Nexus between the Tokyo Olympics, Coronavirus, and Politics

The COVID-19 pandemic has been making global headlines. Also commonly referred to as the coronavirus, the rapid spread of this newly identified virus has been reported in at least 177 countries and has claimed the lives of over 14,000 people globally. Parallel to this global panic, an increasing amount of international attention was given to the discussion of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics over the past few weeks, which is now set to take place in 2021. As the head of the host country of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, the Abe administration has remained passive and meek in its approach to containing the nation-wide spread of the coronavirus. 

Japan’s “Soft” and “Passive” Approaches 

In its national fight against the coronavirus, Japan remains soft and passive. That is not to say that the Japanese government has turned a blind eye to this invisible enemy. Though there are certainly differences in effectiveness, enforceability, and scale, the Japanese government has, like other countries that have faced the surge in coronavirus infections, advised its domestic populace to avoid nonessential gatherings. The country has also introduced travel warnings and recently expanded travel bans in a bid to prevent the entry of people from what it defines as high-risk areas. 

(People in Japan continue to gather as the Cherry Blossom season begins/Photo by Yoshiaki Miura via the Japan Times)

At the same time, what agitates many domestic and international stakeholders is the Japanese government’s relative unwillingness to ratchet up its anti-coronavirus measures to stricter levels. For instance, the government has recently made a decision not to extend its request to prefectural authorities regarding the closure of elementary, junior, and high schools nationwide, all of which are expected to reopen shortly in April. The government’s advice to its citizens as well as the domestic business and entertainment sector to avoid large-scale events does not entail any legally-binding obligations.

As a result people in Japan continue to gather, unlike in many other countries. Out at parks, people still keep alive the national tradition known as hanami where they hold parties and picnics to enjoy the cherry blossoms in mass groups. The recent K-1 World GP in Saitama is another example where more than 6,000 devoted fans flocked to the confined indoor stadium in spite of calls (but not orders) by municipal authorities for cancelation. These seemingly soft and passive approaches can be contrasted with some of the harder and stricter measures taken by other countries including many states in the US, European countries like Italy and Spain, and Japan’s regional neighbor South Korea

Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics 

This is where the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics come in. Initially, the Abe administration had been very adamant about the timely hosting of the world’s quadrennial festival. However, with the global spread of the virus it soon became subject to both external and internal voices calling for the rescheduling of all the events. Athletes who are the protagonists of the Olympic and Paralympic Games were quick to express such concerns as uncertainty grew over qualifiers and their training camps. Countries like Canada and Australia vocally stressed the incompatibility of the Olympics and the global pandemic by announcing that they would not send their national athletes unless there were some sorts of adjustments to the scheduling.

Internally, Haruyuki Takahashi, a member of the Tokyo Olympic organising committee’s executive board, raised a critical question as to whether the city of Tokyo under the influence of the coronavirus would be able to ensure safe environments for all the participants and visitors, leading him to conclude “Even if there are no problems in Japan, that will not mean the Olympics can go ahead as planned.” Such words from one of the key players of the organising committee were sensational enough to take the government by surprise, and Yoshiro Mori, the president of the committee, had to issue a statement clarifying their stance on the timely execution of all the events as planned. As a result, Abe was compelled to agree with the International Olympic Committee to reschedule the 2020 Tokyo Olympics while making clear his position that a cancelation would remain off the table. 

Now that an official decision has been made, and the long-awaited events will be pushed back until the summer of 2021, we can only talk about it in retrospect. Yet, an investigation might show the decisions surrounding the Olympics/Paralympics were predicated more on political rather than health concerns. 

(The Olympic Flame arrives in Japan amid concerns over impacts of coronavirus on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics/ Photo by AP/Eugene Hoshiko via Japan Today)

The Olympic and Paralympic Games have always unfolded in the specific contexts of changing international political environments. The Games rose in political importance after WWII, held in London in 1948. For many of the countries and athletes, participation symbolised their national recognition, political legitimacy, and their new positions in the new post-WWII international society. Thus, it should come as no surprise that  Germany and Japan were not invited to London due to their wartime positions and roles. The bloodiest Olympic Games in history, the 1972 Munich Olympics reflected the ongoing struggle between Palestine and Israel, arising from politics of nationalities and territorial disputes. A Palestinian organisation, the Black September, took eleven Israeli athletes and coaches hostage and eventually killed them (and one West-German police officer), calling for the release of some 200 Palestinians imprisoned in Israel. 

What the Japanese government’s handling of the outbreak might reflect is a link between Olympics and Japanese domestic politics, or more specifically the Abe administration’s vested political interests in hosting the Tokyo Olympics and Pararymics as scheduled. Looking back, the Abe administration has come through a rocky path. As I’ve written about before, the Abe government’s maritime policy in 2014 and 2015 widened the existing gap between Japan and its Asian neighbours, leading to Japan’s regional isolation. In 2019, Japan experienced a historical diplomatic row with South Korea, with the unsolved issue of forced labour and ensuing trade war playing a part in worsening their already tense relations. 

Of course, the Abe administration did achieve something. Within the five years after Prime Minister Abe re-assumed the office in 2012, his economic strategies known as Abenomics brought soothing effects on the long-standing excessive debt burdens and high unemployment rate. The very fact that Abe himself recently became the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history is also a testimony to the stability and longevity that his administration achieved, which is perhaps something a country like Japan that had in the past experienced frequent transitions of political power was longing for. 

(Approval and Disapproval rate for Abe Government/Source by Japan Forward)

However, as the end of his term in the office draws near, the stability of the longest Japanese regime in history seems to be further jeopardised. The Abe government ignited domestic criticisms over the Moritomo Gakuen Scandal where a connection between Abe’s wife and an ultraconservative education provider that was somehow able to purchase a large mass of government-owned lands at an extremely low price, was exposed. More recently, Abe has faced allegations over his potential act of appropriation of the publicly funded cherry blossom-viewing party where he is believed to have invited his supporters. As a result, the reputation of the government has been severely tarnished, as seen in recent statistics that show public disapproval rate has exceeded approval rate

In this light, the successful execution of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics starts to look like a way to express to the world Abe’s image of a “strong Japan” in economic, social and cultural terms. Along with a growing public disapproval rate, the Abe administration faces a risk of collapsing internally as some coalition partners have expressed their concerns over its repeated scandals. In this light, it is not an overstatement that the political lifeline of the administration is heavily dependent on the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

In order to organise and host the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games as scheduled, ensuring a national environment where all the athletes, audience, and staff can find themselves safe and completely away from the danger of the coronavirus is essential. In this sense, the Japanese government is probably finding itself trapped in a catch-22 situation. On the one hand, larger-scale governmental involvement and stricter measures to restrict the movements of people, as in Italy, France and Spain, or to simply test more people, as South Korea has, might perhaps help minimise the risk of the further domestic outbreak. 

On the other hand, the government has found it incredibly hard to ban mass gatherings and the movements of people as ‘normal’ civilian life needed to go on to stress that everything is under control and that Japan was capable of hosting the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics as scheduled. In a similar vein, the limited number of medical testing reflects the government’s efforts to maintain the domestic status quo because, as Jason Kindrachuk – an assistant professor of viral pathogenesis at the University of Manitoba – observes,  “if you don’t test for it, you’re not going to find a lot of cases.” The government announcement that it would not extend its request for the closure of schools interestingly coincided with the time when international discourse on the potential postponing/cancelling of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics emerged. 

Public Responses

The government’s measures, however, have not provided relief for the Japanese populace, whose safety continues to be threatened by the mounting number of domestic cases of infections and deaths. As its neighbour South Korea continues mass medical testing, this lack seems to have provided a source of suspicion and frustration among the Japanese public, who feel that the government is trying to maintain an image of a safe Japan at the expense of public interests. 

Recently, the government announced a plan to distribute two reusable masks to every household. Yet, this appeared far from public expectations, leaving millions of people confused and agitated. A woman with six other family members expressed her anger and confusion in an interview with the Asahi Shinbun: “What will we do with just two?…I think there is something wrong about giving the same number to all households.”

The government’s decision has already backfired and drawn public outcry, with “Abenomask” – a wordplay on the Abe administration’s central economic policy – becoming a trending hashtag on Twitter. The public also took to various social media platforms to express their feelings through satirical memes featuring big-name Japanese films such as “Spirited Away” and the country’s longest-running anime that has become its national icon, “Sazae-san.”

(Memes have become a way through which the public express their anger and frustration in response to the government’s two-mask policy/ Photos via the Japan Times)

In mid-March, Japan revised a law that bestows Abe with the authority to declare a state of national emergency for the outbreak of the coronavirus. As of today, the government has not issued a national emergency declaration. Such an option to call a national emergency and admit to a pandemic in Japan is something the Abe administration could only opt for as a last resort because a further step towards cancelation or further deferment would be a recipe to its collapse.

It is extremely difficult to separate politics from anything in today’s world, but let us hope that the Olympics and Paralympics will remain a place where countries, athletes, and audience, as enshrined in the Olympic Charter, “place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society” without serving political interests of anyone. 


Shugo Okaeda holds a BA from Monash University, Australia and is currently completing his MA at Korea University, South Korea. Previously, he worked as a research assistant at SSK Human Rights Forum and is currently working as a research assistant at Korea University.

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