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Will Olympic glory carry beyond Tokyo?

by Eric Johnston

If Tokyo’s reaction to winning the 2020 Olympics, especially among the cash-strapped TV stations and other media types who rely on bread and circuses-type events to pay the bills, made you feel like Alice in Wonderland or a character in a Samuel Beckett play, you’re not alone.

Well beyond the drawbridge of Old Edo, where the other roughly 90 percent of the country lives, the general feeling was a mixture of “Good for you” and “Don’t forget the victims of Tohoku and that problem in Fukushima. You know, the one you told the world was under control?”

The triumph also came with contradictory feelings about the alleged benefits for the rest of the country. There is hope that the boastful predictions — all from Tokyo-based pundits, of course — about the Olympics being of great benefit to local economies will turn out to be something other than wishful thinking or cynical propaganda.

However, there is also fear that the end result will be an even further shift of wealth and power to the capital, while the rest of the nation is left to grow older and poorer, withering in decaying towns and villages whose infrastructures age as rapidly as their remaining residents.

A Hokkaido Shimbun editorial summed up the concerns of many local governments around the country, arguing that pouring national funds into Olympic-related construction that further promotes concentration in Tokyo at the expense of local finances is not acceptable.

Or, as a Kyoto Shimbun editorial asked, why was Tokyo really chosen? For the reconstruction of Japan or for the revitalization of Tokyo?

The editors added that the Tokyo that boasted of its compactness, vibrant youth culture, food and environmental safety, and ability to raise ¥400 billion in donations for the Summer Olympics, appears to be located in a different world from the one most Japanese inhabit.

To be sure, parts of Japan may benefit from Olympic-related tourism.

Kyoto, even as its newspaper editors protest, is no doubt calculating how many foreign tourists will visit the ancient capital between now and 2020.

Sapporo, which has indicated an interest in hosting a future Summer Olympics (it already hosted the 1972 Winter Games), hopes visitors, after sweltering in Tokyo’s summer heat during the games, will cool off by traveling to Hokkaido.

In Osaka, despite the city’s losing bid for the 2008 Games, Mayor Toru Hashimoto is dangling the prospect of an Osaka Olympics to push his agenda of unifying the city and prefecture.

And you can be sure that local government officials and Diet members from all 47 prefectures are wondering how they can get a piece of the Olympic action.

History, of course, is not going to repeat itself. In 1964, when Tokyo last hosted the Summer Games, Japan was a smaller, younger country of just less than 100 million people, a mere 6.3 percent of whom were 65 years or older. In 2020, nearly 30 percent of a population of about 124 million will be senior citizens. A decade later, in 2030, 20 percent of the population in 43 prefectures will be 75 years or older. The four exceptions include Tokyo.

Thus, it is not spite or envy outside Tokyo that is driving Olympic criticism, but cold hard facts about unavoidable local demographic changes ahead, and the political, economic and social changes they will bring.

Local leaders cannot afford, literally or figuratively, to sit back and let the Mad Hatters in Tokyo hold their nostalgic tea parties because they know that, at some point and in some form, they, too, will be asked to chip in to help cover the bill.