NHK has announced that its yearlong historical drama series for 2019 will be about Japan’s involvement in the Olympic movement, focusing on the nation’s first foray to the games in 1912 and its first time hosting them in 1964. The story will also, according to Kyodo News, cover “events that took place in-between.”

It will be interesting to see how the show handles the 1940 Summer Games, which were to be held in Tokyo. The city was announced as the winner in 1936, but by the following year Japan was fighting in China: it forfeited hosting the event in 1938 as the government decided the country’s resources should go toward the war effort.

For their part, the games’ organizers in Japan had wanted to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of the birth of the Imperial line in 1940 and thought the Olympics were the perfect opportunity to promote the celebration internationally and also fortify nationalistic pride to help Japan in its Asian crusade. The government, apparently, felt it could accomplish that mission without the Olympics. That was 76 years ago.

At this juncture, it’s useless to point out that encouraging patriotism contradicts the International Olympic Committee’s goal of celebrating individual athletic achievement; every country that participates has always gotten into the jingoistic swing of things, even when they’re not the host. When former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara proposed bringing the Olympics back to Tokyo for 2016, his ostensible reason was similar to that of the 1940 organizers: Japan needed a morale booster. The people behind the 2020 Games are saying they want to revive the spirit that made the 1964 Tokyo Olympics a success.

As sociologist Kiyoshi Abe said recently on a TBS radio talk show hosted by former TV Asahi news anchor Hiroshi Kume — who is notorious for his opposition to the Tokyo Games — Abe’s students, born in the mid-1990s, “have no optimism for the future because they were never told that things will get better.” But the Olympics gives them something to look forward to, at least in the short run.

Abe contributed to a book of essays whose theme is the cancellation of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. It’s a movement that seems quaint at best. He told Kume that it was difficult to find a publisher for the book because “once the matter (of hosting the Olympics) is decided, it’s assumed everyone will work together” to make it the best it can be.

Kume responded, “Then, as long as we discuss (canceling the Olympics) in that context, it’s OK, right?” Everybody in the studio laughed.

Abe and Kume are not opposed to the games because of its nationalistic bent. They have other reasons — including cost, inconvenience, earthquakes — as do many people who would prefer the event does not take place in Tokyo. But hosting the Olympics is a foregone conclusion.

Still, some media haven’t reached that conclusion. In a recent issue, Shukan Gendai says that new Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike has “the authority and the precedent” to stop the games, and might even do so under certain circumstances.

The precedent is Denver, which won the right to host the Winter Olympics in 1976, a year that was the centennial of Colorado’s statehood and the bicentennial of America’s founding.

Denver’s situation at the time is similar to Tokyo’s now. In order to win the bid, the organizers submitted a plan that emphasized conservation and a streamlined budget, but eventually they realized that the amount of money they proposed was too small, and construction of some venues would necessitate destroying mountains. Once these facts became known to residents, a referendum was called and voters chose to reject the games, which ended up going to Innsbruck, Austria, for the second time.

Tokyo’s winning bid was also low. It’s one of the reasons the city won, along with the pledge to keep the games “compact.” The current estimate of “team Koike,” as Gendai calls the people addressing the ongoing budget crisis, is that the Olympics will cost ¥3 trillion — more than three times the bid estimate. The “compact” feature was abandoned as soon as the victory cheers died down.

Koike is currently riding a wave of public approval due to her decisive handling of the botched Tsukiji fish market move. The public expects her to cut the Olympic budget by a third, and other interested parties have agreed to meet this target, but in order to do that she must convince various sports associations to hold their events at existing venues outside of Tokyo. Gendai says that even if she wins that battle, she’ll only save about ¥40 billion, which won’t be enough as far as the public is concerned. Right now the media loves Koike because whenever TV news programs cover her, ratings go up, but if she loses in her standoff with the forces of the Olympics, her support numbers will drop.

In such a situation, Gendai thinks she could cancel the Olympics, which would shock and humiliate many people but also make her “the most powerful politician in Japan.” As one Tokyo government official told the magazine — likening the situation to that of Americans who supported Donald Trump during the recent presidential campaign — there are many Tokyo citizens who want to see arrogant Olympic stakeholders such as Ishihara and former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori “lose face.” By giving up the games, Koike would be gambling with her career, but it’s a risk with enormous potential benefits for her politically.

Gendai understands how unlikely this scenario is, but as a magazine whose aim is to be provocative, it purposely ignores the received wisdom that says the Olympics is a foregone conclusion, since that prevents them from saying anything negative about the games at all. In his column for Nikkei Business Online, Takashi Odajima writes that he will no longer say anything against the games because he doesn’t have the stomach to counter the backlash.

And the nearer we get to 2020, the harsher that backlash becomes.

“Four years from now,” said Kume on his show, “we’ll look back on this time nostalgically, because we could still talk about it.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.