Five decades later, Tokyo has something new to prove

by Stephen Wade and Mari Yamaguchi


Tokyo used its famous 1964 Olympics to show off a miraculous recovery from defeat in World War II. Japan was back after just 19 years with high-speed trains, geeky gadgets and dazzling efficiency.

Tokyo’s back again with the 2020 Summer Olympics, this time with something different to prove.

This time the capital wants to remind the rest of the world that China and South Korea haven’t left behind the first economic powerhouse in East Asia. They will use the games to showcase a clean, safe and innovative city; an urban maze of nightlife, shopping and dizzying subway lines that give texture to “Cool Japan” and Japan’s place as a cultural touchstone.

“It’s going to be a good opportunity to showcase Japanese culture, our technology, our products, our good level of service to give impetus to the Japanese economy,” said Maki Kobayashi-Terada of the Foreign Ministry.

“It’s exactly soft power … to create economic impact,” Kobayashi-Terada added, using a fancy term that means translating an engaging culture into political and economic power.

Tokyo has billed itself as a “safe pair of hands” for the Olympics, which is everything that Rio de Janeiro wasn’t. The 2016 Games left behind scandals, millions in unpaid bills and useless “white elephant” venues.

Tokyo also marks a watershed for the battered International Olympic Committee.

After corruption dogged the games in Rio, and a doping scandal grew out of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, Tokyo should be the first of three return-to-normal Summer Games in first-world metropolises. The IOC has already picked Paris for 2024 and Los Angeles for 2028.

And Japan also has hosted two successful Winter Olympics, in Nagano and Sapporo.

“I don’t think the International Olympic Committee is going to go to a developing city any longer,” Olympic historian David Wallechinsky said. “They don’t want that anymore. They want cities that are ready.”

The Pyeongchang Games were Wallechinsky’s 18th, and he has researched every Olympics extensively, including Tokyo’s. Those Olympics kicked off when Yoshinori Sakai — born in Hiroshima the day the city was hit by the 1945 atomic bomb — lit the Olympic cauldron.

But exactly what’s in it for Japan?

Kobayashi-Terada said the Olympics will improve accessibility for the elderly and for people with disabilities, modernize infrastructure and drive tourism. She said Japan had 29 million foreign visitors last year, and hopes to have 40 million in 2020. Tourism is booming, particularly from Asia.

The Olympics will also try to convince the world about the safety of Fukushima after the nuclear crisis triggered by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The prefecture is a venue for baseball and softball.

“There are only some limited villages that are restricted for entry,” Kobayashi-Terada said. “But there are so many other places that are already under recovery. We’d like to show that and thank the world.”

But there are also hints of scandal.

A French-led investigation has been looking into $2 million paid by the Tokyo Olympic bid team — or representatives — to sports officials who have been linked to vote-buying in IOC bid elections. A Japanese investigation concluded the payments were not illegal.

“Our committee is different from the bidding committee,” Kobayashi-Terada said. “We believe that we got Tokyo 2020 because our bid was the best one.”

And there are domestic doubters.

Japan is already a high-tax country that does not need the Olympics to spur building new bridges, trains and highways. Taxpayers have been critical of too much spending on questionable projects.

“Tokyo lacks a clear purpose for hosting the games other than city development, and that’s why many people are still puzzled today,” said Yuji Ishizaka, an expert on the Olympics at Nara Women’s University.

Ishizaka said people are bothered by delays and scandals involving the redevelopment plans for the world-famous Tsukiji fish market and the Tokyo Bay area, where several events will be held.

And Ishizaka fears the Olympics “may be used to declare the end to disaster reconstruction” in the Tohoku region, suggesting things are back to normal.

“The 2020 Games should be a big festival, but we can’t expect much growth, and many people, even residents of Tokyo, will hardly notice the changes that Tokyo has gone through,” Ishizaka said.

The IOC and local organizers say they’re cutting costs. John Coates, the IOC member overseeing Tokyo’s plans, said recently that Tokyo had cut $1.4 billion from the price tag. Some venues have been moved to other areas, and existing venues will be used instead of building new ones.

Coates lauded Tokyo’s transparency and mentioned Rio.

“In Rio we didn’t know who was paying what — if at all,” he said.

Tokyo organizers say the games will cost about ¥1.35 trillion ($12.5 billion). However, last month Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said the capital would spend an added ¥810 billion ($7.5 billion) on “projects directly and indirectly related to the games.”

The IOC and organizers argue those expenditures fall “outside the overall games budget.” This is a debate that rages at every games: Exactly what are, and what aren’t, Olympic expenses?

Koike said the new costs include building barrier-free facilities for Paralympic athletes, training programs for volunteers, and advertising and tourism plans.

That puts the total cost at about $20 billion, 70 percent of it public money. The figure includes the local organizing committee’s budget of ¥600 billion. About $2.91 billion of that is coming from a national marketing program that has landed 47 sponsors. “And there will be more to come,” Coates said.