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Olympic-sized stakes for Japan’s prime minister

Olympic-sized stakes for Japan’s prime minister

A person protests against International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach's visit to Hiroshima, in Tokyo, Japan.

When the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, Japan watchers will be following more than just the performance of Japan's star athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. They will also be tracking the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is taking a big gamble by staging the event — amid a raging pandemic — in the face of strong and longstanding opposition from the Japanese public. What are the stakes for Suga, particularly with elections on the horizon? Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne explains.

Why has Suga been so intent on going forward with the Olympics?

For starters, Japan has already postponed the Games once; they were supposed to take place last summer. Postponing them again — or even cancelling them — would be demoralizing, especially if neighboring China manages to execute a successful Winter Olympics this coming February.

Suga had hoped that the Games would be a showcase of Japan's resilience in the face of tragedies — not only the pandemic that continues to ravage the world, but also the triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident) that devasted Fukushima a decade earlier. He has gradually had to scale back his ambitions for the Games, which are probably far more modest now than they were even a month earlier.

Inertia is also at work. Cancelling the Games now could unleash a bitter legal dispute between the Japanese government and the International Olympic Committee. It would also anger the 60 or so Japanese corporate sponsors that have poured $3 billion into the event. And it would probably do little to appease Suga's political opponents and the broader public, who would ask why he did not pull the plug earlier in order to focus instead on accelerating Japan's sluggish vaccination campaign. Just over a fifth of the population is fully inoculated.

Finally, there is plain bad luck. Suga likely predicted that the global health landscape would be sufficiently benign by now to permit an energized, well-attended Olympics. But studies suggest that the delta variant now coursing through vast stretches of the developing world may be twice as transmissible as the original strain of the coronavirus.

The government has put in place a state of emergency. What will it mean for the Games?

Assuming they take place (the chief of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee has not ruled out the possibility of a last-minute cancellation), these Olympics will be the first in history to occur without spectators, significantly limiting the extent to which Japan will be able to convey the sense of a well-executed global spectacle.

IOC President Thomas Bach declared on July 15th that the Games would be "the most restrictive sports event ever in the world," claiming that "the risk for the other residents of the Olympic village and risk for the Japanese people is zero." But given that more than 90 athletes and officials have already tested positive for COVID, the organizers are likely to enforce more stringent protocols to preempt a sustained outbreak. Bach says that 85 percent of those living in the Olympic Village (some 11,000 athletes and 7,000 officials) are either vaccinated or immune. He and his colleagues may well subject the remaining 15 percent to more rigorous monitoring and more frequent testing.

What are the risks for Suga?

The most obvious risk is that a COVID outbreak in the Olympic Village could force Suga to cancel the Games. The bigger risk is that the outbreak moves beyond the confines of the Olympics and ends up intensifying Japan's own fight against the coronavirus, compelling him to impose additional restrictions that hurt the economy and further inflame public opinion. Such a scenario would likely open him up to challengers from within his own Liberal Democratic Party.

Thus far Japan has fared far better than other advanced industrial democracies — it has recorded roughly 853,000 infections and 15,000 deaths (the figures for fellow G7 member Germany, by contrast, are approximately 3.76 million and 91,500). But with approval for his cabinet having plummeted to a record-low 31 percent, he can ill-afford to dismiss the possibility of another deeply unpopular round of lockdowns or coronavirus restrictions — particularly if they result from his decision to hold an Olympics that few Japanese wanted.

Are there potential rewards?

There are three big ifs: if there is no serious COVID outbreak at the Games, if they prove not to be a super-spreader event once the 18,000 athletes and officials return to their native countries, and if the participants largely go home proud and happy, Suga will be able to say that he pulled off an extraordinary feat in the most trying of circumstances and that he kept his promise to the Japanese people to hold a successful event.

Still, the Olympics will bring few economic benefits to Japan: the government spent over $7 billion on facilities that will be largely empty since no spectators will be allowed, and the hotel industry is grappling with more than 500,000 cancelled reservations.

What are the stakes for Suga of Olympic success or failure?

While failure would be unlikely to imperil the LDP's chances in the general election this fall — the opposition is too fractured — it could certainly jeopardize Suga's leadership of the party.

How vulnerable is Suga to a party revolt?

To stave off challengers, Suga has relied on strong support from his predecessor and former boss, Shinzo Abe. It was Abe, after all, who secured Tokyo's bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics and believed that a successful Games could burnish his legacy. Failure could undercut both Suga and arguably his most important backer, leaving the prime minister on shaky political ground.


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