Triumph of Tokyo Olympic bid sends wrong signal to Japan’s resurgent right


Blame news cycles, but I’m coming in late to the discussion on Tokyo’s successful bid for the 2020 Olympics. Sorry. The most poignant stuff has already been said, but I would add these thoughts.

Probably unsurprisingly, I was not a supporter of Tokyo’s candidacy. Part of it is because I have a hard time enjoying events where individuals are reduced to national representatives, saddled with the pressure to prove an apparent geopolitical superiority through gold medal tallies. Guess I’m just grouchy about international sports.

That said, this time around, the wheeling and dealing at the International Olympic Committee has been particularly distasteful. Unlike the IOC, I can’t forget Tokyo Gov. Naoki Inose’s denigration of fellow candidate city Istanbul for being “Islamic” (conveniently playing on widespread Western fears of a religion and linking it to social instability). This was especially ironic given rising xenophobia in Japan, where attendees at right-wing rallies have even called for the killing of ethnic Koreans who have lived in and contributed to Japan for generations.

Nor can I pretend to ignore the risk of exposing people to an ongoing nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima. Even if you think the science is still unclear on the health effects of radiation in Tohoku, what’s not in doubt is that there will be incredible amounts of pork sunk into white-elephant projects in Japan’s metropole while thousands of people still languish in northern Japan, homeless and dispossessed. When so much work is incomplete elsewhere, this is neither the time nor place for bread and circuses.

All of this has been said elsewhere, and more eloquently. But for JBC, the most important reason why the Olympics should not come to Japan is because, as I have argued before, Japan as a government or society is not mature enough to handle huge international events.

I know, Japan has held three Olympics before (in Tokyo, Sapporo and Nagano), as well as numerous international events (such as the G-8 Summits in Nago and Toyako) and one FIFA World Cup. But with each major event it holds, Japan keeps setting precedents that hemorrhage cash and make life miserable for residents. Especially those who don’t “look Japanese” — Japan’s visible minorities.

Media memories tend to be short, so some refreshers: More money was spent on “security” at Nago’s G-8 Summit in 1998 than at any previous such powwow — by a factor of five (“Summit wicked this way comes,” Zeit Gist, Apr. 22, 2008). Then Toyako in 2008 spent even more than Nago.

When you devote this much time and energy to policing, consider the effects on those being policed. As reported on these pages before (I have gone as far as to call Japan a “mild police state”), Japan’s police forces have inordinate powers of search, seizure, and detention even at the most mundane of times.

Now, bring in the eyes of the world for an international event, and Japan’s general bunker mentality produces a control-freak guest/host relationship, where nothing is left to chance, and nobody will be allowed to spoil the party.

That means Japan’s authorities get a freer hand to smoosh not only alleged threats to social order, but also dissenters in general. Because our media generally ignores contrarians and naysayers for the sake of putting the best face on Japan for guests, they forget their own duty to act as a check and balance against official over-enforcement and paranoia.

But paranoia tends to peak when there are “foreigners” gadding about. Remember the 2002 World Cup, when politicians, bureaucrats and the media declared open season on “foreigners” (popularizing the word “hooligan” among Japanese), justifying enormous budgets and infrastructure to subdue their international guests if necessary? (It wasn’t.)

Years later, Toyako slingshot off that precedent, with “foreigners” equated with “terrorists,” further normalizing the act of subjecting any foreign face to extra scrutiny and racial profiling.

Plus, you might recall, Japan still has no law against racial discrimination, so treating foreigners like crap can happen anytime, anywhere, by any vigilante who can scribble “Japanese Only” on a storefront window.

But wait — there’s something more sinister afoot. In terms of domestic politics, this was in fact the worst possible time to award Japan the Olympics.

Over the past year, this column has charted the re-ascendance of Japan’s right wing into power, and its rout of the more liberal elements who tried to rein in Japan’s endemic corporatism and bigotry.

Now we have government once again run by and for Japan’s ruling class — i.e., the political families, entrenched bureaucrats, corporate conglomerate heads and hereditary elites.

These types can only see the world in terms of power. Their forebears cheered loudest when, for example, Japan triumphed in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905. It showed both them and the rest of the world that Japan had become mighty enough to defeat a world power!

This victory transformed Japan into a colonial empire, cocksure that it was on the right track because it could beat white people. This hubris led to enormous suffering worldwide, as the elites led Japanese society to a destiny of total war and utter defeat.

Three generations later, these elites still have not learned their lesson. The biggest reason why Japan’s ruling class respected and once emulated America is because they lost a war to them. Now that postwar Japan has rebuilt and re-enriched itself, they believe it’s nigh time to re-militarize, restore Japan to its rightful place in the geopolitical hierarchy and rally Japanese society behind repeating a glorious (yet ultimately tragic) history.

If you read the subtext of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s proposals for constitutional reform closely, you’ll realize that this is precisely what Japan’s ruling politicians are calling for. From that will flow the restored trappings of a prewar-ordered Japanese society.

And now, these jingoists have had their mind-sets rewarded with an Olympics. What a windfall! Even if Abe were to step down tomorrow (he won’t — he’s got a good three years left to machinate if his health holds up), he will be remembered positively for bagging the 2020 Games. But now he and his ilk can leverage this victory into convincing the general public that Japan is still somehow on the right track.

Even when it’s not. For the fallout still remains: Abe lied about how “safe” and “under control” Japan’s nuclear industry is. And Japan’s already massive public debt will balloon further out of control. And once again, the invisible slush monies available to fund elite projects will remain unaccountable.

After all, Japan won its last Olympics, according to Time magazine (“Japan’s sullied bid,” Feb. 1, 1999), through blatant corruption and bribery of IOC officials. How much corruption? We don’t know, because Japan burned all of the Nagano Olympics financial records!

Slush clearly didn’t bother the IOC this time either, as they seated themselves at the trough. I guess we can’t expect corrupt bedfellows to police each other. So anyone who outspends, outbids and outdoes their rivals, even to the detriment of their respective societies, gets rewarded for it — precisely the wrong geopolitical incentives for societies in flux.

In Japan’s case, the damage will be political as well as economic: Everyone must get behind the Olympic effort or else. Then, when the party’s over, remember those who got steamrollered: The people living outside of greedy Tokyo; our non-Japanese residents, who will once again be targeted as a destabilizing force; and the rest of Japanese society, who will have to live under illiberal regimes where individual rights will be further subordinated to the maintenance of social order.

In sum, international events undermine Japan’s democracy. Shame on you, IOC, for being a party to it.

Debito Arudou’s updated “Guidebook for Relocation and Assimilation into Japan” is now available as a downloadable e-book on Amazon. See www.debito.org/handbook.html. Twitter @arudoudebito. Just Be Cause appears on the first Community pages of the month. Send your comments on these issues and story ideas to community@japantimes.co.jp.

  • Nobunaga73

    “Slush clearly didn’t bother the IOC this time either, as they seated themselves at the trough.” –

    I’m sorry, could you provide at least a hint of evidence for this claim?

    I suppose these ridiculously biased articles drive page views and comments (guilty!), but it grows rather tiresome. Sweeping statements masquerading as fact:

    “This victory transformed Japan into a colonial empire, cocksure that it was on the right track because it could beat white people. This hubris led to enormous suffering worldwide, as the elites led Japanese society to a destiny of total war and utter defeat.”

    Yes, surely the awarding of the Olympics to Japan merits an insultingly simplistic (and actually quite racist) portrayal of the events leading to WWII for comparison?

    I hope he writes these articles for free.

  • OlympicsNay

    I normally find Arudo’s tone too strong, but I can’t disagree that I found Tokyo’s Olympics bid deeply, dishonest, not to mention the amount of jingoism that came with it. I constantly hear people on Japan saying that they’re going to show the world “how great” Japan is. That’s not what the Olympics is about – that’s not what hosting the Olympics is for. It’s not Japan’s chance to strut and preen – it’s Japan’s chance to host the entire world and let EVERYONE shine. Not to mention the persistent “banzai” cheers. (Is it wrong of me to think they should have abandoned the banzai decades ago?) The entire attitude surrounding this bid is just uncomfortable for me.

  • Happy Knees

    I see your point but much the same article could have been written about any country that wins the Olympic games. Winning the games always seems to lead to a restriction on freedoms. The same goes for G8 summits held anywhere around the world. I agree that these are bad things.
    Also I really think you are stretching your point. Japan hosting the Olympics is not going to have any effect on foreign policy. At least I don’t think you have provided any evidence that it will. Sure the Olympics is vastly overrated in terms of improving relations between countries but when Tokyo hosted the Olympics the first time I don’t think it resulted in a military build up in Japan.

  • thedudeabidez

    Tokyo already ranks at the bottom of major cities in terms of green public space per capita, and now they plan to demolish even more of the little that remains to build Olympic facilities. Under current plans, Kasai Rinkai Koen — with its bird sanctuary — will be paved over; get involved to save one of Tokyo’s precious parks. Petition link below:


  • FightBack

    The comparisons with WWII are apt and correct. Japan will use these games to rally the population into a nationalistic frenzy. Military era flags will be displayed, jingoistic commercials will be played on the television stations, and the general public will be instructed to increase microaggressions against incoming NJ.

    When the selection was announced I saw not a single Japanese who engaged in subtle reflection or self-criticism, instead the response was uniformly jubilant. What the 2020 Olympics will come to mean to denizens like myself is still unclear but Debito is absolutely correct that we must be vigilant against what will come given Japan’s constant lurches toward the right.

  • Toolonggone

    I don’t have a problem with the organizers and people supporting the bid. What I have a problem, however, is the way Abe frames the Olympic as a part of national narratives to justify the government’s attitude toward a sloppy re-construction progress. I am quite disturbed by his remark on TEPCO’s ability to control the situation of Fukushima. It’s apparently not true (even TEPCO executive admitted it’s not). He doesn’t really understand what is going on out there at the Daiichi nuclear power plants, after all. More importantly, he also plans to cut corporate tax for re-construction while raising consumption tax to put more burdens on Japanese people, who are being affected by increasing taxes for pension, residency, medicare, and post-disaster recovery. I wonder how many people will have to share more tax charges under shoe-string income in the next seven years.

    Good news is that Tokyo Gov. Inose is a reasonable person than the previous one (Good riddance of Ishihara!). Unlike Ishihara, I can have a room for sympathy in him. Inose is from working class, living his hands to mouth by working as a sanitation engineer (ahem) –e.g. cleaning building and floors, nine to five in his early career until he made himself as a book-prize winning author in the late 1980s. He showed his conscience by admitting his mistake and apologizing to other bidders for inappropriate remarks. It’s true that he has some character flaws just like any politician, and, he has a lot of things to work on. I don’t know how much he can make a difference in the next several years. But, I would give Tokyo a high credit, if he’s willing to reach out to those who get affected by devastating earthquake and tsunami in North Japan to offer any good service for the international event, such as giving free tickets to the opening/closing ceremonies, games, and invitations to meet-and-greet with athletes at the pavilion.

  • Steven R. Simon

    Simon says I’m shocked, shocked, shocked – corruption in the IOC – Brother Abe is playing the hand he was dealt – so get off his back – he’s doing the best job he can.

  • disqus_Gvs3G32z1K

    The thing I never understand is the constant argument used by apologists that “X is not strictly a Japanese phenomenon”. So what? I don’t think anybody here is saying that. It certainly doesn’t make it any less excusable.

    Personally I’m more concerned with the disregard for those still suffering in Fukushima and those who will become homeless as a result of the games.

  • Dan Li

    Well, on one hand it is difficult to disagree with Arudou. “Gaffes” seem to be picking up in rate. However, the IOC ( corrupt or otherwise) did not have much of a choice between the three main contestants. Spain’s broke and may not be able to really commit enough resources, the government is in a precarious state, unemployment may lead to social problems, etc. Also, Turkey’s human rights record is somewhat worse than Japan’s ( recent riots / protests & the govt response to them, kicking monks out of their ancient monastery with claims that it was built over a mosque even though it is older than Islam, etc.)

  • Toolonggone

    I generally give this author the benefits of the doubt, although I don’t always agree with him on any issue he discusses. Regarding this piece, however, I have to say, the author makes a confusing message to JT readers by pushing his personal angst toward the national government too much. What troubles me is his attempt to illustrate the historical context for Japan’s national narrative in a very limited space for making his argument. What does the Olympic bid relate to Japan’s possible re-militarization, which is yet to be convinced? Also, it is not very clear which agents he is referring to “resurgent right” in the article.

    I wouldn’t say war history is unnecessary, but it certainly requires a lot of pages to make your point clear and concise. JBC doesn’t have enough space for 3,000-4,000 words essay. It’s even smaller than Harper’s magazine or the New Yorker. Right?

  • The Apologist

    Contrary to what some people in this thread are saying, it is often a perfectly logical argument to point out that certain behaviours and practices ascribed to Japan are normative elsewhere. In fact, showing that other countries share the same alleged negative traits as Japan is often the most obvious and effective means of mitigating unwarranted overreaching claims about Japan.

    This is particularly true when the claim is that a certain behaviour or practice is somehow 1) essentially Japanese—that is, the behavior is explained as being something fundamentally rooted in Japanese society, education, culture, or national character, 2) when it is claimed that the behavior/practice is egregiously Japanese—that is, if it is made to seem like
    a given problem is far more widespread in Japan than elsewhere and thus must be attributed to some local cause, and/or 3) when it is claimed that the practice is
    endemic to Japan, usually some combination of the two points above.

    Since the raison d’etre of virtually all Debito’s articles, as well as the comments of the great majority of his supporters, is to locate the foundation of some negative behavior or practice within Japanese society (i.e., its ‘immaturity’), both he and they are ipso facto arguing that this behavior/practice is essentially Japanese. In other words, the basis of the problem is unique to Japan, since it is explainable and analyzable only in terms of Japan’s internal qualities. It is a kind of Japanese ‘exceptionalism’, an intellectual bedfellow of the Nihonjin-ron school of thought― which Debito and his fans clearly subscribe to.

    When people like myself argue that such behaviours
    and practices are in fact normative or standard, by reference to other countries, we are cutting this ‘essentialist’ argument down, noting that this problem is often not attributable to some essentially Japanese element, but instead seems to be standard social or political behavior (such as hosting the Olympics being treated as a source of national pride or as a showcase for a country’s alleged greatness). To continue to isolate Japan as a target for that which is not essentially a ‘Japanese’ problem simply comes off as bashing.

    If one wants to argue that they are merely pointing out a human problem that happens to occur in Japan, then, for goodness sake, don’t try to make the argument that it is somehow essentially or egregiously endemic to Japan unless you can show beyond a reasonable doubt that it is!

  • Rebane

    Thanks. I was and still am against the second Tokyo Olympics. I am old and may be moving out of