Opinion & Analysis

Tokyo Olympics: The Past Recalled

“Incongruous” is perhaps the best word to describe the current controversies over the 2021 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

On March 24th 2020, the former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo announced that the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics would be postponed until the northern summer of 2021, due to the gradual increase of patients infected by Covid in the country. At that time, the number of patients sick with the virus was just over 1,200.

A difficult year has passed. As of today, over 700,000 people have been infected in Japan, including both those who have recovered and those who have died from the disease.

But despite this, further postponement, let alone the cancellation of the event does not seem to be an option for the Government of Japan and the International Olympic Committee.

According to the latest opinion polls in Japan, 60 to 80 percent of respondents prefer either postponement or cancellation of the event.

This adds to about 10 percent of the municipal administrations, which would have otherwise been the host towns, that have decided to cancel arrangements to receive international delegations..

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga

Concerns have been raised even by some of the Japanese Olympians, such as an internationally ranked tennis player, Nishikori Ken, who has been one of those infected with COVID.

Renowned physicians have also voiced concerns , with Ueyama Naoto, the chairperson of the Japan Doctors Union, saying that the Japanese government “underestimates” the risks of holding the event, and warning that having approximately 15,000 athletes and staff members from overseas may result in new variants of the virus being brought into Japan.

However, those voices do not seem to be heard by the people inside the walls of the Prime Minister’s Office. 

While Prime Minister Suga has promoted the Games as proof the world has beaten the virus, many Japanese have major doubts .

Polls released in Japan over the last few days show a slight softening in the public opposition to the Olympics as foreign teams begin to arrive in the country, but many Japanese remain unvaccinated against the virus, and opposition to the event hovers around 50 percent.

There have been numerous articles published in English and Japanese about why the Japanese leaders are so resolute to hold the event, so I refrain from making my own speculative comment on it.

In fact, as a historian, what intrigues me more is how Japanese people show their objections to the opening of the event.

A few days ago the noted historian Inoue Toshikazu, former President of Gakushuin University, wrote an opinion piece in which he compares the current Japanese government with the government during the Second World War.

He criticises the country's political leaders over unclear policy priorities, a disorganised and ad hoc response to the pandemic, and a misplaced optimism of the kind that sent Japan into war in the 1940s. 

Public opposition to the games remains at a high level

Professor Toshikazu is among numerous other academics and citizens who make similar comments on mass media and SNS.

The point I am most interested in is why the war-time experience, which was more than 75 years ago, still resonates with Japanese citizens at this time regardless of political feelings on other matters.

I am not trying to draw a simple continuity of the two periods, by naively comparing then and now. What intrigues me is the “presence of the past” that is recalled some seven decades on. 

This presence can be felt ephemerally but intensely when people experience unprecedented events, often on a particular site where the event took place in the past. One of the typical cases would be a site of war, which I wrote about a year ago

Japan in 2021 is in countless ways a different country from that during WWII in terms of polity, society, and culture.

75 years after the war, and three decades since the end of the Cold War, and the reign of two emperors, some people call today’s Japan “’post-post-war”.

In this sense, it might not sound reasonable to compare “that time” and today. But for an individual whose being is enmeshed in the web of the particular historical experience, the past can come “back” to them, beyond time, in words and images.

The Tokyo Olympics come at a unique moment in the nation's history

Pretty much every post-war domestic crisis in Japan has been linked back to the Second World War, and the 2021 Olympics are perhaps no different.

A mixture of nationalism, regional rivalries, and a government led by a Liberal Democratic Party that sits comfortably with much of what imperialist Japan did when the military held sway.

We need to seriously consider why this past history in many ways is recalled and presented as something relevant, as the "spirit" of wartime" is evoked to strengthen the resolve of the Japanese people.

When some people say “today’s Japanese leaders seem just like the ones in wartime”, does this revision and recall of the past suggest we are no different from who we were.? 

From this perspective, I suggest that the ongoing controversies, suspicions, and concerns over the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, and the comparison with the wartime regime, reflect on a very real aspect of Japanese society today.

Japanese Prime Minister Suga has suggested he may call a snap election at the conclusion of the games.

If that is his strategy he must be crossing his fingers that the event is a success, as a Covid "super-spreader" is unlikely to be tolerated by voters at the polls. 

The views in this article are those of the author. 

-Asia Media Centre