Commentary / Japan

The geopolitics of sports: Japan’s Summer Games on the world stage

by Joshua W. Walker

Contributing writer

Given the current state of the world, the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games next year are truly going to be historic. Instead of celebrating the opening of the games last week, everything that we were looking forward to in 2020 has been cancelled or postponed since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Group of Seven and Group of 20 meetings have been pushed out and even the annual United Nations General Assembly has gone virtual. Therefore, if the Tokyo Games are to be held, a year from now is the first time that the world will really have the opportunity to celebrate a global activity of any type.

The significance of this happening in Japan cannot be missed. This year, we are celebrating 75 years since the end of the war in 1945. In 1964, the last time the Olympics were held in Japan, it was an opportunity to bring Japan back into the world of nations after having lost World War II. The 1964 Olympics were about Japan’s pride in stepping back on the global stage, not as an antagonist but as a global player promoting the shinkansen bullet trains, Tokyo’s subway system, its radical new architecture and all the beauty that Japan has to offer.

How Japan hosts the Olympics, the sense of omotenashi, or Japanese hospitality, was already something that we were all looking forward to. It is a bit like how the British held the 2012 London Olympics — not a coming out party, like China in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It is about being an island in the midst of instability and the essence of efficiency that captures the imagination as does Japan, still the third-largest economy in the world.

As the world moves through this devastating pandemic, Japan has not been as badly affected as the United States, relatively speaking. What does this mean for the 2021 Summer Games?

From a geopolitical point of view, the last three Olympics being in Asia — the Winter Games in South Korea, the Summer Games in Japan, and the Winter Games currently scheduled for 2022 in China — are not insignificant. Therefore if I have to make a prediction, it is not that the Tokyo Olympics will not happen, because Japan has invested tremendously and deserves to host these games. It is that the China Winter Games will not happen given Beijing’s challenges across the globe and the International Olympic Committee’s fatigue that has already canceled the Youth Games. This, of course, will have much broader geopolitical resonance.

In some ways, the Olympics are an opportunity to pursue politics by different means. Competition about who gets the most gold medals, and who gets the most medals more broadly, something that was very normal to America during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, has been supplanted by China, which is in Japan’s own backyard. It will be interesting to see how Japan fares on its home territory and in some of the new sports that will be premiered.

The world will no doubt see the Japanese national spirit in action just like they did right after the Great East Japan Earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster of 3/11. That year, the Japanese women’s soccer team surprisingly pulled off a victory in the World Cup, the first World Cup gold that Japan has ever won, against the U.S. That feeling of kizuna, or connection, bonded those players to the heart of their nation. I predict something similar will happen with the Olympics.

I think that when the Olympics go ahead — and I say when because I think it is a matter of scale — it will be more about spectators and who gets to be there — it will be the beginning of a truly post-COVID-19 world. As Japan plays host and serves as an exemplar for many developed and developing nations in 2021, it will then begin looking forward to the Osaka World Expo in 2025, when the world will once again come back to discuss the “future of society” albeit in a technical rather than the sports realm.

There is no bigger stage for how the world will see the Olympics and Japan’s ability to “bend adversity,” as it has done throughout its history. The shifting nature of the geopolitical order can be said in some ways to be presaged by global sporting events. While the world order after 1945 was shaped by the victors of WWII, how the world will look after the COVID-19 pandemic is not necessarily going to be determined by those who did better than others.

On a broader scale, how this all plays out could really bring in a new geopolitical system. Certainly Japan’s soft power is on the rise, and both the U.S. and China have taken a beating, because of the way in which they have not been able to respond as successfully as Japan, South Korea, and a few other Asian countries, but also because of China’s aggressive international behavior. America’s internal politics are also causing it difficulties.

Basically, it means that the U.S. will no longer be telling the world and its allies how to do things, but rather many of its Asian allies, including Japan, will take on a leadership role around the world, whether in the Indo-Pacific, a reconfigured Trans-Pacific Partnership without the U.S., or Japan opening up travel to much of the world before it allows Americans to enter, precisely because the U.S. response to COVID-19 has not allowed it the same freedom of navigation.

There is much to watch for. It is too soon, obviously, to make a prediction about how, when and if all the Olympic pieces will come together, but I do think that this will be a really important conversation for the future.

Joshua W. Walker is president and CEO of the Japan Society.

Coronavirus banner