The Long and Winding Road to the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics

While public support in Japan has been lackluster for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, the mood may change once the games start – provided no major public health incidents and other unfortunate accidents occur, says Stanford sociologist Kiyoteru Tsutsui.
A man cycles past a security fence outside the New National Stadium, the main stadium for the Tokyo Olympics, on June 23, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan A man cycles past a security fence outside the New National Stadium, the main stadium for the Tokyo Olympics, on June 23, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. Yuichi Yamazaki/ Getty Images

This interview was first published by the Stanford News Service.

The 2020 Summer Olympics have begun this week but public support among the Japanese public for the games has been generally low and their mood can be articulated through the succinct question: “Why are we doing this now?” says Stanford sociologist and Japan Program Director Kiyoteru Tsutsui.

Here, Tsutsui discusses how the various challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and other national scandals related to the games have led to a general dissatisfaction among the Japanese public towards their government and the International Olympic Committee. Despite low morale, the country’s mood may change once the Summer Games commence – barring any further complications or disruptions. But given that the games are pared down this year, it still may be hard to generate the same levels of excitement as in previous years, Tsutsui said.
Tsutsui is the Henri H. and Tomoye Takahashi Professor and director of the Japan Program at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, which is part of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Tsutsui is also a professor of sociology and his research focuses on social movements, globalization, human rights and Japanese society. He is the author of Rights Make Might: Global Human Rights and Minority Social Movements in Japan (Oxford University Press, 2018).

Polls among the Japanese public show mixed support for the games and meanwhile, major advertisers in the country are pulling out. As a sociologist, how do you see this mixed public sentiment affecting overall mood and morale?

There is no question that there is a strong headwind against the Olympics in the lead-up to the opening ceremony. Opinion polls are still against the games, although the numbers improved a little in recent weeks. The general public sentiment can be summed up as “Why are we doing this now?”

The road to the Tokyo Olympics has been a long and winding one complicated by COVID-19, first and foremost, and various scandals. The Japanese public has been fed up with the COVID-19-related emergency declarations and other restrictions as well as the slower pace of vaccination compared to other developed countries. The perception, right or wrong, is that the government is making decisions based on whether they help in hosting the Olympics successfully, when the focus should be on public health and economic rescue in the COVID environment.

Morale is low, but many are hoping that things will change quickly once the games begin. Whether that happens or not depends on a whole host of factors, most importantly whether major public health incidents and other unfortunate accidents happen or not, how Japanese athletes fare, who might emerge as global stars, and so on.

To what extent has the International Olympic Committee (IOC) helped or hindered support for the games among the Japanese public?

The Japanese public sees the IOC as simply pushing its economic interest without the proper regard for their safety and health. Many people do not understand that the Japanese government does not have the authority to cancel the Olympics and could have faced a lawsuit with a huge compensation at stake if it tried to do so. The IOC looks like the IMF/World Bank during the Asian economic crisis in affected countries or the EU in some European countries – an international entity that pushes its agenda without accountability to the citizens. The frustration has nowhere to go but to the Japanese government, which combined with overall COVID-19-related dissatisfaction, has led to the most recent polls showing the lowest approval rating for the government under Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

For Japan, hosting the 2020 Olympic Games initially symbolized the country’s rebound from the devastating Tōhoku earthquake, tsunami and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in 2011 and was poised to boost their economy. Then COVID hit, and meanwhile, Olympic expenses ballooned. Are there any opportunities for the Olympic Games to help the country bounce back? 

The 2020 Olympics was initially framed as a symbol of recovery from the triple disaster in 2011, but that slogan is no longer central. The expenses were justified as a way to develop infrastructure for foreign visitors and increase inbound tourists, and the government’s goals for the number of visitors from abroad have been met already. With no spectators allowed, Japan will lose money on hosting the Olympics, but the economic damage is not irrecoverable. Once the world gets out of COVID-19, the Japanese economy will likely rebound and tourists will come back.

It will be interesting to follow how socially, in terms of the national psyche and its unity, Japan will respond to the Tokyo Olympics. Even when the games take place in other countries, the Olympics often serve as a moment of national unity, especially in Japan. With Japan being the host, many thought that it would serve as an enormous booster towards national confidence and unity. We have yet to see how the games will turn out, but these psychological impacts will likely be lessened as the games are scaled down and may not get as much global attention as typical Olympics do.

There’s still a chance for a better outcome though if the games go smoothly and offer many compelling moments. People in many countries are still more homebound than usual and the contents that the games offer could be attractive. And the Japanese public is known to swing from one side to the other very quickly and on a massive scale, so once the games begin, TV personalities who were questioning whether the games should happen will likely quickly turn around and support Japanese athletes and tout their accomplishments. That is, if no serious outbreak incidents occur.

The Olympics are often celebrated as a nonpolitical event that can unite the world. In a globally turbulent world, what do you make of that assessment? Can the Olympics be nonpolitical?

The Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022 is a case in point. Boycott of the games seems unlikely, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already floated an idea of diplomatic boycott. There’s a lot at stake for the host country, and the Olympics will likely be politicized when countries like China, Russia or even the U.S. host it.

Another problem is that not many democracies would be eager to host the games anymore. Public support is needed for democracies to host the Olympics, but the growing cost of the games, combined with increasingly less clear benefits of hosting, has made it difficult to find democracies that are eager to be the host country. Meanwhile, non-democracies like China and Russia, and even smaller countries like Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan campaign to become host nations. The pattern of dictatorships hosting the Olympics and the world demanding a change in their human rights practices and, threatening a boycott, might be a recurring pattern in the coming decades.

Photo of Kiyoteru Tsutsui

Kiyoteru Tsutsui

Senior Fellow at FSI, Professor of Sociology, Director of the Japan Program
Full Biography

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