On Jan. 7, 2013, less than two weeks after Shinzo Abe regained Japan’s premiership, Tokyo submitted its bid to bring the Summer Olympics to the Japanese capital in 2020. Abe’s government immediately embraced the Olympics as part of its program to revitalize a country struggling to emerge from two decades of economic stagnation and declining influence. Under Abe, Japan would show the world that it could pick itself up, open its doors and — despite anxieties about demographics and growth — remain a respected world leader, a cultural powerhouse and a technological innovator.
However, when the Tokyo Olympics finally opened on Friday — a year later than planned due to the Covid-19 pandemic — the games will not be the showcase for the new Japan that Abe had hoped for. With Japan’s borders mostly closed and Tokyo under a state of emergency amid another spike in cases, athletes will compete in empty venues. The resignations of the president of the organizing committee and several creative directors for the opening ceremony, to say nothing of the vast cost overruns, point to rampant mismanagement by the organizers. And there are widespread concerns that the games could lead to not only an increase in Covid-19 cases locally but also become a global “superspreader” event. Abe, no longer prime minister, did not even attend the opening ceremony. His successor, Yoshihide Suga, will be gritting his teeth for the duration, hoping to fulfill his promise of a “safe and secure” games without taking serious political fallout.
With the stands empty and mounting case numbers across the world, the Tokyo Games feel neither like a celebration of Japan’s revitalization nor a commemoration of the end of the pandemic. Under these circumstances, it is tempting to craft a narrative that the “cursed” Tokyo Olympics highlight Japan’s ineptitude rather than its national revival.
But just as it was a mistake for Abe to invest the Olympics with outsize significance that arguably made it more difficult for the government to listen to medical advisers and the public, it would also be a mistake to assume that the disappointments of the Tokyo Games reveal something fundamental about Japan’s status on the world stage today.
Abe’s enthusiastic embrace of the Olympic bid was the result of a potent marriage of nostalgia about the 1964 Olympics — remembered as the moment Japan truly reemerged on the world stage after the Second World War — and his own ambitions to change a narrative about Japan’s declining place in the world. But Abe, Suga and other worried boosters should take comfort: Japan doesn’t need the Olympics to make it relevant at a time when its role in tackling the world’s most significant challenges — whether combating climate change, bolstering the global public health and trading systems, or coping with a more powerful China — has never been greater.
The Japan that will host the Olympics may not be the proud and confident great power of Abe’s dreams. It is still facing the daunting challenge of an aging, shrinking population. Its near-term economic outlook remains grim, while the government and private sector are still seeking the right formula for sustainable growth over the long term. But these challenges are not so much the mark of an aging power with declining global relevance as a harbinger for problems that other rich democracies are only beginning to confront. If the 1964 Tokyo Olympics marked Japan’s arrival as a burgeoning superpower in the early stages of its economic miracle, the 2021 Tokyo Olympics confirm Japan’s status as a mature, wealthy democracy struggling with many of the same challenges as its peers. In short, at long last Japan is a normal nation.
It is that very normalcy that makes it difficult to use the Tokyo Games to spin either a triumphalist or declinist narrative about contemporary Japan. While the Japanese government has been criticized for proceeding with the games with Tokyo under its fourth state of emergency — and Abe and Suga have taken heat for overly reactive responses to Covid-19 — Japan has also performed better than all of its peers in the G-7, in terms of both absolute and relative case numbers and mortality. Its vaccine rollout was slow to start, but it is now inoculating its population at a rate of roughly 1 million people per day, with more than 30 percent having received at least one dose.
Similarly, the same government struggling to pull off a “safe and secure” Olympics has also been aggressively reorienting its industrial policies around decarbonization after Suga pledged to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. The climate push shows an enviable ability to be creative and flexible in addressing a pressing global crisis. And while Japan has been criticized for overly strict travel restrictions and confusing instructions for the few foreigners entering the country for the Olympics, in the years leading up to the games, the Abe government opened Japan’s doors to foreign tourists — and foreign residents — as never before.
Finally, with relatively little fanfare, Japan has remained a leading source of development finance across Asia, all the more notable as China has ramped up its Belt and Road initiative. In short, despite political, economic and social constraints, contemporary Japan is making the most of its capabilities to manage crises that will be with the world long after the athletes leave Tokyo.
That may be a more modest story than Abe had hoped to tell when he threw his weight behind Tokyo’s bid. And it may bring little comfort to Suga, who will have to win a new term as leader of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in September and contest a general election before the end of November. The games could have real political consequences for Suga: Japanese voters, already angry that the games are being held at all, could punish the prime minister if the Olympics lead to more Covid-19 cases despite his reassurances. But then, the wrath of voters is part of being a normal democracy, too.
Abe remembered the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, held when he was only 10 years old, as heralding Japan’s reemergence on the world stage after rebuilding from the devastation of World War II. In his memoirs, Abe rhapsodized about how the pageantry of the games gave him the feeling that “something brilliant would awaken” in Japan. “Our country, starting from burnt-out ruins, had achieved reconstruction until we could finally hold the Olympics,” he wrote.
Under Abe’s leadership, history was supposed to repeat itself. 2020 was to be the “Reconstruction Olympics,” as Japan looked to rebuild after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The Olympics loomed large in the government’s plans, at times called the “fourth arrow” of Abenomics, Abe’s eponymous economic revitalization program. As it became clear that canceling or postponing again would give China the opportunity to host the first post-Covid Olympics, status anxiety around the Tokyo Games only mounted.
But this anxiety was misplaced. Thanks in part to Abe’s efforts, Japan is more open to the world and more respected than ever before as a global leader in trade, development finance and climate policy. It’s not 1964 anymore: It may be no small thing that Japan doesn’t actually need the Olympics to show that it has an important role to play on the world stage.