Between opening and closing, the future of an Olympic Japan

Preparations are underway for the opening of the Olympic Games in Tokyo


The Olympic Games that Japan is hosting in pandemic conditions, under tight border control, are opening up new debates on the future of a nation that is embracing openness or isolation in step with its history.

It is no longer the 19th century, when American ships docked on Japanese shores and forced Japan to open up to trade, nor the Pacific engine of the 1980s. Japan turned the century with great population and economic challenges, as well as a recent disaster.

"The Games were a way of telling the world that Japan was already in good shape," says María Francisca Casado, author of 'Fukushima: Chronicle of a disaster foretold', and they were succeeding because "we seem to have forgotten about the disaster".


No country could have done better to pull off these Games, according to the researcher, who believes they will be "a showcase for culture, technology and sport".

A televised showcase of a country that is torn between internationalisation and its status as a cultural exception.

Japan on the map and labour shortages

"The Liberal Democratic Party imposed a shift towards openness under the second Shinzo Abe government," explains Tomofumi Nakazawa, professor of Spanish and Latin America at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto. 


Tokyo 2020 was not the only international event designed to position the nation globally during Abe's long tenure. In 2016, Japan hosted the G7, a historic event with the first visit to Hiroshima by a US president, Barack Obama.

The G20 came to Osaka in 2019, although the hosts were overshadowed by the presence of Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, and in 2025 they will host the World Expo.

Japan made efforts to receive tourists (30 million in 2019) and "facilitated the influx of cheap labour from Asia, a very important alignment" for the world's most ageing society, which, according to researcher Nakazawa, "has no choice but to open up". 


During the 19th century, the politicians of the Meiji era travelled abroad "themselves to learn, and that knowledge made Japan modernise", explains the professor, who observes a loss of interest in learning and less admiration for the West among young people.

"Apart from the poor working conditions, with no increase in wages for thirty years, our young people live in a safe and stable country," he says.

The Japanese professor sees progress in a youth that is "more studious, liberal, less patriarchal and open to equality of gender, race and sexual orientation, a crossroads of values in Japan, a very positive milestone". 

"The Games of Uncertainty"

"The lack of an audience is a shock for the Japanese, their history with the Games goes from failure in 1940, to the illusion of 1964 and now uncertainty," says Florentino Rodao, author of 'The Loneliness of the Vulnerable Country', a key work for understanding Japan.

"They have been an example of how to get out of a disaster, but this is the first time they have not thought about reconstruction. Their audacity was to try to forget Fukushima, but now they lack leadership and innovation," says the historian.

Rodao points out that the border closure is not exclusive to Japan, "Asia and Australia will be affected".


He worries that the slow pace of vaccination, perhaps an overconfidence and lack of administrative flexibility, has resulted in the international event being held with only 21% of the population vaccinated and has undermined people's trust in their authorities.

These days the prime minister repeats that the Games will "inspire young people", but the truth is that they are dissatisfied with the political class.

"We don't want the Olympics, it would have been better to cancel them," commented several university students, students of Professor Nakazawa, by videoconference.


"The original idea of these Games has been distorted, it serves little purpose", concludes this professor who does not see a change in the political script since Suga (Yoshihide Suga, prime minister), "functions as an interval and is a faithful defender of Abe, who is key to the ruling party's staying in power".

Insular closure in a global economy

For businesswoman Erika Rossi, who has lived in Japan for two decades, "the shutdown will worsen" because "the virus, a metaphor for foreignness, confirms to the Japanese that they have to fend for themselves, and their domestic market is more reliable".

The internationalisation expert is not optimistic about the future of the third largest global economy: "I thought Japan would be the first to emerge from the pandemic, but politics has proved incapable, and the advanced age of Japanese leaders does not prioritise the future."


"Japan is not ready to welcome foreigners, it welcomes them, but there is no culture or education in global thinking, as there is in Europe," says Rossi, whohighlights the lack of solutions to international pressures and the country's stagnant economy as major problems.

"Despite the aid available, many foreigners are leaving, and I'm thinking about it," she laments.