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Japan as Risk-Taker: Hosting the 2021 Olympics

Shihoko Goto

Hosting the Olympic Games had once been seen as a great public relations opportunity to promote the host country and jump-start the economy. That had certainly been the case when Tokyo first hosted the summer Olympics in 1964. The Games showcased Japan’s successful reemergence from World War II, and led to a slew of infrastructure development including building the Shinkansen bullet train system and bolstering consumer demand for television sets and other goods.

Even before the pandemic, critics had been quick argue to that the gains for hosting the 2020 Olympics  would pale in comparison, stressing that the cost would be too high for too little return. As the global pandemic forced Japan to postpone the games last year, the price tag for the Games has only increased. According to the organizing committee, the cost has increased by 22 percent as a direct result of the pandemic to $15.4 billion from $12.6 billion, with an additional $2.8 billion in added costs to renegotiate contracts and make other adjustments.

Yet Japan as a risk-taker should be able to put on a show that will place it on the world map as a can-do country that won’t accept no as an answer.

Yet the benefit of hosting the Games would be much stronger now than before the pandemic. If the 1964 Olympics had been an opportunity to recast Japan’s global image, then organizing the world’s largest premier sporting event since the global shutdown in March 2020 would cast Japan as a risk-taker, willing to take on imaginative ways to host the Games. For hosting the Olympics even when the pandemic has not fully disappeared and access to vaccines still being limited is undoubtedly a risk. The easiest and safest thing to do would be to cancel the event altogether. However, there are plenty of major sporting events that have taken place across the world over the past year, including the Grand Slam tennis tournaments, entire NFL as well as baseball seasons, and golf championships, to name but a few. Granted, all of them went forward with precious few spectators and with social distance measures in place, which meant they were not as profitable as they were under ordinary circumstances. But for the players and fans, the fact that the events went ahead provided a great escape from the harsh reality of COVID. Tokyo can certainly learn from the measures taken by the major sports organizers and scale back the Olympics so that the festivities surrounding it are almost non-existent or unrecognizable. There will of course be pushback from those who want a full-scale extravaganza, as well as from those who fear the super-spreading potential of such an event. Yet Japan as a risk-taker should be able to put on a show that will place it on the world map as a can-do country that won’t accept no as an answer.

The fact that the Japan has been able to appoint a female athlete to head the Olympic Organizing Committee gives further impetus for the country to move ahead with the Games. Seiko Hashimoto, an Olympic speed skater and cabinet member, was appointed to the post in February to replace Yoshiro Mori after his sexist remarks about women hampering professional meetings for talking too much. Hashimoto’s succession is noteworthy in itself as high-ranking positions in Japan remain dominated by men. Perhaps more importantly, though, is the fact that the committee actually listened to public outrage against Mori and acted upon it. Japan emerging as a successful host nation against all odds would be an achievement worth celebrating for the country itself, but it would also be a tremendous win for women in high office and their ability to get things done.

Should Japan pass up the opportunity this year to host the summer games, China would have the bragging rights to claim that it hosted the world’s first post-pandemic games.

Then there is the China factor. Beijing will be hosting the Winter Games in 2022, when the pandemic is unlikely to hamper the Chinese from putting on a large-scale show as planned. Should Japan pass up the opportunity this year to host the summer games, China would have the bragging rights to claim that it hosted the world’s first post-pandemic games. Even though only 36 percent of those polled by Japanese daily Yomiuri Shimbun say that the Tokyo Olympics should move forward as planned, the political pressure within the Suga government to proceed with the Games is palpable.

It is, of course, difficult to assess the health risks of hosting a massive international event like the Olympics when the pandemic is not yet over. Nevertheless, should Tokyo decide not to take the easy way out, it will be an opportunity to recast its image to the world as well as to itself as a country that can think outside of the box and embrace risk. Those qualities also happen to be what Japan needs to remain competitive in the global economy as well.


Follow Shihoko Goto, deputy director for geoeconomics and senior associate for Northeast Asia, on Twitter @GotoEastAsia.

The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2020, Asia Program. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Shihoko Goto

Shihoko Goto

Deputy Director for Geoeconomics and Senior Associate for Northeast Asia, Asia Program
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Asia Program

The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more