Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan’s most durable leader since constitutional government began 130 years ago, had staked much political capital on the success of the Olympics. He has enthusiastically promoted the Games as transformative and unifying, with the power to “change the future” of the nation and galvanize “all the people of Japan to walk forward together into a new age”.
Finding a clear and compelling message for the Tokyo Games – a much harder task for host cities in mature economies than for the ambitious capitals of rising world powers – has proven elusive and divisive, however. Tokyo 2020’s forgettable official motto, “United by Emotion”, like London 2012’s insipid “Inspire a Generation”, failed to capture the imagination of Japanese or global audiences. The Tokyo organizers and the Japanese government have consequently been keen to rebrand the upcoming Olympics as “The Caring Games” or the “Recovery Olympics”, showcasing Japan’s progress on healing and reconstruction in the communities devastated by the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown.
Anti-nuclear activists and many residents of the still struggling Tohoku region have not received this new spin on the Tokyo Games well. The decisions to disperse some athletic contests to the disaster-hit prefectures and to start the Olympic torch relay in Fukushima have been dismissed by critics as cynical and politically motivated. Noting ongoing decontamination problems at the Fukushima Daiichi site and the slow pace of rebuilding along the devastated northeast coastline, skeptics have voiced concern that the Olympics have siphoned funds away from real recovery efforts and further delayed an already belated rebound.
Nevertheless, genuine outrage surrounding Tokyo 2020 has proven remarkably tame, even as public excitement over the Olympics has generally been lukewarm. In the months preceding the coronavirus outbreak, enthusiasm for the Games in Japan did seem to be growing: applications for tickets far outstripped supply (by 10 times or more), and more than 200,000 people signed up to volunteer at Olympic and Paralympic sites.
But when the painful decision was made to postpone the events, the Japanese public reacted not with anger, bitterness, or an agonized outpouring of disappointment but instead with a vast collective sigh of resignation. As Justin McCurry wrote in The Guardian, “the general mood was best summed up by the Japanese phrase shikata ga nai (it can’t be helped) – a catchall response to any situation, large or small, over which people believe they have no influence.”
This mass shrug should hardly come as a surprise. Over the past three decades the people of Japan have had plentiful opportunities to practice their composure in the face of natural disasters, policy failures, and an abiding sense of national decline. International observers justifiably praised the Japanese for their forbearance, dignity, and quiet self-sacrifice during the traumatic events of 2011 and their aftermath.
Less admirable perhaps have been the public stoicism and acquiescence through the collapse of the “Bubble Economy” and subsequent “Lost Decades” of economic turmoil, the struggles of a Japanese political establishment consistently unable to deliver reform and change, and the mounting evidence of a society graying and fraying at an alarming pace. As Columbia University political scientist Gerald Curtis has perceptively noted, Japan’s social psychology today is defined by an “odd marriage of pessimism, satisfaction, and complacency”. He added that “deflated expectations about the future have not created a groundswell of demands for change but, to the contrary, have made all the stronger aversion to risk taking and to major public policy changes that people fear might make things worse rather than better.”
The underwhelming yawn of apparent indifference emanating from Japan in the wake of the Olympic postponement decision can easily be ascribed to this ingrained predisposition to inertia and acceptance. But the population’s anemic response may not have been an automatic one. Current attitudes in Japan toward the Olympics could hardly differ more from those in 1964: back then both the Japanese people and the state were fired with a desire to gain the attention and respect of the world after a traumatic war and a humiliating defeat. And unlike 1940, when Japanese subjects had little choice but to follow the patriotic lead of their imperial regime, today’s Japanese citizens have far more latitude to disregard officialdom.
In that light, it is appealing to consider that the tepid response of the Japanese public to Olympic postponement may reflect not a profound complacency but instead an uncommon collective wisdom. The Japanese people may simply have realized that, despite the logistical nightmares, financial costs, and personal disappointments arising from the rescheduling of the Tokyo Games, when all is said and done, the Olympics are just an overblown athletics meet and Japan – and the world – have far more important issues to worry about.