands in Tokyo’s Tatsumi district. We are talking about an ultra-modern Aquatics Center built specially for the Olympics , designed for 15 thousand spectators and costing the organizers about $ 620 million.

The point is not even that just a couple of hundred meters from it there is another water stadium, accredited to host international competitions of the highest level, but not liked by the International Olympic Committee for its modest capacity of “only” 5,000 people. Such a neighborhood of the good with the best, even in the wasteful and carefree dock era, caused some irritation among the Tokyo people: there are hardly enough swimming fans throughout Japan to regularly fill both arenas after the end of the planetary sports festival. But the story didn’t seem enough, and in the summer of 2021, the local town-planning curiosity forever became a monument to total absurdity: the Games that ended on August 8 were held without spectators at all, for whose sake all this, in fact, was built.

The Tokyo Olympics itself has already become an ironic “monument” to itself. The event, which was conceived as a triumph of self-confident, energetic and open to the world of Japan in the 21st century, was hosted by a sad and tired country, where for more than a year it has been almost impossible to get outside. An ambitious project, the success of which was supposed to be the victorious finale of Shinzo Abe’s outstanding political career, became a headache for his lackluster and unpopular successor, and Abe himself could not even attend the opening ceremony: due to strict anti-epidemic restrictions, he was among the persons without direct relation to the Olympics. Finally, a one-year deferral agreed with the IOC, which was supposed to make the Games not just a holiday of sports, but a real symbol of the victory of mankind over the coronavirus,

A public opinion poll conducted by the Japan News Network over the weekend showed that 61% of Japanese people were generally positive about the fact that the Games were held, despite all the difficulties involved. At the same time, the same poll recorded a more than ten percent drop in the rating of the Cabinet of Ministers of Yoshihide Sugi to a record low of 32.6%.

Damn games

Back on March 18, 2020, at the very beginning of the first wave of the global pandemic, the Minister of Finance and master of political aphorism Taro Aso  suggested that the upcoming Olympic Games are cursed. An observant old-timer of Japanese politics also noticed that a mysterious curse befell the third Olympics in a row with an interval of exactly 40 years: the 1940 Games (which Tokyo was also supposed to host) were not held due to World War II, and the 1980 Games in Moscow in protest almost the entire capitalist camp, including Japan, boycotted against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Leaving the question of the curse to people more competent in these matters, we note on the margins that a major specialist in numbers and the Olympics (Aso represented Japan in shooting competitions at the 1976 Games in Montreal) somehow turned out to be right: the 2020 Games turned out to be the most problematic. Moreover, problems with them began long before the pandemic, and even the postponement of the entire event for one year did not correct this unfortunate situation. Rather, it only made things worse.

Difficulties arose already at the stage of choosing an emblem for the competition. Unveiled in July 2015, the logo, designed by Japanese designer Kenjiro Sano, is strikingly similar to the logo of a theater that delights residents of the Belgian city of Liege with its performances. The lawsuit and public scandal that followed greatly damaged not only the designer’s career, but also the image of the Games themselves, and therefore, in September, the first version of the emblem (and several hundredweight of souvenir products already made based on it) was abandoned. The logo chosen in the second competition with the traditional checkered itimatsu pattern, so beloved in Japan (and – just as important – guaranteed to unknown Belgian theatergoers), showed incredible portrait resemblance to the popular image of the coronavirus.

In parallel with serious passions over the emblem, no less comic passions flared up about the main arena of the Olympics, which it was decided to build on the site of the National Stadium that hosted the 1964 Games. The competition was won by the futuristic design of the bureau of the world famous Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, but in the same July 2015 he faced insurmountable obstacles… Astronomical in terms of boldness of design decisions and ambitions, the structure, which was supposed to become the dominant feature of the architectural landscape of central Tokyo, did not please the Japanese with its astronomical cost, which grew to more than two billion dollars. As with the emblem, the competition was held anew, and instead of Zaha Hadid’s futuristic fantasies, a much more modest project by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma settled in downtown Tokyo. The modesty, originality and current environmental friendliness of this option should have been emphasized by a wooden roof, but there were also problems with it.

According to the rules established by the IOC , the Olympic flame must be located in the main arena of the Games so that it can be seen not only by everyone present at the stadium, but also by those outside. For obvious reasons, the wooden roof of the new National Stadium did not meet these requirements very well. Fire safety experts feared that at some point the roof might be so imbued with the Olympic spirit that the sacred flame would briefly become visible to all, without exception, the inhabitants of Tokyo. As a result, a compromise solution was found in the form of two pedestals for the Olympic flame at once: a temporary one was installed at the stadium itself for the opening ceremony, and a permanent one was installed on the Yume-no-Ohashi bridge on the artificial island of Odaiba in Tokyo Bay.

All these misadventures, which went almost unnoticed outside of Japan, in terms of reputational damage, cannot be compared with a series of scandals that erupted on the eve of the opening of the Olympics. The main character of the first was the chairman of the Organizing Committee of the Games (and another master of political aphorism) Yoshiro Mori, who publicly complained that the participation of women in meetings made the latter too long. The subsequent apologies and other attempts to consider the incident exhausted did not give the expected effect, and Mori was soon forced to leave his post, but a new manifestation of the disrespectful attitude towards women prevailing in Japan was not long in coming.

The next salvo on the image of the Olympics was marked by the creative director of the opening and closing ceremonies Hiroshi Sasaki. The creative husband offered to decorate the event entrusted to his cares for the “Japanese Beyoncé” Naomi Watanabe, disguised as a pig. The image he invented called Olympig, reflecting the author’s very peculiar attitude towards plus size ladies, did not find understanding among the Japanese and international public, and Sasaki joined Mori in the Olympic team who quit of their own free will.

Finally, less than a week before the start of the Games, one of the composers of the opening ceremony, Keigo Oyamada, got into the spotlight thanks to a long-standing interview in which he humorously described how he abused classmates with disabilities at school. Given the fact that, in addition to the Olympics, Tokyo will have to host the Paralympics, as well as huge problems with bullying in Japanese schools, the massacre of Oyamada and the material he wrote for the opening ceremony followed almost instantly. But even that didn’t help much. As a result, the already very problematic Games approached their start against an extremely negative emotional background caused by the scandalous statements of people associated with them. Instead of the Cool Japan project promoted by the government, the whole world saw Japan archaic and not even particularly shy about its old-fashionedness. The arguments about the curse gravitating over the Olympics, surprising for the Minister of Finance of a modern developed country, quite organically fall into this outline. All this would not be so bad if it were not for the coronavirus.

Olympic records

It so happened that just before the start of the Olympics, the “Japanese model” of the fight against coronavirus finally and irrevocably exhausted itself. This model was based on two fundamental features of behavior. The first is that the culture of wearing masks in Japan was very widespread even before the pandemic , and since April last year, going out with a bare face has become almost as indecent here as going out completely without clothes. By the summer of 2021, the rules of decency have softened somewhat, but unmasking in an enclosed space like a train carriage still guarantees a “naked” person shining rays of hatred from all sides and some expansion of personal space: a person without a mask is shunned as if he were plagued.

The second feature: until now, the population of Japan has quite sensitively responded to the emergency regimes announced by the authorities and, for the most part, quite disciplinedly refrained from contacts with their own kind, not caused by an urgent need. Exactly in this way – without lockdowns or any other tangible restrictions – the three previous waves of morbidity in Japan were extinguished. And this course of action on the eve of the Olympics collapsed. It is not known for certain what caused this. Either the society is tired of showing conscience, or the coincidence of the fourth emergency regime with the start of the Olympic Games caused a completely understandable reaction “let it all burn with Olympic flame.” Quite understandable, because the costs of the already catastrophically unprofitable Olympics will somehow be replenished through taxes,

The collapse of the collective conscious was extremely unsuccessfully superimposed on the beginning of the spread of the “delta” strain in Japan. The consequences were not long in coming. As early as July 14, the number of new cases of the disease in Tokyo exceeded 1,000 people, which was unpleasant and unusual for the Japanese capital, and already on July 31, at the height of the Olympic Games, it reached a record level of 4,000 . However, this record did not last long: already on August 5, the delta reached a new altitude – 5000.

As a result, the capital of the Olympics, even before its completion, suffered a collapse of the healthcare system, albeit a rather peculiar one. On the one hand, the death rate from covid in Tokyo has been fluctuating from 0 to 3 people per day for almost a month , and the number of beds equipped with ventilators and ECMOs still more than doubles the number of patients requiring such treatment. This was achieved through the priority vaccination of the elderly population: as of August 6, almost 79% of Tokyo residents over 65 receivedboth components of the vaccine. On the other hand, a whole year of relative prosperity has left Tokyo completely unprepared to provide medical care to thousands and thousands of patients with moderate severity – people who, due to low oxygen saturation, need oxygen. By August 8, the number of such patients in the hospitalization queue exceeded 13 thousand people.

The fact that the authorized agencies at both the local and national levels were concerned for a whole year not with the expansion of the bed capacity, but with the holding of the Olympics, causes growing irritation among the population. According to the aforementioned public opinion poll , in August the share of Japanese people who negatively assess the results of the authorities’ activities in the fight against coronavirus increased by 11 percentage points compared to July and amounted to 62%.

The numbers in Tokyo itself should be even less complimentary to the government. The residents of the capital did not receive any advantages from the Games: the long-awaited holiday of sports remained for them exclusively a television event, and therefore could just as well be held even in Antarctica. And given the wasted costs, persistent problems and scandals, and the collapse of the healthcare system that coincided with the Olympics, the Antarctica option is seen by many in Tokyo as even preferable. All of this will have political implications. And very soon.

Autumn Sugi

Despite the total triumph of Japanese sports at the Olympics (third place in the team competition and a record 27 gold medals) and the successful organization of the Games in almost impossible conditions, the position of the current Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Sugi is difficult to envy. Two major political events are scheduled for the fall in Japan. The first is the next election of the leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, tentatively scheduled for September 29. The second is elections to the lower house of parliament, the term of office of the current convocation of which expires on October 21.

The latter is, of course, more important here. The fact is that in Japan’s post-war history, only one convocation of the lower house survived until the end of its term: the current Constitution provides the prime minister with the opportunity to dissolve the lower house and call elections to it at any time. Strictly speaking, one of the conditions for a long premiership in Japan is the ability to guess the right moment for dissolution: Shinzo Abe mastered this art to perfection.

Abe’s successor as prime minister, no doubt, understands this very well. That is why he decided to postpone the dissolution of the lower house until the last: Yoshihide Suga hoped that the success of the Olympic Games and the mass vaccination program organized by his government by September would raise his rating to levels that would allow him to dissolve the lower house and defeat his opponents at any time. In this case, the question of the next LDP leader would have disappeared for natural reasons: changing a horse at the crossing is already a dubious occupation, and even more so after the crossing.

The depth of the collapse of these calculations is now visible to the naked eye. Despite the success of the vaccination program organized by the Sugi government (Japan has been registering more than a million injections a day for almost two months), the late start compared to America and Western Europe, coupled with the overheating of the healthcare system, creates a negative attitude among voters about the government. And, as public opinion polls show, even the Olympics, which were successful for Japan, in no way compensates for these sad considerations for Sugi. The Olympics that ended last Sunday leave Tokyo and Japan feeling like they’ve all gone elsewhere, with record rates of coronavirus and colossal annoyance at their own governments.

Courtesy: (Carnegie)