On June 20, domestic and international media toured the Olympic and Paralympic Village where athletes will be housed during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. At one point, former J. League chairman and current “mayor” of the village, Saburo Kawabuchi, chided the assembled press, saying that they had talked about whether the games should proceed and that many Japanese people thought they shouldn’t, but at this point there was nothing to do but carry out the Olympics as planned. The games, he said, were not just for the Japanese people, but also something “Japan has promised to the world,” and he wondered why the media hadn’t properly promoted that aspect.
In an article for Yahoo! News, journalist Hiroyuki Morita cited Kawabuchi’s comments as illustrative of how public relations surrounding the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics has developed in recent months. By saying it was too late to cancel the games and then insisting that the focus be on Japan’s organizational capabilities rather than the Japanese public’s feelings, Kawabuchi, according to Morita, was contradicting the spirit of the Olympics by stressing national power. However, his scolding tone was perhaps misplaced, since, as Morita points out elsewhere in the article, the Japanese media, some of which has sponsorship deals with the Olympics, has in fact downplayed the public’s disillusionment with the games and their attendant fears with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic.
They do this partly with public opinion surveys, a media tool that Morita characterizes as being too malleable. He singles out NHK, whose surveys have continually “moved the goalposts” of such inquiries’ perceived purpose. A survey the public broadcaster carried out in January divided possible answers about whether to go ahead with the games into “should proceed” (16%), “should be cancelled” (38%) and “should be postponed” (39%). However, the possible answers in its February survey were different: “should proceed” (3%), “should proceed but with limited spectators” (29%) “should proceed without spectators” (23%) and “cancel” (38%). In February, there was no question about postponement, so the overall portion of people who said the games should proceed exceeded that of people who said they shouldn’t.
Morita says this trend was picked up by other media, which moved away from discussing whether the games should be held at all and toward talk of whether spectators should be allowed. On June 29, website News Post Seven observed the same thing, adding that many media outlets had made it seem as if talk about canceling the games “never even happened.” In line with this shift of emphasis, general reporting characterized the public as having come around to accepting that the games were on, as Kawabuchi implied. Both Morita and News Post Seven contend that media interest then tended to focus on other matters, such as which Japanese baseball and soccer players will participate on the Japanese teams.
Kawabuchi’s comment fortified an opinion already presented by Heizo Takenaka, occasional government advisor and frequent TV pundit on economic matters, during the June 6 broadcast of the Kansai area TV talk show, “Soko Made Itte Iinkai NP.” Takenaka also said that Japan had an international obligation to carry out the Olympics once Tokyo became the host city. When another guest on the show asked him about public opinion, which indicated that most Japanese people did not want the Olympics to take place this summer, Takenaka said that public opinion was wrong. The comment sparked a backlash on social media.
Takenaka may be misinterpreting these surveys. People are not so much objecting to the games, but rather expressing a fear of what could happen if the games take place. To them, returning to normal life as quickly as possible is more important than carrying out the Olympics, which could significantly increase the risk of infection before the majority of the public has been vaccinated.
Nevertheless, Takenaka seems to be the government’s point man for denying public concern. On the same talk show, Takenaka derided Dr. Shigeru Omi for telling a parliamentary committee that it wasn’t “normal” to hold the Olympics under such circumstances. Takenaka said that Omi’s speaking about the Olympics was going beyond his authority, a strange charge given that Omi is one of the government’s top medical advisors.
The web magazine Litera points out that while media outlets tend to describe Takenaka as a professor emeritus at Keio University, he is also the chairman of Pasona Group, a key Olympics sponsor and an employment agency that is making a lot of money in staffing contracts from both the games and the pandemic. In fact, coverage of the public’s fears about the games has mainly come from foreign media. Morita writes that the Japanese press has expressed little alarm over the fact that two members of the Ugandan Olympic team tested positive for the coronavirus after the team arrived in Japan, while foreign press treated the matter with great seriousness.
The Hollywood Reporter ran an article about how much money both the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and U.S. television network NBCUniversal, which holds the exclusive broadcast rights to the Olympics in the U.S., will make from the games and described the situation as being a classic economic moral hazard: With Japan virtually shut down and unable to profit from the Olympics, all the money derived from the event will go to overseas partners who assume none of the risk.
The public’s simmering anxiety over health dangers has already boiled over into disdain for IOC Vice President John Coates’ comment that the Tokyo Olympics will happen even if there’s a state of emergency in effect, a remark that drew attention to the IOC’s image as an elite club of businessmen coming to Japan to party high on the hog while locals hunker down at home, a literal captive audience for the televised games. In this regard, as even the president of NBCUniversal has gleefully admitted, the pandemic has created a windfall.
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