This is not so much a prophecy as it is a prediction: The city of Tokyo is in serious trouble. We are headed to the “Electric Town” this week to look at how this modern metropolis of more than 9 million people is preparing to host the 2020 Summer Olympics exactly one year before the five-ring juggernaut rolls into town. To be clear, the Olympics—and their masters in the International Olympic Committee—are not in trouble. They will nest in Tokyo’s five-star hotels, avoid traffic in special Olympic driving lanes and gather a mighty profit. But, if recent history is any guide, the city and its residents are in for a very rough ride.
We are heading to Tokyo to report on the preparations underway for (and growing resistance against) next year’s games, but even before we land there are some things we can be sure about. One is that the debt to be incurred from the Games could have a perilous effect on Japan’s economy. The country is already weighted down by debt, with Forbes magazine publishing breathless articles about “when Japan’s debt crisis will implode.” The 2020 Olympics costs have exploded, now in the range of $30 billion, four times the original cost projections. After a slew of bad press, Tokyo organizers have claimed that they’ve made extreme budget cuts, but as sports economist Andrew Zimbalist noted, many of these cuts were fictitious. And the cuts the organizers have made have largely been on essentials related to the experience of fans and athletes, like new transportation infrastructure for the games.
Thirty billion dollars might seem like a drop in the bucket for a country whose total debt stands at over $11 trillion, but taking on any water at this point could prove deeply harmful politically and economically. It could mean even steeper cuts to social services, which is a recipe for social conflict. We don’t need to look further than the fallout following the 2016 Olympics in Rio to see just how combustible a bloated Olympics can be for a struggling economy.
Speaking of conflict, anti-Olympic dissent is already percolating in Japan. While we are there, we’ll be attending a demonstration on July 24, the one-year mark before the Olympics kick off, where people from Olympic cities across the world—past, future, and prospective—are coming together to protest against the cost, displacement, and militarization that the Games bring. We’ll attend a conference and workshops organized by activists who have been resisting the excesses of the Olympics. And we’ll travel to Fukushima, the site of the horrific 2011 nuclear meltdown, and future home of Olympic baseball and softball games as well as the site where the Olympic torch relay will begin. We will also be looking at areas of the city that are being upended by the Olympics.
When Tokyo was named host back in 2013, then-president of the IOC, Jacques Rogge, a Belgian count and yachtsman, said Tokyo was “a safe pair of hands.” But from the beginning, Tokyo organizers have bumbled along, teeing up one conspicuous calamity after another.
The head of the Japanese Olympic Committee resigned after being accused of involvement in bribing IOC members for their votes. Olympic and Paralympic Minister Yoshitaka Sakurada has been a walking embarrassment. After being elevated to head of cybersecurity for the Games, he admitted that he had never used a computer in his professional life. Harkening to his class privilege, he said, “Since the age of 25, I have instructed my employees and secretaries, so I don’t use computers myself.” When someone asked Sakurada about a USB drive, he appeared baffled, if intrigued.
It’s not just the nation’s Olympic Committee that’s failing to inspire confidence. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was widely mocked for awkward cosplay when he appeared at the closing ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympics dressed as the Nintendo character Super Mario. In Japan’s button-up corporate culture, appearing on the world stage as a dumpy, middle-aged video game character did not exactly exude a dignified statesman vibe.
And shockingly, it wasn’t until 2017 that the private golf club that will host Olympic golf agreed to admit women, after massive pressure from Tokyo’s first female governor, Yuriko Koike. The lavish plans for the Olympic stadium, designed by celebrity architect Zaha Hadid, were also ditched after costs nearly doubled to more than $2 billion. Even the original logo for the Tokyo Games was scrapped after embarrassing plagiarism allegations
Expect to see swathes of the mainstream media say that “Tokyo has the Olympics in its sights.” The opposite is true: The Olympics have Tokyo in its sights. Tokyo is the target. The only question is how much of the Olympics it can withstand. Over the coming week, we’ll give you on-the-ground analysis from a future Olympic city where activists are standing up and saying hell no. We’ll gather stories from locals whose lives are being directly affected by the Olympics. We’ll pull back the Olympics’ shimmering curtain of propaganda and see what lies behind it.