No Vision Yet in Sight for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games

Sven Saaler [Profile]

[2013.11.07] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | ESPAÑOL |

The IOC has decided to host the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. In stark contrast to Tokyo’s previous unpopular bid, this time domestic support was strong. With the decision comes a huge responsibility for the organizers toward Japan, the Japanese sports world, Japanese taxpayers, as well as the international community.

Japan’s Global Image

Before and during the 2020 Olympics, the eyes of the world will be focused on Japan. The organizers of the Olympics, the government, and the media are well advised to be aware of this and avoid harming Japan’s reputation by way of comments such as those made by Tokyo Governor Inose Naoki regarding Islamic countries, which unnecessarily endangered Tokyo’s candidacy in the last stage of the selection process.

The Olympic Games have a strong influence on a country’s image in the world. Great Britain’s popularity worldwide was significantly enhanced as a result of the London Olympics in 2012. On the other hand, China saw a decline of its popularity in the wake of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Expectations were high that democratization in China would make progress as a result of the games, but those hopes did not materialize. Many commentators are even saying that hosting the Olympics in Beijing was a mistake. In the lead-up to 2020, Japan needs to come up with a strategy that will allow it to host the Olympic Games in a way that presents the country in a positive light and impresses the international community, thereby strengthening Japan’s soft power.

A Blurry Vision

In order to achieve this aim, Japan needs to overcome the main weakness of its campaign—the lack of a vision. The final presentation of the Tokyo delegation before the IOC committee was rather defensive and did not clearly convey what the 2020 Tokyo Games are supposed to be about—apart from the fact that they will be hosted by Japan. To a large extent, it was the convincing appeal of young Paralympics athlete Satō Mami that won the day for Tokyo.

The leading figures of the delegation, however, failed to present a convincing image or come up with a major vision; instead they merely emphasized that Tokyo is a safe city with a good infrastructure. While these are necessary ingredients for successful Olympic Games, the lack of a vision might still impair the effect the Tokyo Games will have on Japan’s reputation. At the moment, the question of a “vision” seems to have no genuine importance for the organizers. The official English website for the Tokyo Games has “Vision” as one of the items on the navigation bar, reflecting at least an awareness of the importance of the term to the international community, but the Japanese website does not have a corresponding item.

A Need for a Global Outlook

Among recent Olympic Games, those with a strong international and multicultural orientation clearly received the most positive feedback. Tokyo 2020 also needs to be held in a truly international and multicultural atmosphere. Demonstrations against minorities and outbursts of hate speech in recent years have shown that xenophobia is still a major problem in Japanese society. Xenophobia is not something that can be taken lightly in the years to come, given the fact that thousands of athletes and tens or hundreds of thousands of sports fans will travel to Japan for the 2020 Olympics.

Unfortunately, though, Japanese politicians have lacked an awareness of this issue and have been reluctant to act. It is obvious that a lot of work needs to be done in the coming years. Just repeating that the situation is “under control” will not solve Japan’s problems or reduce the urgency of dealing with them.

Even more than politicians, the media have an obligation to create an atmosphere of multicultural cosmopolitanism. The Olympics are supposed to be a gathering of athletes from around the world. The media often fail to see this and present the Olympics in a narrow domestic context. In September 2013, “memorable scenes (mei-bamen) from the history of the Olympics” were presented in an evening TV news program, but nine out of ten scenes showed Japanese athletes. This kind of media coverage endangers a successful hosting of the Olympics as a truly international event and will prevent the Olympics from contributing to an improvement of Japan’s image around the world.

(Originally written in English on October 29, 2013.)

  • [2013.11.07]

Associate professor of Modern Japanese History at Sophia University in Tokyo and Japan representative of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation. He is author of Politics, Memory and Public Opinion (Iudicium, 2005); co-editor (with J. Victor Koschmann) of Pan-Asianism in Modern Japanese History (Routledge, 2007), The Power of Memory in Modern Japan (with Wolfgang Schwentker; Global Oriental, 2008) and Pan-Asianism: A Documentary History (with Christopher W. A. Szpilman, Rowman & Littlefield, 2011). He is also co-author of Impressions of an Imperial Envoy. Karl von Eisendecher in Meiji Japan (in German and Japanese, 2007) and of Under Eagle Eyes: Lithographs, Drawings and Photographs from the Prussian Expedition to Japan, 1860-61 (in German, Japanese, and English, 2011).

Related articles
Other columns

Video highlights

New series

  • From the editor in chief
  • From our columnists
  • In the news