Ask An Expert: Ko Maeda, Ph.D., UNT Department of Political Science

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Ko Maeda, UNTUNT System HR brings you UNT World experts with this periodic and always timely installation called "Ask An Expert." So, let's ask...

EXPERT: Ko Maeda, Ph.D., Associate Professor and Graduate Placement Director in UNT's Department of Political Science, is a Japanese citizen and holds permanent residence in the United States. The Tokyo Olympics are underway after being postponed one year due to COVID-19. Yet, as the Games go on, COVID is again surging through Japan and much of the world, the Olympic athletes are restricted to operating in a bubble, fans are prohibited from attending the competitions and the city faces significant financial shortfalls after spending billions to host the Games. Dr. Maeda takes us behind the scenes to examine how the Japanese public feels about these Games, why the Japanese government was adamant that the Games must go on and what the future holds for future Games in the country. 

Hosting an Olympic Games is seen as a grand way for a city (and country) to showcase itself to the world. Tokyo was first selected to be Japan’s bidding city for the 2020 Games by the Japanese Olympic Committee in July 2011. In March 2011, Japan was hit hard by a massive earthquake and tsunami. Was interest in hosting the 2020 Games directly tied to show the country's desire to show the world its recovery from that terrible natural disaster? 
It is true that recovery from the disaster was a main theme when Tokyo was bidding to host the 2020 Games. Yet, Tokyo started its quest to host the Olympics in 2006, which is five years before the disaster. It bid for the 2016 Games but failed, and its proposal for 2020 was based on the previous one. So, it is hard to say that the motivation to host the Olympics stemmed from the disaster.

The ongoing pandemic forced the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Games until July 2021, and one year later with Covid-19 cases surging in Japan and across the world, Japan chose to prohibit spectators at all venues, leaving facilities that cost billions empty during competition. Public opinion polls reveal negative feelings from the Japanese public about the Olympics being allowed to go on. Why is this? 
Opinion polls have never shown very high levels of enthusiasm for the Olympics, but support dropped further due to Covid. The country is currently suffering from the fifth wave of the pandemic. Tokyo is under a state of emergency that will last through the Olympics, and the medical systems have been stretched thin. People are already tired and frustrated with the Covid-related restrictions. I think many people are feeling that the money to host the Olympics may be better spent to help those who are struggling, and people are also afraid that the influx of athletes, staff and journalists from all over the world might worsen the pandemic situation.

Why was the Japanese government adamant about ensuring the Games go on as scheduled? 
The constitution requires that general elections be held at least every four years, and the next one must be done by this fall. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has been criticized for his handling of the pandemic and has been struggling with low approval ratings. I think he is hoping for a major bump in his popularity after successfully carrying out the Olympics. For that reason, I don't think canceling the event was ever an option in his mind.

Because Japan has exceeded its Olympic budget threefold by some estimates, and revenue will be significantly curtailed because of no fans, will this sour Japan on bidding for future summer or winter Olympic Games?
The city of Sapporo, the site of the 1972 Winter Games, has already been working to bid for the 2030 Winter Games. Mayors of major cities often talk about bidding for the Olympics, presumably to gain popularity. But public support for Sapporo's bid is likely to decline if people see more losses than gains in the aftermath of the Tokyo Games.