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Nobody can go to the Tokyo Olympics. So why is the government going ahead with them?

The political stakes are high, as Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga must face voters in a general election this fall

- July 18, 2021

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared a coronavirus state of emergency on July 8, the fourth since the start of the pandemic. To minimize transmission of the virus, Japan decided that the Tokyo Olympics, already postponed by a year, will be held without spectators.

With just days to go until the Opening Ceremonies, these announcements have increased international concern about the safety of more than 11,000 athletes representing over 200 nations. There are reports of contagion at venues hosting the athletes despite Japan’s coronavirus bubble. And the announcements raise the political stakes for the Suga government as it eyes upcoming parliamentary elections amid low approval numbers.

Why is the Japanese government moving forward with the Olympics? And what are the potential political consequences?

The Olympics are inseparable from politics

The 1908 Olympic Charter emphasizes political neutrality and bans “political, religious or racial propaganda” at the Games. However, the Olympics have always been important politically as opportunities for protest, status competition and projection of soft power. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has frequently been clouded by corruption scandals, though there is limited evidence of political bias in host city selection.

For Japan, the Olympics have also been deeply intertwined with politics. After withdrawing from the League of Nations in 1933, Japan sought to boost its international image by becoming the first non-Western host of the Games, with the 1940 Tokyo Olympics. However, the Second Sino-Japanese War extinguished the Games, along with any hope of resuscitating Japan’s reputation.

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics symbolized Japan’s renewed international engagement as a peaceful, liberal democracy and reconstruction as an economic powerhouse. And the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were meant to play a similar role. Over the past three decades, Japan has struggled with mounting challenges such as a stagnant economy, an aging population, corruption scandals, devastating natural disasters and international security threats.

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Shinzo Abe, prime minister from 2012 to 2020, sought to tackle these challenges with an assertive foreign policy and bold economic changes dubbed “Abenomics.” Abe saw the Tokyo Olympics as a legacy project and symbol of Japan’s revival — to promote the Games, he even cosplayed as Super Mario for the 2016 Closing Ceremonies in Rio de Janeiro. With the 2022 Winter Olympics scheduled to take place in Beijing, the Games also shine a spotlight on regional rivalries in East Asia.

The covid-19 pandemic forced a postponement

The Tokyo Olympics have faced numerous challenges. Organizers scrapped the original logo and stadium design amid embarrassing controversies. With global warming making Tokyo summers oppressively hot, the IOC had to shift the marathon events to the northern island of Hokkaido. And sexist remarks by organizing officials led to resignations — and called attention to Japan’s slow progress on gender equality.

While these were significant challenges, the covid-19 pandemic created a true crisis. As the pandemic spread in early 2020, canceling the Olympics became a real possibility. Abe considered this unacceptable and personally orchestrated a one-year postponement of the Games.

Japan has suffered considerably less from covid-19 than most countries. Cases and deaths remain low in comparison with other nations. The government has touted the merits of Japan’s covid response “model,” which recognized the danger of aerosol transmission from an early stage. Cultural norms and social ties may have also helped.

However, Japan’s vaccine rollout stumbled after a slow approval process and distribution delays. Vaccination rates trail other that of other industrialized nations, though the pace has accelerated. Japan’s population remains vulnerable to the coronavirus as the Games are set to begin.

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Suga faces mounting political challenges

The interconnected challenges of covid-19 and the Olympics raise uncertainties about the Suga government’s political standing heading into the next general election for the House of Representatives, which must take place no later than Nov. 28.

The last time Suga’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lost its grip on power was in 2009, when the opposition largely coalesced around a single party, the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). Under Abe’s leadership, the LDP regained control of the government, winning large majorities in 2012, 2014 and 2017. This success was in part thanks to the fragmentation of the opposition, which split the anti-LDP vote in electoral districts. Low voter turnout also helped the LDP and its coalition partner, Komeito, which have well-organized support bases.

This time around, the LDP’s prospects of a decisive win are less certain. The opposition is taking coordination in electoral districts more seriously, with the center-left Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) working to avoid competition with the far-left Japanese Communist Party (JCP).

Cooperation between these two parties in the recent Tokyo assembly elections helped the CDP increase its seat share. The LDP also gained seats in Tokyo but fell short of wresting control of the assembly from the opposition, led by Gov. Yuriko Koike’s populist local party, Tokyoites First.

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Suga is also less popular than his predecessor. His approval ratings have declined steadily since taking office last year, reaching a low of 29 percent in July. While hosting the Olympics might allow an unpopular leader to boost his support in normal circumstances, voters this time may not reward the government for pushing ahead. Axing the Games would have created a huge financial liability and a different set of political risks, but about 40 percent of Japan’s public still believes the Games should be canceled entirely.

Suga’s predicament may help the opposition expand its seat share in the House of Representatives, currently just 147 out of 465, excluding independents. The CDP and the JCP could turn the election into a referendum on the Suga government’s handling of the pandemic and the Olympics, rather than a choice between alternative policy visions. Ultimately, much will hinge on turnout among uncommitted “floating” voters, who tend to be less supportive of the LDP when they vote. Current law allows only limited absentee mail-in voting, and fear of the pandemic might keep many voters home, reducing the threat to the ruling coalition.

A lot can happen between now and the election. Whatever happens, both covid-19 and the Olympics seem likely to play central roles in Japan’s politics.

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Phillip Y. Lipscy is associate professor in the department of political science and Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, where he also directs the Center for the Study of Global Japan. He is co-editor with Takeo Hoshi of “The Political Economy of the Abe Government and Abenomics Reforms” (Cambridge University Press, 2021).

Daniel M. Smith is the Gerald L. Curtis Visiting Associate Professor of Modern Japanese Politics and Foreign Policy in the Department of Political Science and School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. He is co-editor, with Robert Pekkanen, Steven Reed and Ethan Scheiner, of Japan Decides 2017: The Japanese General Election (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).