Perhaps it was the sight of Londoners whooping it up under Olympic banners last summer. Or maybe it was the record medal haul for Japanese athletes at the UK games. Or maybe – just maybe – Japan is experiencing a resurgence of national confidence, one that parallels the boom in its stock market and the “Japan is back” optimism of its prime minister, Shinzo Abe.
Whatever the cause, residents of Tokyo have been getting very excited about the city’s bid to host the 2020 summer games.
It is just in time. The International Olympic Committee is set to choose the winning city on Saturday, and while forecasting the result of IOC votes is deeply risky, odds-makers favour the Japanese capital over its two rivals, Madrid and Istanbul. Mr Abe and Naoki Inose, Tokyo’s governor, were due to land in Buenos Aires, site of the IOC meeting, to lend last-minute lobbying weight.
If Madrid’s bid has been handicapped by Spain’s economic crisis and Istanbul’s by unrest on Turkish streets, Japan’s main emerging obstacle has been the radiation-leaking Fukushima nuclear plant, 250km to the capital’s north.
Mr Abe and other Japanese leaders have been at pains in recent days to reassure the IOC that the tsunami-wrecked site poses no danger to Tokyo, and that the government is stepping up efforts to contain its expanding build-up of contaminated water. Some Japanese anti-nuclear activists say an Olympics would distract from the cleanup, though it seems just as likely that the troubled effort would benefit from the added scrutiny the games would bring.
“I want to explain [to IOC delegates] that in 2020 this will not be a problem at all,” Mr Abe said before leaving Tokyo this week, promising “radical measures enacted with decisive will”.
Tokyo last hosted the summer games in 1964, turning the event into a coming-out party that showcased its return from wartime disgrace and devastation, complete with avant-garde stadium architecture and a bullet train to ferry visitors.
But much like Londoners before the torch was lit and James Bond heaved the Queen out of a helicopter last July, Tokyo-ites were widely seen as too jaded to embrace another games. Low levels of support helped to doom its bid for the 2016 games four years ago, and as of early last year fewer than half the city’s residents said they wanted to host the games in 2020.
The indifference is finally turning to enthusiasm. An IOC poll published in the spring showed 70 per cent of residents endorsed the city’s bid, and Tokyo’s would-be organisers say support has since risen further, to more than 90 per cent.
Some have linked the newfound vigour to Mr Abe, who came to power in December and has backed Tokyo’s candidacy more assertively than his predecessors. The Olympic drive dovetails nicely with the premier’s “Abenomics” economics policies, in which infrastructure spending and other forms of stimulus feature prominently, and his broader goal of raising Japan’s global profile.
“In the same way that the 1964 Tokyo Olympics showed that Japan had entered the ranks of modern industrialised nations, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics could show that Japan is back” from years of stagnation, says Hiromichi Tamura, an analyst at Nomura who has written on the potential economic impact of a Tokyo games.
Eiji Kinouchi, an analyst at Daiwa, goes as far as to call the hoped-for Olympics a “fourth arrow” of Abenomics, complementing Mr Abe’s three-pronged strategy of increased government spending, looser monetary policy and structural reforms.
“It would make it more certain that the Japanese economy would escape deflation,” he says.
The level of economic benefit imparted by big sporting events is subject to intense debate, but given the large size of Japan’s economy, the measurable impact may not justify Mr Kinouchi’s Olympic fever. That is especially true since Tokyo is promising a “compact” games that would use many sites that were built for 1964, albeit upgraded for today’s needs.
Tokyo’s bid envisions about Y1tn of new investment, including Y450bn for competition venues and athlete housing, which would be financed by private sponsors through the local organising body, and Y550bn for road, rail and airport upgrades, some of which would have been carried out regardless. The bid committee estimates the overall economic impact at Y3tn – or about 20 days’ gross domestic product, spread over nearly eight years.
Mr Tamura at Nomura acknowledges the direct impact would likely be “limited”, but suggests the Olympics could help focus Mr Abe’s government and its presumed successors on economic reform.
By his reckoning, 11 of the 26 growth and structural-reform goals laid down by Mr Abe that involve a timetable have 2020 as their benchmark date – targets for everything from foreign direct investment to the number of foreign students at Japanese universities to female employment rates.
“Overall, 2020 is a key year for Abenomics,” he says. If the Olympics are to be a symbol of Japan’s revival, a failure to revive would be embarrassing.
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