Japan deserves chance to engage

Awarding the 2020 Olympic Games to Tokyo was the right decision, despite fears of nuclear contamination in Fukushima

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 September, 2013, 3:26am

Standing in front of the mirror with the lights off, I was waiting to see if I would start to glow. It was still dark so I guessed it was a case of so far, so good because apparently I was risking radioactive contamination just by being in Tokyo. I am not trying to make light of a serious issue, but I really had no idea about the potential for disaster simply by visiting Japan last week.

Because it was the much-anticipated week that the IOC announced its host city for the 2020 Olympic Games, much was made of radiation leaks stemming from the earthquake and tsunami that hit Fukushima in March of 2011 and how it would doom the Japanese bid. However, among the three finalists Tokyo appeared to be the least flawed compared to Madrid and Istanbul.

Most of us have no idea what the world will look like one year from now, never mind in seven years

The Spanish economy has been absolutely devastated and with serious issues facing the completion of construction in Rio De Janeiro for 2016, the IOC wanted nothing to do with a similar scenario in 2020. The Syrian conflict raging on Turkey's border and a spate of brutal crackdowns against anti-government activists in Istanbul lately pretty much doomed that bid. That left Tokyo - more or less by default - as the winner in a surprising landslide vote.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe flew to the IOC conference in Buenos Aries to assure one and all that the radiation was not an issue and had been suitably contained. With visions of Japanese efficiency dancing through their minds, Abe's appeal seemed to placate most of the IOC members. "If there's another earthquake or something like that, that's not something you can blame the prime minister for," said IOC member Dick Pound. Indeed.

Most of us have no idea what the world will look like one year from now, never mind in seven years. One thing is certain though, if Tokyo is radioactive in 2020 from the after effects of a tsunami almost 10 years earlier, then holding a nuclear-free Olympics will be the least of the worries. Japan as we know it will likely not even exist and if the Olympics has to be cancelled because of an apocalypse, well then, boo-hoo to the IOC. The Games are a big deal but they aren't that big.

The decision comes after Tokyo's unsuccessful bid for the 2016 Olympics four years earlier. On technical merits alone it was judged the most complete bid then. But one of the main criticisms from voters was a lack of passion among organisers and the general populace in Japan. Despite the fact that the IOC often misses the mark on so many of its decisions, it was right about the laissez-faire attitude of most Japanese towards the 2016 Games.

Japan is for the Japanese and always has been. There is certainly no crime in that because you have to look out for number one. But when they try to engage the rest of world it often makes for some awkward moments. In 2002 when Japan co-hosted the soccer World Cup with South Korea, there was but a single tournament banner hanging at Narita airport to greet global arrivals and aside from a few pockets of revelry, Tokyo was largely muted.

It seemed like Japan wanted to host the World Cup, they just didn't want to host the world. In South Korea, the country was blanketed with World Cup paraphernalia and the buzz was inescapable. Consequently, the level of English among the general populace in Seoul is now vastly superior to that spoken in Tokyo. For a sprawling metropolis of over 35 million people and one of the world's truly great cities, Tokyo can be a very inhospitable place for non-Japanese speakers. The people certainly try and they are easily the most courteous human beings on the face of the earth. But because their leaders have never placed a high priority on internationalising their focus, they are reduced to greeting visitors with an endless series of bowing and apologising.

Things have drastically changed in Japan since four years ago and after one of the most devastating natural disasters of our time, the country is looking to reassert itself, particularly with China eclipsing it on the global stage. An ultra-nationalist, Abe is far from a natural diplomat. While he did spend the week successfully playing nice to the IOC, if he goes back into his xenophobic shell it will all be for naught. For a country that has been going backwards both economically and diplomatically over the past 20 years, hosting the world in 2020 could not come at a more opportune time.