Adventures in (Post) Gradland

Thoughts on life after the PhD

Not Ready to Cheer: Tokyo 2020


I know everybody’s excited. I really want to be excited. And seven years from now, if I’m still here, I probably WILL be excited–that sort of excitement is kind of infectious. But there are just a few things I can’t stop thinking about with regard to Tokyo hosting the 2020 Olympics.

1. It’s not good for the economy.

Historically, hosting the Olympics has benefited a small number of people for a short period of time. Mark Perryman, author of Why the Olympics Aren’t Good for Us and How They Can Be, writes : “The Games are designed to serve the interests of the IOC in maintaining and defending their very particular model of the Olympics, and not the needs of the host city and nation.” Economic impact in the form of tourism or increased activity for local businesses is usually brief: “Any financial benefit from Olympic tourism is almost exclusively short-term and hotel-specific, jacking up the room prices for a few weeks for a clientele who are unlikely ever to visit again, as they move on to the next major sporting event.”

The idea that the Olympics will generate new jobs is also flawed–in the case of Athens, according to research commissioned by the London Assembly, “Immediately following the Games, the positive employment effect moved into reverse. In the three months after the Games, September–November 2004, Greek industry lost 70,000 jobs, the majority in construction.” It doesn’t help tourism, either: The European Tour Operators Association argues that “the audiences regularly cited for such events as the Olympics are exaggerated. Attendances at the Games displaces normal visitors and scares tourists away for some time. There appears to be little evidence of any benefit to tourism of hosting an Olympic Games, and considerable evidence of damage.”

In terms of financial burden, many argue that hosting the Olympics in Tokyo will cost far less than in other cities–plenty of the venues have already been built. But a $4.4 billion budget, including the $1 billion renovation of the Olympic Stadium, is still nothing to sneeze at.  Which brings me to…

2. Tohoku. I really don’t like the idea of spending $1 billion on a stadium when 300,000 people are still living in temporary housing in Tohoku. Again, supporters argue that hosting the Olympics will motivate Japan to move forward after the disaster and provide an economic stimulus that will benefit everyone, including those in Tohoku. And yes, anything that brings the country together to cheer for something positive can’t be all bad.  Paralympian Mami Sato, whose hometown was devastated by the tsunami, made a moving speech to the IOC about how she and others had been “saved by sport.”

Financially, though, history has shown that only a small number of businesses and investors tend to benefit from hosting the Olympics, and that budgets are unrealistically modest. I just don’t think that spending huge amounts of money in Tokyo over the next seven years will translate to real progress up north.

And speaking of up north…

2. Fukushima. I’ll buy that the Fukushima nuclear crisis does not pose an immediate threat to Tokyo. But Tepco and the Japanese government have done such a horrible job of handling the crisis that the last thing they need is to divert a ton of money and attention toward Olympic preparations for the next seven years. I’m guessing that Tepco is cheering louder than anyone at this point–with everyone’s eyes on 2020, hopefully the public will forget that the news about Fukushima just keeps getting worse, the reality of poisoned soil and produce is being dismissed as “harmful rumor,”  and the tens of thousands of people displaced by the crisis have yet to be compensated fully. 

And on the subject of people being treated badly…

4. The World Cup. Look, I had a great time during the 2002 World Cup. Everybody became a die-hard soccer fan for a couple of weeks. I was kicking a ball around with students in the hallways of the AEON school where I worked. I cheered like crazy when Japan beat Belgium.

But there was an ugly side to it.

For months leading up to the games the Japanese media fixated on フーリガン (hooligans) and the fear that hordes of violent soccer fans would soon invade the country. All of the “The hooligans are coming!” stories were really thinly-veiled “The foreigners are coming!” stories, with an emphasis on how such violence was par for the course in Britain. (The media often neglected to mention that those who’d been arrested for hooliganism would probably never make it to Japan.) Shop owners said they were locking up their bicycles for fear they would be stolen or used as projectiles. One railroad station even went so far as to pour cement over the rocks between the train tracks so that they couldn’t be thrown by hooligans.

During the games numerous bars and restaurants in Tokyo put up signs in English that said “Japanese speaking only” (or sometimes just “Japanese only”). I remember being treated with a hostile or suspicious attitude several times when trying to enter a restaurant or bar (though the owners usually mellowed a bit when I spoke Japanese to them.) Some people just closed up shop altogether. The World Cup was supposed to symbolize unity and international friendship, but instead it seemed to remind everyone that Japan’s anti-foreign sentiment was still going strong.

Actually, I could lean toward optimism on this one. Maybe things will be different this time. Maybe shining a light on xenophobia in Japan will force people to do a little soul-searching. Maybe people will see it as an opportunity to open up instead of close down. But I can’t help being wary when I imagine more “Japanese only” signs going up around the city, and more media fixation on the potential influx of violent foreigners. Those comments by Inose Naoki didn’t help.

The 2020 Olympics are a done deal, of course, and polls show that a significant majority of Tokyoites support them. Like the World Cup in 2002, I’m sure there will be a lot of excitement and a lot of fun to be had. I don’t even know if I’ll be living here in 2020 to see how things pan out. But for now, at least, I’m not ready to cheer.


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Anne McKnight

writing•translation•scholarship on Japan (and a few other things)

A Modern Girl / モダンガール

tales of travel, research, and life is the best place for your personal blog or business site.

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