With a tinge of autumn in the air, the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, held over the course of more than a month in the face of extraordinary challenges posed by the coronavirus, are nearing an end. For Japan, however, the real test may still await.
That is the assessment of Shunya Yoshimi, a prominent Japanese sociologist, who summed up the Summer Games, staged despite widespread skepticism, as a failure for Japan, saying they had shined a light on the host country’s problems in many ways.
“The Olympics didn’t go well, but not necessarily because of the coronavirus,” the University of Tokyo professor said in an interview a few days before Sunday’s closing of the Paralympics. “The ultimate reason is that there was no reason to host the Olympics at this point. It was too early for Tokyo to host its second Olympics.”
Some of the most serious problems, he said, are that Japan is still not good at developing a vision for its future and learning from past mistakes, with the mindset of its influential leaders, mostly men in their 70s or older, remaining shackled to “the myth of economic growth.”
The curtain falling on the Games also came soon after Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga called time on his own administration, having failed to gain the bounce in popularity he had once hoped from the Olympics and Paralympics.
Suga announced Friday he would not run for re-election as head of the governing party later this month, setting the stage for his departure as Japan’s leader after just about a year in office.
Yoshimi said the motives of those who sought to host the Olympics — including Suga, former Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara and Yoshiro Mori, the former president of the games’ organizing committee — were largely driven by an obsession with the perceived success of the Summer Games in Tokyo nearly six decades ago.
At the time of the 1964 Games, Japan was eager to exhibit to the rest of the world the economic and technological prowess it had achieved just under two decades since its defeat in World War II.
What Japan was like then was in tune with the long-standing motto of the Olympics — “Faster, Higher, Stronger” — but the current social structure, with a rapidly aging population and a shrinking workforce, has moved the country far away from it, Yoshimi argued.
The former vice president of the University of Tokyo said the hard reality is that Japan will not be able to return to years of spectacular economic growth. The country, he said, needs to change its way of thinking instead of living on its past accomplishments.
In the absence of a clear vision, Japan’s Olympic organizers had initially sought to frame the Games as a symbol of the country’s recovery from the devastating 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis.
But a new crisis emerged and the Olympics and Paralympics were postponed for one year in March 2020 because of the pandemic.
In the months leading up to the Games, Suga and the International Olympic Committee each reshaped the narrative, shifting the significance of the event to demonstrating Japan and the world’s ability to unite and overcome COVID-19.
Shortly before the Tokyo Games, the IOC even updated its traditional motto to “Faster, Higher, Stronger — Together.”
While the fate of the Games was still up in the air, Suga’s oft-repeated message was that they should be held as “proof that humanity has defeated the virus.”
But with COVID-19 case numbers exploding in Tokyo and other parts of Japan since the opening of the Olympics on July 23, that message of an envisaged heroic achievement was soon dropped.
Known for many books on Tokyo and postwar developments in Japan, including the Olympics, Yoshimi said people in power are “trying to forget the mistakes made this time” and predicts that “similar mistakes will be repeated for about 10 years.”
The 64-year-old said it is unfortunate that the country continues to embrace what he calls the “festival doctrine” in an attempt to boost its economy. Japan is set to host the World Expo in Osaka in 2025 and trying to bring the Winter Olympics to Sapporo in 2030.
But he is not wholly pessimistic, anticipating that people who were born after the 1980s will play a pivotal role in creating a new Japan.
Also a leading scholar in cultural and media studies, he said he feels that people in their 30s in Japan do not empathize with many of the values of those who experienced its miracle economic growth. They will be key members of society in 20 years as the grip of the old generation fades away.
“If everyone aims ‘faster, higher and stronger,’ this will ruin the planet and will not be sustainable,” he said. “I think this value is wrong in this era.”
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