Tokyo Report | Society | East Asia

Tokyo 2020: Avoiding Panic or Saving Face?

Are the IOC and the Japanese government hesitant to cancel the Summer Olympic Games because they want to quell public fear — or avoid embarrassment?

Layne Vandenberg
Tokyo 2020: Avoiding Panic or Saving Face?

The Japanese flag flies next to an altar with the Olympic Flame of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, inside the Panathenian stadium, in Athens, Sunday, March 15, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis

The rapid global spread of COVID-19 has led to widespread cancellations of major sporting events around the world, ranging from rugby to surfing. Football organizations have taken action in terms of their own competitions, with the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) indefinitely postponing the Champions League and Europa League matches and postponing the 2020 European Championships to 2021. Rugby’s famed Six Nations tournament has been postponed. Boxing matches have been cancelled or moved behind closed doors without audiences.  

Despite this, the 2020 Olympic Games to be held in Tokyo this July are moving forward with preparations. Earlier this week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that Japan will “host the Olympics without problem, as planned.”

There are two major reasons to delay the decision to pursue or cancel Tokyo 2020. First and foremost, COVID-19 has caused panic on a global scale at a nearly unprecedented level. In the early stages of the spread, many sports organizations delayed postponing or cancelling mass gatherings and events to simply assist in quelling mass panic. Several sports organizations delayed making decisions on major competitions following talks with the World Health Organization (WHO), the aims of which were split between managing the spread of COVID-19 alongside mass hysteria.

Asserting that the 2020 Summer Olympic Games will kick off as planned in late July attempts to provide some frame of normalcy for the near future. If the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Japanese government were to cancel the event three months ahead of the opening ceremony, it could translate into a public-facing admission that international organizations and governments do not believe COVID-19 will be eradicated or even under control in three months’ time. This implication alone could lead to larger societal consequences for the international economy, public faith in governments, and consumer panic-buying. Cancelling Tokyo 2020 prematurely could spark another wave of mass panic. 

Beyond COVID-19, postponing or calling off the Games may prove more difficult given the East Asian cultural concept of “losing face.” Losing face refers to maintaining a positive reputation in the effort to avoid public shame. Within this frame of mind, how others view you often takes higher precedence over how you view yourself. 

Loss of face has no true equivalent in Western culture and is therefore difficult to describe and translate outside of the East Asian context. The concept is particularly relevant at this time given the origins of COVID-19 in China and its initial spread throughout Asia, leading to xenophobic and racist attitudes and subsequent public shaming and abuse of East Asians. Loss of face, however, also easily manifests in sports and can be clearly seen in Abe’s recent declaration. 

For Abe, the 2020 Summer Olympic Games is more than a mega-event set to be held on home turf. Abe was in power in 2013 when Japan originally won the bid for Tokyo 2020, and he even attended and spoke at the 125th session of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) before the host decision was announced. Abe has remained front and center throughout the preparation for the Games, and is now the inevitable spokesman for the ever-changing status of the Games in this time of uncertainty. His strong involvement has associated him with the Games and inextricably linked his public perception to the fate of Tokyo 2020. Admitting “defeat” by COVID-19, even if in line with global trends to limit gatherings and the further spread of the virus, would undoubtedly haunt the memories of his tenure. 

Another primary consideration in cancelling the Games is a loss of face financially. Tokyo 2020 is estimated to have cost Japan over 1 trillion yen, or $9 billion. Most of the costs associated with the Games have already been spent, and cancelling at this point means billions of dollars may never see a return on investment. While the IOC would make the decision in this regard, the funds were the Japanese government’s to lose. 

Abe has also reminded the press that the IOC holds the final decision, which could relieve him of any direct criticism should the IOC decide to cancel or postpone the Games. While the IOC did consider hosting the Olympic Games behind closed doors, a lack of spectators would mean both a lapse in the Olympic Movement — which aims to bring people from around the world together — and a significant setback in profits. For these reasons, the IOC ruled out staging the Games behind closed doors earlier this week amidst calls to cancel. Abe, however, on Tuesday, changed his tone and may now be signalling a switch toward a postponement.

While there had been earlier rumors of a May deadline to make a decision on Tokyo 2020, IOC member John Coates has confirmed that there is no such deadline. The IOC reaffirmed this on Wednesday while attempting to address the concerns of athletes and fans. If and when a decision may be taken on Tokyo 2020 remains a mystery. Abe’s announcements also stand to establish that the situation is under control and effectively save face until an official decision is made. If the Games are cancelled, these public appearances could be used to showcase his determination to do all within his power to keep the Games afloat. Abe would have then lost the Games, but perhaps not his reputation.

While Abe has continued to strongly associate himself with the efforts around Tokyo 2020, he has faded into the COVID-19 backdrop in comparison. Abe remained relatively silent amid the initial panic associated with the virus’ rapid growth in Japan throughout the month of February, resulting in declining approval ratings in Japanese public opinion polls. How Abe handles Tokyo 2020 could absolutely impact how the Japanese public sees their leader, and his own efforts to save face could prove detrimental or helpful to his overall image. 

Of the options, postponing the Games appears the safest route for Japanese leadership. Even if prudent, cancelling Tokyo 2020 would cast a shadow over Abe’s leadership and draw even larger attention to pre-existing criticisms of how he has handled the COVID-19 crisis. Moving forward with the Summer Olympics could signal Japan’s recovery from the virus, but could also be interpreted as disregard for the seriousness of the pandemic and its global effects. In either scenario, Abe — and Japan — will face criticism. Considering the IOC remains largely anonymous to some degree, Abe will become the face of whatever is to come for Tokyo 2020 and will bear the consequences.