When the Japanese learned that Tokyo had been selected for the Olympic Games in 2020, banzai cheers could be heard from Wakkanai in the north to Kagoshima in the south, as it was a rare piece of good news for this long-depressed nation.
“Japan has been dispirited for two decades,” a retired senior official said, pointing to longstanding economic doldrums and political indifference that was capped by the devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis of March 2011.
About 21,000 people died in that disaster, including 4,800 whose remains have never been found. Nearly 290,000 are living in shelters or with relatives or some place other than home.
Many Japanese seem to see the Olympics as a way to pull out of their national distress. Japanese have a way of setting collective goals, then striving together to achieve them. The 1964 Olympics was integrated into then-Japanese prime minister Hayato Ikeda’s plan to double the national income in 10 years, and accomplished in little more than five.
That was a time for the massive construction of highways, subways and what was to become the widely acclaimed — and copied — Shinkansen high-speed railway. The economic growth rate at one point hit an astounding 17.5 percent and the Games themselves were well-conducted.
The high point came during the opening ceremony, when a young Japanese runner, Yoshinori Sakai, carried a torch to the top of the stadium to light the Olympic flame. He had been born on Aug. 6, 1945, in Hiroshima, the day the US dropped the atomic bomb on that city to end World War II.
In a nation that cherishes symbols, the message that Sakai carried was unmistakable: Japan had recovered from the devastation and humiliation of defeat in the war to take its rightful place among nations. Look for a similar symbolic action in Tokyo 2020.
An evident goal for 2020 will be the elimination of the threat from the nuclear reactors in Fukushima Prefecture. They were severely damaged by the earthquake and tsunami and are still leaking contaminated water.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who flew from the G20 economic summit in Russia to Buenos Aires to take part in Japan’s bid for the 2020 Games, pledged to the world that the athletes would not be endangered.
Some of the facilities built for the 1964 games will be refurbished for 2020, but many will be constructed anew.
Perhaps the centerpiece will be a stadium with 80,000 seats and a retractable roof to keep out the bad weather, including the heat of July and August. Tokyo is just now emerging from a blistering summer.
An Olympic village to house the athletes and officials will be built near Tokyo Bay and will include a berm to protect the community from a tsunami. The village will be only 8km from the athletic venues, to spare the athletes from being held up by Tokyo’s sometimes fearsome traffic.
A touchy issue: Will Japan willingly set as an objective of the 2020 Olympics a resolution of the so-called “history question” — or will it be coerced into taking it up? The term encompasses a litany of issues with which Koreans and Chinese, in particular, contend that Japan has never come to terms.
The JoongAng Ilbo, a leading newspaper in Seoul, lost no time in bringing up the history issue after Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Summer Games.
While grudgingly approving that decision, the paper said: “Japan must stop escalating conflicts and tensions with its neighbors over territorial and historical issues.”
From all accounts, Japan mounted an effective campaign to be awarded the Games. Four women were evidently critical to the success of “Team Japan.”
Princess Hisako, a member of the imperial family, was technically not part of the Japanese delegation at the insistence of the Imperial Household Agency, which struggles to keep the imperial family out of politics. However, the princess drew attention by expressing Japan’s gratitude for the help of athletes after the tsunami.
Christel Takigawa, a popular TV anchor, whose father is French and mother Japanese, put her linguistic skills to work as Japan’s cultural ambassador to the International Olympic Committee. Similarly, Mariko Nagai, an experienced interpreter, compiled a list of 500 Olympic terms and appropriate Japanese translations, never an easy task.
Mami Sato, an athlete who lost a leg to cancer, not only came back to compete as a Paralympian in the long jump, but related to the committee how the tsunami had wiped out her home town.
For six days, she said, she did not know whether her family was alive or dead.
From these experiences, she said: “I learned that what was important was what I had, not what I had lost.”
Richard Halloran is a commentator in Hawaii.