With the theme of “United by Emotion”, the remarkable Tokyo Olympic event has brought many diplomatic advantages to Japan. 

By Duncan Bartlett for The Economic Times of India

Participants in the Tokyo Olympics were encouraged to make the sports as exciting as possible, even in largely empty arenas.

As one skateboarder explained, in the absence of a crowd, it was up to the athletes to radiate emotion. They dutifully lifted the mood through many inspirational performances, surprises and record-breaking achievements.

For India, excitement centred on the javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra, who became only the second Indian to win an individual gold in the Olympics, when he stunned the world with a throw of 87.58m.

By showing goodwill and warm hospitality towards the Indian athletes, Japan has reinforced its friendly ties with India, yet it is by no means an exclusive relationship. Japan also welcomed delegations from many nations, including South Korea and China, with which it has complex relations. For the duration of the Olympics and the Paralympics, great efforts were made to sweep aside political differences. A slogan reminded TV viewers of the goal: “United by Emotion.”

The economic cost to Japan was enormous. Estimates vary but the Financial Times has calculated a bill of $25 billion. There was also considerable political risk to the Japanese government in pressing ahead with the Games during a state of Covid emergency in Tokyo. However, public opposition dissipated as the Games progressed, helped by the success of the Japanese baseball team, who beat the USA to take Olympic Gold. 

In calculating the political value of the Olympics to Japan, we should consider three key gains. Firstly, the Olympics strengthened Japan’s links with its allies. Secondly, the Games showcased the significant social progress taking place in Japan, especially the advancement of women. And thirdly, perhaps most crucially, the Olympics have given a good impression of Japan to people in South Korea and China, thus reducing the continuing tension between those East Asian countries.

VIPs from two key allies appeared at the Opening Ceremony. The United States was represented by Dr Jill Biden and president Emmanuel Macron came from France, underscoring strong links between Japan and liberal democracies outside Asia. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga stood beside the Emperor on the podium. The Emperor’s role is ceremonial but the PM must face the country in a multi-party electoral contest later this year.

The tone of the games emphasised inclusion, diversity and friendly competition. These are values which Japan chooses to highlight, even though racially it is quite a monochrome culture; only two percent of Japanese residents were born abroad.

Japan often receives criticism for having fewer women positions of senior responsibility than some other countries. However, many Japanese women were prominent on the global TV coverage including the organising committee president, Seiko Hashimoto, Tokyo’s Governor, Yuriko Koike and Olympics Minister, Tamayo Marukawa. A Japanese woman even took a boxing gold, when a 21-year-old psychology student called Sena Irie knocked her opponent to the floor. 

The International Olympic Committee does not allow overt political gestures, although some athletes bent the rules. Germany’s women’s hockey captain Nike Lorenz was granted permission to wear a rainbow-coloured band on her socks after the IOC agreed to let her support the LGBT cause.

However, the IOC expressed concern when two Chinese cyclists wore badges of the country’s former leader Mao Zedong during a medal ceremony. The Olympic Charter says “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted on any Olympic sites, venues or other areas”.

This rule was blatantly broken by some members of the South Korean delegation, who unfurled provocative banners in the Olympic Village, referring to a 16th-century war between Korea and Japan. They were quickly taken down – but only after pictures of them had spread on social media.

Nevertheless, I believe that the positive images of East Asian athletes enjoying sport together should help to counterbalance nationalism and propaganda. TV viewers saw the branding of Tokyo 2020 during every event and medal ceremony. Commercial advertising is banned in Olympic venues, so the promotion of Japan to an audience of billions was priceless. 

I am sure that the Japanese government will make every effort to build on its success, even if there is a change of prime minister in the general election which is due later this year. Japan’s commitment to diversity and inclusion will again be underscored during the Paralympics. 

And there will be no Japanese boycott of the Winter Olympics to be held in Beijing in February 2022. Some politicians from India and other countries have called on athletes to spurn the event because of China’s human rights record but Japan will attend regardless.

Next year, when China seizes the world’s attention through sport, it will promote its own national brand. The emotional and political characteristics of Japan and China remain distinct. But it remains my hope that the warmer relationship which was forged in the heat of the Tokyo summer can be maintained until we reach the Beijing winter.

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