University of Johannesburg: Against all the odds, resilient Japan pulls it off again

The recently concluded $18bn Tokyo Olympics were held 57 years after the Japanese capital became the first Asian city to host the Games. In 1964 Tokyoites welcomed the world to an Olympics that sought to narrate in visual form Japan’s emergence as a modernising pacifist democratic global power. Only in 1956 had Tokyo been allowed to join the UN.

The friendly hospitality of Japan’s renamed Self Defence Forces in 1964 was a stark contrast to the destructiveness of its wartime Imperial Forces. Judo and sumo were showcased with Toshiba using new colour transmission technology to reach a global audience. Sony also contributed to the Games as 70% of Japanese sat glued to their new colour televisions. The first shinkansen (high-speed bullet train) was commissioned two weeks before the Games. This was a country living through an economic miracle.

By 1968 Japan had become the world’s second largest economy behind the US. When the Asian power hosted the 1964 Games 6% of its population was 65 or older compared with 28% today. Tokyo thus bid for the postponed 2020 Olympics under very different financial circumstances than in 1964. Though still the world’s third largest economy it had been overtaken by China as Asia’s biggest economy and the world’s second largest economy after the US. Japan has also suffered three decades of stagnant growth from 1991 the gloomy mood soured further by the triple disasters of 2011 an earthquake a tsunami and a nuclear accident. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe touted Abenomics a set of reforms involving boosting government spending to make the economy more competitive as the solution. Abenomics proved to be pure alchemy as economic growth remained anaemic. Where there had been a national mood of optimism during the 1964 Olympics there was a sense of deep pessimism going into 2021. While 1964 showed off Japan’s modernisation 2021 exposed its financial woes. In 1964 Japanese took great pride in its gold medal winning women’s volleyball team and men s gymnastics champions. Before the recent Games 55% of Japanese opposed hosting the Olympics.

However another unexpected third place finish as in 1964 increased support for the event. Naomi Osaka the Haitian Japanese tennis superstar who memorably lit the Olympic flame sadly failed to win a medal. Like African American Simone Biles the most decorated gymnast Osaka courageously laid bare her challenges with mental health. Africa and its diaspora performed creditably with the continent taking home 37 medals including 11 gold. Kenya Uganda Ethiopia and Morocco dominated the distance running while SA women won three swimming and surfing medals with Tunisia taking a surprise swimming gold. Namibia Botswana and Burkina Faso also bagged athletics medals. Egypt won gold in women’s karate Nigeria took a silver in wrestling Ivory Coast won a bronze in taekwondo and Ghana a boxing bronze. Jamaican women swept the sprints while African American women also shone in athletics with Afro Cubans and Afro Brazilians excelling in boxing and football. Against all odds a resilient Japan has held a well organised Games.

The Covid 19 pandemic has ensured a large global audience. These Olympics showed off a more affluent Japan s soft power to the world. With a tightly restricted Olympic bubble authorities appear to have largely avoided a superspreader Olympics.

The Japanese were as expected warm and welcoming hosts stoically accepting the mass intrusion of athletes and media. However this was only a temporary balm to distract the attention of the country s population from more pressing domestic issues. The Covid 19 state of emergency remains in place. The nuclear disaster has still not been fully cleaned up. The expected tourism boom and revenues from hotels shops and restaurants failed to match expectations. But in the end a relieved Japan has pulled off a successful Games as it did in 1964.