By Paul O’Shea, Senior Lecturer, Center for East and Southeast Asian Studies, Lund University
Stockholm, 24 May (talk): As Japan suffers from the fourth wave of COVID-19, domestic opposition to the Summer Olympics and Paralympics is growing.
Two new opinion polls showing that between 60% and 80% want the games to be canceled or postponed have sparked a frenzy of articles that ask the same question: will the Olympics be canceled?
We’ve been here before – and not just last year, when the Tokyo Games were originally scheduled. Throughout the spring, there were rumors and leaks that the Olympics would not take place. They have been repealed each time by both the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Japanese government, led by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
Recent opinion polls are the clearest sign that the public has strongly opposed the Summer Games. This is an election year – the first for Suga since his predecessor Shinzo Abe took power – and there is no doubt that these polls are bad news for both the prime minister and his ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
Still, if I was an Olympic athlete (I’m definitely not an Olympic athlete), I wouldn’t stop training yet. This is because the decision to give up or continue playing is not a simple matter of the degree of infection. It’s more about politics and money – huge amounts of money.
Does public opinion matter?
Japan is currently battling a fourth wave of the pandemic and several regions are in a state of emergency, although the number of national infections is currently declining.
From a Western perspective, Japan has enjoyed great success in curbing the spread of COVID-19. Like its neighbors South Korea and Taiwan, Japan early recognized the aerial nature of the virus. The immediate and widespread use of masks, the aggressive tracking of contacts and the early blocking of care for the elderly are attributed to Japan’s success in maintaining a relatively low death toll of 11,900.
But compared to neighboring Taiwan and South Korea, Japan’s performance looks less impressive. The government has been widely criticized for promoting domestic tourism in the middle of the third wave. Meanwhile,
The spread of vaccines in Japan is one of the slowest in the OECD. And now, these polls show clear majorities against the Summer Games. The question is, does public opinion really matter?
Japan has extremely low turnout. Combined with the peculiarities of the electoral system, this means that the LDP must not win anything close to the majority of voters in order to retain power. In the last general election, while only 25% of voters voted for the LDP, this gave them 60% of the seats in parliament.
Simply put, as long as public opinion matters, it is not decisive. Some opposition leaders have come out against the Games, but the opposition is generally weak and divided. The LDP has been in power 61 for the past 65 years and has a long history of opposing public opinion on important domestic issues and is still winning re-election.
Winning the prestigious Olympics
From Suga’s point of view, local public opinion is only one factor in the complex equation, which includes contractual obligations to the IOC and, perhaps most importantly, international prestige. After all, given that the Olympics are almost always a net loss, why else would anyone want to accept them even in easier times?
The 1964 Tokyo Olympics marked the end of Japan’s postwar status as a pariah and its return to the international arena. Meanwhile, the 2008 Beijing Olympics marked China’s arrival as a great power. The 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea were a symbolic success when the North and South marched together for the first time under a single flag. In the same vein, the 2020 Summer Olympics – now the 2021 Games – were to show a new, revitalized Japan.
Beijing is hosting the 2022 Winter Games, which are being touted as the first “green” Olympics, and will make Beijing the only city to host both the Winter and Summer Games (an event that is itself now is embroiled in controversy after the speaker of the American House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, called for a boycott).
In a region full of geopolitical tensions and rivalries, this kind of international prestige matters at least to the leadership.
The legal right of withdrawal
So far, I have outlined politics and prestige from a Japanese point of view, as if the decision was made solely by Tokyo. Legally, however, the Olympics are not for the abolition of Tokyo. The IOC owns the games and Japan is contractually obliged to organize them.
The IOC, not Tokyo, is the only bidder that can terminate the contract. The IOC depends on the event because of its income, and its president, Thomas Bach, was very clear that the games would continue regardless of the fourth wave. The IOC, not Tokyo, recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Pfizer to donate vaccines to athletes.
As long as Japan can cancel the contract and unilaterally cancel the games, the costs will be huge. Even if it is repealed with the support of the IOC, Japan is investing huge sums of its own money in the games, much of which has sunk.
So what will the games look like if we assume they are moving forward? Most of the competitors will be vaccinated, but the staff accompanying them may not be. If there are any, viewers will be completely at home and are likely to face strict rules for social distancing. Athletes are instructed to face various constraints that prevent them from interacting more widely with Japanese society.
And yet, with thousands of athletes arriving from around the world, potentially carrying new and unknown variants of the virus, even with everyone at their best, the games carry great risk.
Suga has pledged his leadership to successful summer games. Extracting them without a serious outbreak of infection will not only help the LPD cross the line in October, but will help ensure that it remains at the forefront. If the games fail, this will not be the bronze medal that Suga will receive when she leaves the door. Maybe a wooden spoon instead.