The Other Losers of the Tokyo Olympics

IOC President Thomas Bach at the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympic Games, 2021. Courtesy IOC

Deaf to the concerns of Japanese people, the Games should be a moment to demand change

In 1966 (two years after the first Tokyo Games), Roland Barthes traveled to Japan. He later concluded, in Empire of Signs (1970): ‘The city I am talking about (Tokyo) offers this precious paradox: it does possess a centre, but this centre is empty.’ He was referring to the Imperial Palace. This centre, he said, ‘is no more than an evaporated notion.’

Barthes was wrong. Half a century and two emperors later, the Japanese media and public still hang on to the Emperor’s every word. At the opening ceremony of this year’s Tokyo Olympics, Emperor Naruhito’s choice to deviate from IOC protocol to ‘commemorate’ the start of the Games in light of those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic was taken to be full of meaning. Behind the new Olympic Stadium, aerial shots used in the Ceremony showed vast unlit patches of property – including the Akasaka Imperial Residence. Beyond the tempered imperial support, what I saw in Tokyo that night was a deflated opening ceremony – and a moment to demand change.  

Viewed via Japan’s national broadcaster NHK, the ceremony in Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium appeared joyless, detached from reality, and formally uninspired. Visually flaccid and overextended to satisfy NBC’s demand for three-hour content, it resembled Kinchan’s All Japan Costume Grand Prix, a TV programme showcasing short, comic skits performed by costumed amateurs that aired annually from 1979 until 2021. Much of the intended symbolism was so poorly conveyed that NHK commentators had to resort to explaining every action and meaning (“It’s tap dancing!” followed by “The sounds are coming together to represent diversity!”). The clumsy attempts to inject excitement and assign meaning felt desperate.

The absurdity of this year’s Summer Olympics has been growing for some time. Just days before the Games’ opening, the darling prince of 90s Shibuya-kei pop Keigo Oyamada (widely known by his moniker Cornelius) resigned from his post as the official Games composer after old interviews resurfaced online in which he had boasted – at the height of his career – of viciously tormenting classmates with disabilities. In the spirit of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the organisers who hired Oyamada, either without researching his past, or more likely, having researched it and judged it inconsequential, took no responsibility until the critical voices became impossible to ignore.

How did we reach this point? Deaf to citizens’ and infectious disease specialists’ voices, a Human Centipede (2009) of capitalists and politicos with their hands dug deep into each other’s pockets composed this embarrassment of a spectacle. The stink is so bad that despite its own ties to the Liberal Democratic Party, automaker Toyota, the Games’ top sponsor, pulled its Olympic-related television commercials to avoid negative associations.

What’s more, although the majority of people in Japan wanted the Games canceled or postponed, they will contribute ¥900 billion (or more than half of the ¥1.6 trillion bill for hosting the Olympics) through their taxes. The 1964 Games, which introduced much of the architecture and infrastructure that became synonymous with postwar Tokyo, such as the freeway and the high-speed Shinkansen railway line, as well as Tange Kenzo’s National Gymnasium, was realised for a fraction of the cost. 

Kuma Kengo’s Olympic Stadium design is less memorable than Tange’s landmark, but this, one senses, is also by design. Safer to be innocuous, perhaps, following the controversy that erupted over the costs of realising Zaha Hadid’s original plans. The ample use of wood in its construction, as the opening ceremony’s NHK commentators repeatedly noted, is supposed to symbolise ‘Japaneseness’. As architectural critic Igarashi Taro has noted, there’s nothing essentially or exclusively Japanese about using lumber to build. Less remarked upon (but obvious to residents) is the building’s resemblance to a giant ‘0’: unwittingly forecasting the Games’ failure. The symbolic weight was impossible to ignore no matter the angle shifts in the opening ceremony’s protracted aerial shots.

Meanwhile, far northeast of the Akasaka Imperial Residence, 92% of the Exclusion Zone in Fukushima, from which 35,000 residents remain displaced, is still uninhabitable. The Olympic Games, past and present prime ministers Shinzo Abe and Yoshihide Suga promised, would be the ‘recovery Olympics’. Initially Abe insisted the Games would symbolise the containment of the Fukushima disaster, which he claimed to have ‘under control’. He did not. To add insult to injury, between 2017 and 2020, a mere ¥93.6 billion, or 5.8% of the Olympic budget was assigned to decontaminate the Zone. Many residents of affected areas justly feel they have been ignored and used to win the bid for the Games, which will only benefit a few in Tokyo.

When the Fukushima narrative became too implausible to hold on to, Abe, and later Suga, suggested the Games would represent Japan’s triumph over COVID-19. Currently Japan is threatened with a fifth wave of COVID-19 infections, with just 26.3% of the population fully vaccinated.

Finally, the Games has been sold as a celebration of the athletes who worked so hard to get here. During the opening ceremony, this was shown to unintentionally camp effect when frontline nurse and boxer Tsubata Arisa was featured melodramatically running in place, then on a treadmill, while two other athletes worked out on cycling and rowing machines, all socially distanced. I’m grateful for workers on the frontline, but even private access to exercise machines has been an impossible luxury to many regular folks during the pandemic.

Support for the prime minister declined to 29.3% before the Games. Despite dissenting opinions from residents and mass media alike, he sees the Games, whatever else it might be for, as the last straw to save his reputation and recover voter support after mishandling the pandemic. Understandably, there is little joy on the ground. While Suga is counting on the Olympic spectacle to disarm voter criticism, I think most here still see it for what it is: a complete farce. The only bright image I saw in the weeks leading up to the Games was Nike’s ‘hijacking’, as local ad agencies cynically call the commercial takeover of spaces such as buses and local subway lines. The incongruency of Nike’s smart, acid-pop-coloured ads would seem fitting for a global corporation that has allegedly used supply chains linked to Uighur forced-labour, while also supporting Naomi Osaka, international hero and final torchbearer of the opening ceremony. The Japanese Olympic Committee also assigned the ceremony’s flagbearer position to another Black Japanese athlete Rui Hachimura. It’s certainly a welcome start to dismantling the myth of Japanese homogeneity, but to avoid tokenism, a deep and difficult reckoning, rather than a one-time gesture, will be necessary.

The creative director of the opening ceremony Kentaro Kobayashi was fired from his position a day before the event after a 1998 comic skit resurfaced in which he belittled the Holocaust. That same day the Asahi Shimbun reported that the Olympic Committee was considering rehiring the ex-prime minister Yoshiro Mori, who resigned from his position as the Tokyo Olympics president earlier this year over sexist comments. Four months earlier, Kobayashi’s predecessor Sasaki Hiroshi quit after making misogynist remarks about local comedian Naomi Watanabe. The endless controversies surrounding the Tokyo Games has made one thing clear: it’s time to make change.  

Unity, which the Olympics promise, is impossible without equity and inclusion. The Tokyo Games’ official slogan is ‘United by Emotion’. But we must insist on being divided by intellect. If there is to be a legacy from this year’s Olympics, it will be one of failure and exposure. It’s up to us to turn this legacy into an opportunity for positive transformation.

Taro Nettleton is Associate Professor of Art History, Temple University Japan Campus.

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