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The 2020 Summer Games Can’t Save Japan

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The 2020 Summer Games Can’t Save Japan

The 2020 Games will wow and stun, but they will be no repeat of 1964.

The 2020 Summer Games Can’t Save Japan

A man walks past the Olympic rings Tuesday, July 23, 2019, in Tokyo. The Summer Olympics will return to Tokyo next year for the first time since 1964.

Credit: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

In the run-up to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, then-Governor Azuma Ryotaro called the Games an opportunity to build a new Tokyo and a new Japan. Azuma’s vision materialized with resounding success. For post-war Japan, the Games were a watershed moment, transforming Tokyo’s physical infrastructure and reconstructing the nation’s identity. We should not expect a repeat performance in 2020. 

When the Olympic flame returns to Tokyo next summer, expectations will be high for the event to once again transform the city and the country. Organizers want the Games to “change the future of Japan.” Prime Minister Abe Shinzo sees the Olympics as “vitalizing…the whole of Japan.” The goals are bold. With plans for robots, automated fuel cell cars, and man-made meteor showers, the Games will likely live up to organizers’ promise of being the “most innovative in history.” But the event will do little to effect the kind of dramatic change leaders advertise. If 1964 marked a rebirth of Japan, 2020 offers redundant upgrades to an already advanced, wealthy megacity. True transformation requires confrontation with the sticky problems holding back Japan’s society, like gender inequality, lack of diversity, and rigid notions of ethnic identity. No sports competition can grapple with such a task.  

The “Olympic Boom” of 1964

Hailed by Life magazine as the “greatest Olympics ever held,” the 1964 Games complemented Japan’s most pressing post-war imperatives: economic development and global integration. Preparation for the Games set off a frenzy of infrastructural activity. Along with the completion of the shinkansen train — the world’s fastest at the time — railways, highways, hotels, and sanitation systems were built at breakneck speed. Innovations like photo finishes and electronic timing systems stunned foreign journalists who described the spectacle as the “science fiction” Games. As part of a government plan to double GNP by the end of the decade, the Olympics were an opportunity to show off Japan’s cutting-edge tech exports. Just four years later, Japan surpassed Germany to become the world’s second largest economy and Asia’s biggest. 

Not only did the 1964 Games catalyze urban development, they also helped reshape Japan in the eyes of the world. As the first Olympics to be broadcast live worldwide, the event was the ultimate debut for a thriving, peaceful Japan. Gone was the militaristic empire, replaced by a democracy poised to integrate into the international community. While Japan’s trajectory of rapid economic growth and global integration was already well underway before the Olympics, the Games symbolized a nation rebuilt and rebranded. 

The Seduction of Tech 

Modern Tokyo brands itself as Japan’s model “mature city” that has solved the developed world’s urban problems ahead of other cities. Yet for a country that prides itself on its pioneering technology, its society remains inertial in addressing social change. This is Japan’s tragic sticking point. 

With plans for AI-powered surveillance robots and real-time 8K broadcasts delivered over 5G networks, the Games are set to be a celebration of Japanese prowess in sectors the country is desperate to dominate. The ambitious Sustainability Plan boasts zero carbon, zero waste, and 100 percent renewable energy at official venues. In March, Tokyo’s Olympic committee unveiled the Tokyo 2020 Robot Project, one of many public-private efforts intended to showcase Japanese innovation. Robots will transport food and other objects to spectators and guide them to their seats. A power suit robot will help workers lift heavy loads. It’s a prime opportunity to market Japan’s robot industry, which already produces half the global supply, and to normalize the idea of robots in a super-aging society. 

Tokyo 2020 is a glimpse into Japan’s utopian vision for its future: cutting edge, pioneering, and adaptable. It’s a defiant narrative for an aging, resource-poor nation that in the last decade was pushed out of its spot as the world’s second largest economy and saw tragic devastation in the 3/11 Tohoku triple disaster. But technology and innovation are halfway solutions that belie how far Japan’s society must go to catch up to its technology. 

The government’s eager support for the robot and AI industry is rooted in its belief that technology is the panacea to the country’s demographic challenges. Convinced that his country is “at a historical crossroads,” Prime Minister Abe hopes to guide Japan, and later, the world, toward what he calls Society 5.0. Dramatically defined as the next step in human evolution, Society 5.0 envisions a “super smart society” driven by digital data where technology has solved the issues of super-aging, environmental depletion, and economic stagnation. 

Technology, however, is no cure-all for Japan’s problems. Addressing the labor shortage and the aging crisis in a meaningful way requires profound cultural and political shifts. Blind optimism in the power of technology even reduces the urgency of social change. Abe wants to champion feminism with womenomics, but policies that value women solely for their economic contributions do little to change ingrained attitudes that hold back real change. The numbers do the talking: Japan still ranks next to countries like Saudi Arabia and Botswana in terms of economic opportunity and political empowerment for women. An award-winning feminist called the country’s systemic gender inequality a “human disaster.” Meanwhile, opening up to foreign labor has been incremental, and racial and ethnic minorities face routine discrimination in the housing and job market. 

Like Society 5.0, Tokyo 2020 represents Japan’s enduring belief that modernity rides on technological progress alone. While such a strategy was transformative for a country like Japan in 1964, it’s less effective today when the problems holding back Japan cannot be solved with an algorithm. In a world with no shortage of countries capable of producing high-tech innovations, Japan cannot afford to continue ignoring the limitations of its aging, homogeneous, and deeply patriarchal society. 

The Paralympic Promise

But maybe all is not lost as the narrative of the Paralympics provides reason for optimism. Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike enthusiastically supports making the city more accessible, saying that hosting a successful Paralympic Games is more important than a successful Olympics. Organizers hope the empowerment of para-athletes will not only influence Japan’s future urban planning, but also shift attitudes toward those with disabilities. In 2017, the government approved a plan to promote universal design across the nation, and the changes are promising. Nearly all of Tokyo’s subway stations and buses are now wheelchair accessible, and Toyota has introduced a new taxi to accommodate passengers with diverse needs, whether they are wheelchair users, parents with strollers, or travelers wielding luggage. After a widely criticized scandal involving the British Paralympic team, legislation was hastily passed to provide subsidies for hotels to make renovations. In a first, sponsoring companies are required to take out rights for both the Olympics and Paralympics, and are encouraged to highlight para-athletes in ad campaigns. Though some critics fear the efforts are insufficient, the legacies left by the Paralympics — both tangible and intangible — may be some of the few meaningful products of Tokyo’s Games. 

A Facelift, Not a Makeover

The 2020 Games will wow and stun, but they will be no 1964. Tokyo’s first Games were monumental because they symbolized Japan’s triumphant economic and diplomatic recovery after the war. What will a successful Games mean for Japan now? Japanese technology will get its biggest PR campaign to date. Tokyo, already ultramodern, will get an expensive facelift. Abe will bask in praise and the people of Japan will revel in politically correct bouts of national pride. But Japanese society will be no less rigid than it was before.

Fundamentally, in 2020, a chasm lies between what the Olympics can offer and what the country needs. This gap reflects the larger issue of Japan’s misplaced priorities. Infrastructure projects, expensive robots, and tourists can neither increase birth rates nor change cultural norms. Unless Japan is willing to confront the deeper, uglier roadblocks to growth, the country that emerges after the Olympic flames die out will remain on the same, stubborn trajectory it was on all along — one of stagnant economic growth and population decline. 

For Japan in 2020, it will take much more than a sporting competition to transform the country.

Fumika Mizuno is a research intern at Pacific Forum, a Honolulu-based foreign policy research think tank focused on the Indo-Pacific region.