Street lamp posts, bridges, subway stations. All across public spaces in Tokyo, one phrase, on a red and brown banner, has become part of the dizzying cityscape. Inside municipal halls, two anime-inspired figurines flank entrance doorways that continue to draw attention to the same words: “Tokyo 2020: United by emotion.”
As the highly-controversial, most-expensive, postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics concluded in Tokyo two weeks ago, the people — for whom the Games were meant to herald a new vision of the 21st century — are not united by a single emotion. Like any country, Japan’s medal tally — at 58 medals, of which 27 are gold — is surely a matter of pride for most Japanese. However, the Olympics are never just about the games and sportsmanship alone.
Just two years following the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 2011 and the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station, Tokyo won the bid to host the Summer Olympics in 2020. The bid was part of the Japanese government’s ambition to restore the economy: Direct financial damages from the 3/11 disaster were estimated at 16.9 trillion Japanese yen ($154 billion). Such a step was similar to nearly seven decades earlier, when Tokyo hosted the 1964 Olympics, becoming the first Asian country to host the global sporting event, in the aftermath of the damages it had suffered from World War II.
However, this is the 21st century, and realistic emotions override simplistic nationalistic ones. At the bidding stage, the total cost of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics were estimated at 734 billion yen ($6.65 billion).
“A massive disaster had just taken place. Shouldn’t the government’s priority have been to restore the damaged areas of Japan, [rather] than host an expensive commercialized sporting event?” Yuriko Hisamune, 61, wondered back in 2013. “Don’t get me wrong; I like sports, and I even watched many of the Games. But they were too expensive, and we were paying for it. The government always maintains that there is not enough money for education and health, but how come there is money to host the Olympics? Some did believe that Olympics would benefit economically, but I did not believe so,” said Hisamune, who works at a university.
The final cost of hosting the Olympics rose to $15.4 billion, which was just one among many reasons that has left Japanese harboring mixed feelings about the Games. Among the volunteers who chose to continue their roles — after nearly 10,000 of them had dropped out a few months ago due to health risks — some were bored and others enjoyed being part of the Games.
Ikuko Nagano, 59, was thrilled when Japan Olympic Committee (JOC) chairperson Seiko Hashimoto visited Enoshima island, close to where she lives, and waved at the volunteers, thanking them for their efforts; even though most of Nagano’s volunteer work involved watering flower plants near the seaside promenade and waving at athletes in the sailing competition. But most Japanese simply sighed at the long list of controversies that marked the Games.
In February 2021, the head of the Olympics organizing committee, 83-year-old Yoshiro Mori — also a former Japanese prime minister — was forced to resign following a backlash for his comments that women talk too much. Hiroshi Sasaki, executive creative director for the Tokyo Olympics, was forced to resign when he made demeaning remarks about plus-size female entertainer Naomi Watanabe, suggesting that she could perform in the opening ceremony as an “Olympig.” Then, the composer for the opening ceremony Keigo Oyamada quit after it was found that he had bullied classmates with disabilities and had even boasted about it. Just a day before the Games, the director for the opening ceremony, Kentaro Kobayashi, was fired when videos from the 1990s in which he was seen making Holocaust jokes surfaced.
All of these controversies took place amid the COVID-19 pandemic that continued to rage through Japan. After the Games were postponed last year, Japan’s Olympic Minister Seiko Hashimoto said that the Games would be held in 2021 “at any cost.” The new stadium, with a seating capacity of 68,000, had merely 1,000 people in attendance for the opening ceremony: The JOC had banned spectators for most venues. Almost 450,000 people had signed petitions for the Games to be canceled; most sponsors were distancing themselves from the Games. Asahi Shimbun — whose parent company is one of the sponsors of the Games — ran an editorial critiquing the decision to continue with the Games. The CEO of Japan’s top e-commerce company Rakuten called the Games “a suicide mission.” Nevertheless, the Games were held.
“It seems like the government wanted to host the Games for its own pride. It wanted to maintain its commitment of contract with the International Olympic Committee [IOC]. But there was no commitment towards the health of the people, with very few vaccinated,” said 23-year-old Takashi Kitano, who works in Tokyo at a co-working space that emerged during the pandemic. Hisamune also had expected that before the commencement of the Games, at least 40 percent of the population would have been vaccinated; however, only about 18 percent had been fully vaccinated when the Games opened.
“The Delta variant had already made inroads, but the government claimed that the Games would ensure people would stay at home. How would that have been possible, since people have regular jobs to get to? We used to trust our government to some extent; now I have lost trust entirely because they are not thinking about the future and are not revealing all details,” said 74-year-old Nobumi Hiramatsu.
Even before the pandemic, people in Japan were concerned that the Games were scheduled for the summer months of July and August. On July 25, I joined hundreds of sweating women and men with phone cameras — and children on parents’ shoulders — on the broad Tohachidoro Avenue in Tokyo, to catch a glimpse of the women’s cycling tournament that kicked off from Musashinonomori Park near my home in western Tokyo. The cyclists whisked past us, everyone cheered, and then we began to retreat to cooler spaces. I couldn’t fathom that the bikers would ride for 137 km in the 90 degree Fahrenheit heat. “Athletes ought to be able to perform in the best condition, but these were not the best conditions for them by any measure,” Hisamune said.
Even so, Hisamune reluctantly watched a few matches on TV, because that’s what most channels broadcast across the two weeks of the Games. Like everyone else, she followed the women’s basketball matches as Japan clinched a silver. As did Hiramatsu. “I did not expect the Japanese women’s basketball team to do so well, especially since they are about one foot shorter than their American counterparts! But it was amazing to watch their game; so swift and skillful! They kept a competitive score throughout,” he said.
But it was Naomi Osaka’s matches that hooked the attention of nearly every Japanese person. She lit the Olympics cauldron at the opening ceremony; she was hoped to bring home a gold. But when she lost to Czechia’s Marketa Vondrousova, social media in Japan began debating if she is truly Japanese.
“People in Japan like her because no other Japanese athlete has done so well internationally in tennis. We wondered if she would represent Japan or the U.S. However, it is a sad reality that people do not feel good about someone who is mixed blood, especially when one parent is Black,” said the well-traveled Hiramatsu. A much younger but politically-aware 16-year-old high school student, Yuki, believes that while people in her generation look up to Osaka, many older folks aren’t happy that the star athlete is not fluent in the Japanese language.
However, Kitano believes that there is a wider acceptance of Japanese athletes who are biracial or multiracial, and he attributes this to an unexpected factor. In 2019, Japan hosted the rugby world cup, and the Japanese team comprised not only multiracial Japanese nationals, but also foreign residents of Japan. “The rugby games were more inclusive; it opened the door for people to accept this racial diversity. Japan even beat Ireland in one of the earliest matches, which bodes well since Ireland is such a strong team,” Kitano explained. However, news channels did not focus much on the wins of other multiracial Japanese athletes who performed well in the Olympics.
While Kitano watched some of the matches at night with his parents, high-school student Yuki wished she could discuss more of the politics of the Games with her friends, as she did with her family. “My friends and I mostly discuss pop-stars and handsome actors. But they don’t want to talk about social issues because those are discussed at school already and they get bored,” she said, even as she remembered with excitement the rainbow colors on display during the closing ceremony fireworks. Over a plate of watermelon and adzuki (red bean) cakes, she reminded me about singer-songwriter Misia, who sang Japan’s national anthem during the opening ceremony, wearing an extravagant gown with rainbow colors.
Hisamune has seen many students at her university openly declaring their non-binary sexuality, even as she was amused by photos of U.K. diver Tom Daley knitting during the long waits between dives.
“We don’t even see women knitting at the Olympics!” she remarked.
On the other hand, Hiramatsu feels that a person’s sexuality is their own personal matter and that the media should rather focus on an athlete’s sport. He narrated a story from his days as in human resources at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries nearly 15 years ago, where he had to process the paperwork for a man who had transitioned to a woman. Previously, he had heard a story from four decades ago, when a Shinto priest had said that a man loving another man was even more powerful because he was going beyond what was deemed natural. “Now when there are so many transgender athletes in Olympics, maybe the world is becoming more open-minded,” the septuagenarian said.
Where Japan is still not as open-minded, according to Kitano, is in matters of mental health. He said that people in Japan believe that it is all right for athletes like Naomi Osaka or the American gymnast Simone Biles to take a mental health break, but they are not comfortable sharing their own mental health issues or asking for a break from their work. “Asking for a break would be seen as fragile,” he said.
Yuki felt it was powerful that many athletes were taking a stand against racism during the Games. “I was surprised when women soccer players took the knee to support the Black Lives Matter movement, even though the IOC has restricted political statements. But this is the global platform that athletes have.”
That the gold medal for karate — in its first ever Olympic appearance — went to Japan’s Ryo Kiyuna was a historic moment for the southern Japan prefecture of Okinawa and its indigenous people. “Kiyuna carrying Japan’s national flag in the closing ceremony was a special moment for Okinawa, which continues to be oppressed by the Japanese government, through the occupation of its land by the U.S. military. Okinawans have always been under-represented in Japan. But now, through the soft ground of sports, they have a chance at equality at par with people from mainland Japan,” Kitano explained.
Yuki was surprised that as the Games drew to an end, the closing ceremony — and subsequent news reports — were filled with many “thank you” messages toward volunteers and Olympics staff. “But it makes sense: Tokyo hosted the Games during a pandemic, and this makes it historical.”
Hisamune was more realistic than optimistic: “Let’s hope the IOC reflects on the messages sent out by athletes. The Olympics want to value diversity, but the world, and Japan, is not there yet.”