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Interview with Univ. of Tokyo Prof. Yoshimi: “Japan remains in the thrall of the ‘myth’ of the 1964 Games”

  • August 3, 2021
  • , Asahi , p. 9
  • JMH Translation

University of Tokyo graduate school professor Yoshimi Shunya. “The Tokyo metropolis is a black hole. The nicer Tokyo becomes, the poorer regional areas become. (Photo by Setoguchi Tsubasa)

Interviewed by Manabe Hiroki


The COVID-19 pandemic threatens the Japanese capital despite the strong showing of Olympic athletes. Had it not been for the pandemic, would the Olympics have brought benefits to Japan? Sociologist Yoshimi Shunya has studied the Tokyo metropolis in depth. The Asahi Shimbun asked him where Tokyo should be heading.


Question: You have criticized the latest Tokyo Games even since before they started.


Yoshimi Shunya: The biggest problem is that in many ways Japan remains in the thrall of the “myth” of the 1964 Tokyo Games. The country hosted the 2020 Games as an extension of the previous Tokyo Games without a drastic shift in values.


Q: Initially, the latest Tokyo Games were dubbed as “the reconstruction Olympics” to show Japan’s recovery from the Great East Japan Earthquake.


Yoshimi: The word “reconstruction Olympics” was used in 2013 when Japan made a bid to host the Olympics in Tokyo. It embodied a big lie, for the Games would be held in Tokyo even though it was the Tohoku region that was affected by the earthquake. Tokyo and the three surrounding prefectures are one of the world’s largest metropolises with a total population of 36 million. Nearly half of Japan’s capital and the majority of information and intellectual activities are concentrated in this region. Despite that fact, Japan expended more resources to develop infrastructure for the Olympics. This was a complete contradiction of the stated purpose to rebuild the Tohoku region. People in the affected areas knew that the slogan of “reconstruction Olympics” was a pretext. The government should have avoided the concentration [of resources] in Tokyo if it really wanted to reconstruct Tohoku.


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Q: Why do you think Japan decided to host the Games again in Tokyo? 


Yoshimi: There are three reasons. First is nostalgia. The media repeatedly recount the story of the success of the 1964 Tokyo Games. Usually, things become less visible as time goes by. But the 1964 Games grabbed the spotlight again in the mid-1990s because the economy stagnated after the collapse of the economic bubble and many elderly people longed for “the 1960s when Japan was looking toward the future.” The previous Tokyo Games were mythicized as a symbol of the good old days and that helped to drum up public support when Japan tried to win the Games.  


The second reason is the development of the new Tokyo waterfront subcenter, a long-held dream of Tokyo’s. From the 1980s to 1990s, Tokyo Gov. Suzuki Shunichi planned to hold a world city expo in a bid to develop the waterfront area. His successor, Gov. Aoshima Yukio, canceled the plan, but the Roppongi and Marunouchi districts were redeveloped in the 2000s. So Gov. Ishihara Shintaro tried to quickly develop the waterfront subcenter, which was left behind and regarded like a nonperforming loan, by inviting the Olympics.


Q: Are government expectations the third reason?      


Yoshimi: Exactly. Japan has taken advantage of the Olympics to invest huge sums of public funds into urban development. It makes concentrated investment in specific cities possible by securing the public’s consent in the name of the Olympics. It all started with the 1964 Tokyo Games. Next Japan hosted the Winter Olympics in Sapporo in 1972. Though Seoul was eventually chosen as the host of the 1988 summer Games, Nagoya bid for the Games. In 1998, Nagano was awarded the Winter Olympics. Then Osaka threw its hat into the ring to host the 2008 Summer Olympics. 


In retrospect, Japan has tried to host the Olympics once a decade. This is not coincidence; Japan has “systematized” the Olympics.


Q: What do you mean by the Olympics being systematized?


Yoshimi: Canada-born journalist Naomi Klein described a situation where a government violently changes policy in response to major shocks such as terrorism and disasters and forces through neoliberalist policies as “shock doctrine.” In the same sense, I think Japan has adopted a “festival doctrine.”


Emerging nations prioritize the economy over democracy, but Japan couldn’t outright adopt “developmental dictatorship.”  But  such adoption was made possible by linking developmental dictatorship with the idea of a “festival.” This linkage has been repeated as a system and passed down to the Seoul and Beijing Games and become established as East Asian-style Olympics.


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Q: What was done through the “festival doctrine” in the 1964 Tokyo Games?


Yoshimi: The government emphasized its plan to make Tokyo faster, higher, and stronger. It covered rivers and canals to construct the Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway and abolished the tram network. Back then, many Tokyoites opposed development. But the government put economic development over people’s livelihoods. Development made Tokyo very efficient but also prosaic.


The fact that Tokyo had been a “military town” since the Meiji Era was advantageous for redevelopment. During the Meiji Restoration, the Satsuma and Choshu clans occupied the area around the Edo Castle, pushing military facilities to the southwest, to places such as the current Minato and Shibuya wards. After Japan’s defeat in World War II, those facilities were requisitioned by the U.S. military and turned into U.S. military facilities, including Washington Heights in the Yoyogi district. But these facilities were gradually returned to Japan in accordance with U.S.’s wishes to quell anti-American sentiment and were transformed into Olympic facilities, such as Yoyogi National Stadium. Roppongi and Harajuku have become trendy. All of this led to the myth of the Tokyo Olympics.


Q: The overconcentration of population and industry in Tokyo continues even after the end of the festival of the 1964 Tokyo Games.


Yoshimi: Modernization has been achieved by bringing people and resources from regional areas to Tokyo since the Meiji Era. In regional areas, many schools were established by feudal domains since the Edo Period, so human potential was accumulated there. But this approach of exploiting regional areas has reached its limit due to the low birthrate and fewer children. Nevertheless, Japan tried to accelerate unipolar concentration through the 2020 Games. This is a suicidal act.


Q: There is a move to make Tokyo an international information and financial hub to win the global competition.


Yoshimi: I don’t think it will succeed. The postwar Japanese economy was good at “vertical integration” and helped the country grow. Tokyo was the center of vertical integration, which realizes quality mass production through the elaborate development of close cooperation among parent companies down to lower- tier contractors. But “horizontal integration,” which laterally creates networks and alters these according to the situation, prevails in the global capitalism that has been in place since the 1990s. Japan has failed to keep up with this change.


I’m not saying that Tokyo should be the center of horizontal integration. Rather, it is better to create focal cities other than Tokyo in multiple directions and widely. Global cities do not need populations in the tens of millions. The population of Fukuoka or Sendai is just enough. Strengthening only Tokyo, which is at the top of vertical integration, will weaken the bottom and deprive regional areas of potential. When I look at Japan as a whole, Tokyo seems to pose the greatest risk. 


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Q: The latest Olympics fell short of Japan’s expectations due to the pandemic.


Yoshimi: The pandemic poses a greater risk to big cities. The Greater Tokyo Metropolitan area has an extremely large number of infection cases per one million people. On the other hand, teleworkers are increasing the office vacancy rate in central Tokyo. Companies have begun to relocate their headquarter functions to regional cities and people are moving back to suburbs. These developments that run counter to the overconcentration in Tokyo have not been seen in the past 30 years. A trend of significance for the future of Tokyo is underway. 


The 2020 Olympics should not have sought to regain the glory of a half century ago but should have attempted to reconstruct what was lost through the previous Tokyo Games. I believe reversing the future direction of Tokyo will unleash its potential. 


Q: What do you mean by reversing the future direction?


Yoshimi: I mean that we should slow the pace of urban life rather than expanding [Tokyo] at a furious pace. There is no need for massive redevelopment if we create circular cities that last for many years by taking a more fun and flexible approach. Tokyo retains many old things against all expectations. This diversity is Tokyo’s strength. Southwest Tokyo bristles with skyscrapers due to the redevelopment promoted after the previous Tokyo Games, but northeast Tokyo has gone through little change. If we get rid of the Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway and bring back the waterfront and trams, each district might start to glow with its own unique charms.


Q: What should cities other than Tokyo do?


Yoshimi: A circular city that takes advantage of its diversity is a model applicable to Japanese cities. Cities should not compete in speed or efficiency but glitter like jewels even though they have a small central core. I think there is a future for Japan if it has a string of such jewels (Abridged)

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