Nationalism, COVID-19 and the Tokyo Olympic Games

27 July 2021 Patrick Triglavcanin, FDI Associate

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s decision to persist with running the Olympic Games in 2021 is a political statement underpinned by nationalism.



Despite rising infections and a slow vaccination programme to counter the Covid-19 pandemic in Japan, the 2021 Tokyo Olympics are underway. The government has ignored expert advice for the games to be cancelled on several occasions and runs the risk of it becoming a “super spreader” event. Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s Prime Minister, has likely decided to persist with running the games as his government is in need of a “win” and does not want to pay the large cancellation bill. Hosting the Summer Olympic Games in Asia has historically been about nationalism and pride, and those forces are undoubtedly also playing a role in the government’s stubborn decision-making.


Throughout the 1930s, Imperial Japan determinately lobbied to hold the 1940 Olympic Games. Hosting the games was intended to cement Imperial Japan’s position as a first-class power and show off the country’s bustling cities and ordered way of life. The games never manifested, however, as Japan’s invasion of northern China in 1937 and the onset of World War Two (WWII) disrupted the international community and halted the cycle of international events. Tokyo would have to wait until 1964 to host the Games, where they served as Japan’s debut on the international stage as a modern, civilised nation after the horrors of WWII.

The hosting of the summer Olympics has always carried more weight in Asia. The 1988 Games in Seoul aided in South Korea’s democratic transition and China’s hosting of the 2008 Games marked its return to modernity and historical significance through its awe-inspiring display of technological innovation and organisation of human capital.

Japan’s hosting of the 2021 Summer Olympics also represents more than an international sporting event. It was modelled as the premier event to show the world, as said by Shinzo Abe, that ‘Japan is back’ after years of economic ossification and turmoil stemming from natural disasters.

The original postponement was already a loss of face for Suga. He barely managed to save the Games, which will be conducted without spectators or Olympic village mingling. Japan is now also dealing with high numbers of fresh COVID-19 infections, which is the result of a very slow vaccine rollout and the highly-infectious “delta variant” of the virus. Many athletes will arrive in Tokyo without having been vaccinated, and outbreaks in the Olympic village or Tokyo could see the Games go down as grossly irresponsible at best or an outright calamity at worst.

With so much on the line, why are the Olympics going ahead? Around 80 per cent of Japanese do not want the Games to take place, and most medical experts and rational thinkers agree. Suga’s popularity is waning, however, evidenced by his Liberal Democratic Party’s dismal showing in Tokyo’s local elections on 4 July, where it garnered only 33 of 127 available seats. Suga likely sees a successfully-conducted Olympics as a much-needed win for his government.

Constraints placed on the government by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will also play a part. Contracts drawn up between the host city and the IOC give the latter exclusive rights to cancel the Games. If Suga’s government were to cancel the Games without consulting the IOC, or in defiance of such consultations, the IOC would have the right to sue for damages in court. That bill, perhaps, is one that Suga is not willing to foot.

Underlying all of that, nationalism plays its part. The sense of Japan returning to the global stage is likely driving Suga’s Olympic push, as perhaps does the memory of the cancellation of the 1940 Games and the success of 1964. China’s hosting of the Winter Olympics in 2022 will also be plaguing the minds of Suga and his government. China is set to finish construction for the winter games in October and will have more time to plan around COVID-19 and for the virus to settle. If the summer games were to flounder and the winter games succeed, China will be gifted a propaganda victory and Japan left to feel much shame.

Suga and his government have their fingers crossed, as the games commenced on 23 July. A successful Olympics may not lift Suga’s popularity, but a failed one will certainly diminish it and may lead to the end of his tenure as prime minister. As questions abound as to why Suga is allowing the Olympics to run, one must not forget the history of nationalist fervour that underpins the Games in Asia. Beijing will be watching with a close eye. Let the games begin.

About the Author

Patrick Triglavcanin is studying for the degree of Master of International Relations and National Security at Curtin University.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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