For Tokyo, Olympic success in ’64 and hurdles to 2020

Sept. 30, 2014

In 2020, Tokyo will become the first Asian city to host the summer Olympics twice.

The 1964 summer Olympics in Tokyo were the first to be held in Asia, and marked a major turning point for Japan, a return to the international stage for a country still recovering from its World War II firebombing and lingering global resentments.

The 1964 Olympics were a huge success for Japan, and not only in terms of international symbolism or gold medals.

The buildup to ’64 saw the transformation of Tokyo into a sleek, modern and thriving megalopolis, complete with high-speed bullet trains symbolizing Japan’s economic emergence. Highways, expressways, and subway lines were built, and Haneda Airport was modernized. Beautifying the city and keeping its streets clean became a focus for Tokyo that still remains.

While organizers hope to recreate the same winning energy, another Olympic victory – in the economic and political sense — is far from guaranteed as Tokyo looks to 2020. Today Japan has a completely different set of challenges as it prepares to shine for the world, including:

— Japan has been eclipsed by its neighbor and rival China. While in 1964 Japan was poised to step into the spotlight as an emerging economic powerhouse and became the world’s second largest economy from 1978 until 2010, today its economic model seems to be fading, while China is poised to become the world’s largest economy by 2024, a projected date that keeps moving up by World Bank estimates.

— The Japanese economy is still recovering from two decades of economic stagnation and falling prices. Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s economic policy known as Abenomics has yet to deliver hoped-for results for the world’s now third largest economy.

— The 3/11/2011 Japanese earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis (the Japanese refer to 3/11 with the same kind of painfulness felt by Americans over 9/11). The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident remains a political scandal, with concerns about radiation, health and safety an open matter of public debate. Foreign sales of rice grown in Fukushima were halted for some time due to fears of contamination.

— Japan has the world’s oldest population, meaning an aging workforce, growing social welfare costs, and no hope of a demographic dividend that countries with younger populations can expect.

— The Galapagos syndrome. First used to describe Japanese 3G mobile phones that were so highly advanced and customized that they were unmarketable anywhere else in the world, the term has become a larger metaphor for the island nation’s reputation for inwardness and withdrawal from global society.

— Finally, Tokyo won the 2020 bid in part on the argument that it has its act together, an appealing argument to the International Olympic Committee, which is understandable considering the kind of cost troubles and disorganization we saw recently in host cities Sochi (Winter Olympics) and Rio de Janeiro (World Cup). But there already is talk in Tokyo of rising costs and uncertainty over the planned replacement of National Stadium (home to the ’64 Olympics) with a futuristic replacement, and as well as environmental concerns that the Games will threaten precious green spaces such as Kasai waterfront park, one of the largest parks in the densely populated city.

The 2020 Olympics offers Japan a chance not just to demonstrate its global competence – that is, delivering on a well-run Olympics — but the chance to show the world that it has the ability to rise again in the face of adversity.

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