Tokyo was promised glory and riches, it got neither

Instead, the city has been reduced to a mere vessel for a mega-event that has demanded much but provided little in return. Even after spending many billions of dollars, Tokyo experienced the Games much like any other city: as an event on television.

Written by Ben Dooley, Hikari Hida and Hisako Ueno

This city’s leaders promised glory and riches when the Japanese capital won its bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics. Jobs and the economy would grow. The public would rally in support. Japan’s international stature would rise.

The Olympics are set to close Sunday, a year later than planned and far off the script the organizers described when they won the Games in 2013. The coronavirus forced the organizers to put the Games inside an anti-coronavirus bubble, all but eliminating any economic or even spiritual upside for Tokyo.

Instead, the city has been reduced to a mere vessel for a mega-event that has demanded much but provided little in return. Even after spending many billions of dollars, Tokyo experienced the Games much like any other city: as an event on television.

Makoto Inoue borrowed heavily to open a Mexican restaurant in 2018 in the shadow of Tokyo’s new Olympic Stadium, hoping that the location would attract Olympic visitors plus crowds of tourists for years to come.

On the afternoon before the Olympics kicked off, customers piled into his small basement shop for one of the first times since the pandemic began. But at 8 p.m., coronavirus restrictions forced him to close his doors just as the opening ceremony was getting underway.

“I could see the fireworks,” said Inoue, 43.

Instead of an economic boost, the Olympics brought a growing sense of malaise. Already weighed down by scandal and billions of dollars in cost overruns, the Games went ahead against the wishes of most of Japan’s people, who viewed them as an unacceptable risk to public health. The organizers’ insistence on holding them reinforced a sense that the country’s leaders are unaccountable to the public.

After enduring so much, many in Japan have been left wondering what the point of it all was.

“National confidence is in a fragile state,” said Nobuko Kobayashi, a partner in Tokyo with the Japanese arm of the consulting firm Ernst & Young, who regularly writes about social issues in the country.

The chaos surrounding the Games has reinforced “a hunger for a new system and a new way of doing things,” she said.

Poor decisions and missteps led to a series of resignations among top Games officials. Japan is now confronting its worst coronavirus outbreak yet, as some people in Japan appear to have taken the Games as a license to lower their guard.

Voters may punish Japan’s leaders for their persistence. The party of Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s increasingly unpopular prime minister, is likely to retain power in the face of weak opposition in parliamentary elections that are set to take place no later than the end of October. Still, its grip could be considerably weakened, and Suga’s fate after that is an open question.

Opinions about the Games have softened somewhat as they finish their two-week run, melted by the glow of Japan’s best-ever medal haul. Government leaders have danced around questions about what benefits the Olympics have conferred, providing bromides about how the athletes’ success in the face of adversity will set an example for a world struggling with the pandemic.

The biggest setback for the Games came from a pandemic that forced organizers to delay the event for a year, leading to ballooning costs, economic losses and political disarray. The total cost is unclear: The absence of spectators alone probably reduced the economic benefit by $1.3 billion, the Nomura Research Institute, a Tokyo think tank, projected before the Games began.

But many of the shortcomings were of Japan’s own making. Scandals over things as diverse as bid rigging, cost overruns, plagiarism and misogynistic comments by the head of the Japanese Olympic committee piled disrepute on the Games.

Promoters promised to deliver a reasonably priced, environmentally friendly event that would embrace diversity and sustainability and deliver economic benefits that would last for years.

But as Tokyo fired up its cranes and cement mixers, the official cost skyrocketed to $14.9 billion from $7.3 billion. The one-year pandemic delay drove costs 20% higher, according to a government report. But those figures probably still don’t represent the true cost: A government audit conducted before the pandemic struck had already put the real price at $27 billion.

The economic forecasts, too, began to look shaky. Official estimates suggested that the event and its legacy impacts would create nearly 2 million jobs and add more than $128 billion to the economy from investment, tourism and increased consumption.

But “those numbers were really big. With or without COVID-19, that would not have happened,” said Sayuri Shirai, an economics professor at Keio University in Tokyo and a former member of the Bank of Japan’s board. (The Games have a history of overpromising no matter where they are held.)

When the pandemic hit, many of the Olympics investments changed from black ink to red. Tokyo 2020 had tripled the record for domestic corporate sponsorships, raking in more than $3.6 billion for the organizers. But many of those partners then decided that — at least at home — they would distance themselves from the event.

Days before the opening ceremony, Toyota, one of Japan’s most powerful companies, announced that it would not air its Olympic ads in the domestic market and that its chairman would not attend the event. Other sponsors followed suit. (Local media had reported that Toyota spent $1.6 billion for a 10-year Olympic sponsorship deal. Toyota declined to comment.)

The losses are a rounding error for Japan’s enormous economy. But the smaller businesses along the thoroughfares and winding alleys of Tokyo may never recover.

Toshiko Ishii, 64, who runs a traditional hotel in the city’s Taito Ward, spent over $180,000 converting the building’s first floor into an eatery in anticipation of a flood of tourists.

It was already a bit of a risk, and when the pandemic hit, Ishii became worried that she might have to shut down. Even with the Olympics, she has had no guests for weeks.

“There’s nothing you can really do about the Olympics or the coronavirus, but I’m worried,” she said. “We don’t know when this will end, and I have a lot of doubts about how long we can keep the business going.”

Pandemic or no, reality was bound to fall short of the grand expectations set by Japanese leaders.

They pitched Tokyo 2020 as an opportunity to show the world a Japan that had shaken off decades of economic stagnation and the devastation of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that touched off the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

Appealing to nostalgia for the 1964 Olympics, when Japan wowed the world with its advanced technology and economic strength, Shinzo Abe, the former prime minister, framed the 2020 Olympics as an ad campaign for a cool, confident country that was the equal of a rising China.

After decades of perceived decline, “more and more Japanese, the elder generation, senior people, wanted to remember, wanted to repeat that successful experience again in 21st century Japan,” said Shunya Yoshimi, a professor of sociology at Tokyo University who has written several books about Japan’s relationship to the events.

Instead, the pandemic brought a sense of fear and uncertainty that were worsened by the decisions of Japan’s leaders.

Officials promised a safe Games but moved slowly to create the conditions for that. Organizers went back and forth on whether to allow spectators, deciding to bar them only when coronavirus levels were clearly trending higher.

Even when they discussed allowing people to enter the country, there seemed to be little initial urgency to vaccinate the Japanese population. Vaccination rates had barely cleared 20% when the Games began, far behind the levels in other rich nations. Organizers insist the Games themselves aren’t responsible for Tokyo’s accelerating infection rates, citing intense testing around the venues.

“People are enjoying the Olympics but feel that the government did not do a good job planning them,” said Takuji Okubo, chief economist at Japan Macro Advisors.

“When it comes to actual policy, he did OK,” Okubo added, referring to Suga, the prime minister. “But his communication was very, very poor. That’s where he really failed as the leader of the Japanese government.”

The political and economic uncertainty created by the Games won’t be easily solved as long as the pandemic rages. Inoue, the taqueria owner, said he would stay open through the closing ceremony.

After that, he said, “there’s nothing to be done but survive.”

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