The story of the senior railway official in Kobe reveals much about Japan, the standards it sets and why cancelling the Tokyo Olympics is a decision which is proving so incalculably hard for the country’s leaders to take.
Within two days of a monumental earthquake striking the southern Japanese city in 1995, killing more than 6,000 people and tearing up buildings and highways, the railways were back up and running. That is to say, around 80 per cent of the railways were back up and running — a scale of recovery which did not conform to the required Japanese standard. Consumed by shame, a Kansai Railways official took his own life.
That same culture of shame attached with things going wrong — haji, in the Japanese vernacular — is no less a part of life in the country now. It will not be Japan’s fault if the Tokyo Olympics are cancelled as a result of a coronavirus epidemic which the country has contained far more than most. But it will still be considered a national embarrassment, with all the associated shame.
Japan faces embarrassment if it is forced to call off the Olympics due to coronavirus outbreak
Athletes are facing uncertainty with organisers insisting the games will go ahead this summer
It is impossible to overstate how much the nation has invested, literally and figuratively in the Games. The Olympics are fundamental to Japanese premier Shinzo Abe’s ‘Japan is back’ narrative. They are intended to foster the patriotism whose absence among ordinary Japanese he laments; to demonstrate Japan’s innovation, modernity, openness and to crown his seven-year rule. The original budget of £11billion has soared to £20.3bn, according to an audit undertaken for the government in October.
Bearing much of the vast cost are Japanese companies who have been tapped for a monumental £2.6bn in sponsorship which has made this summer’s event the most heavily sponsored event in sporting history.
The level — three times more in domestic payments than any previous Games — reveals the success of Mr Abe’s government in twisting the arms of business to stump up. More than 60 domestic ‘partners’ whose association with the Olympics is limited to just Tokyo 2020 and cannot extend outside the country were urged to do the patriotic thing and pay.
There is huge pressure on the country after it invested £10bn in infrastructure for the games
‘In hard, practical terms, I am getting nothing,’ a top executive at one major Japanese company which paid around £92.5m to become one of the 15 domestic ‘gold’ sponsors, told the FT.
The money, a massive slab of his company’s marketing budget over several years, did not even secure enough seats for serious client entertainment. Any billboard advertising he wants to place at the venues will cost extra. And there is not even exclusivity. His competitors can be tapped up as sponsors, too.
Cancelling the Games would provoke anger at the wasted expense, including £10bn lavished on infrastructure over the past seven years, though the full financial implications are infinitely broader.
The Olympics are sport’s biggest financial ecosystem. A huge number of companies have invested vast amounts in the event. American broadcaster NBC has sold a record £970m of advertising to companies already beleaguered by the events of the past few months and anticipating the boost.
The Olympics are fundamental to Japanese premier Shinzo Abe’s ‘Japan is back’ narrative
The $24bn question is which of the vast supply chain of broadcasters, advertisers, sponsors, hotels and myriad others ticked the ‘epidemic’ box when they signed off on insurance policies. Cancelling Euro 2020, golf’s Masters, and possibly the rest of the Premier League is an elementary undertaking by comparison.
This is why Mr Abe remains so adamant that Japan ‘will overcome the spread of the infection and host the Olympics without problem, as planned’. And why one Tokyo 2020 executive board member hastily backtracked and apologised after suggesting a delay.
If any country can get the Olympics on then it is Japan, whose government is intoxicated by the idea of national duty and whose efforts to limit the virus have surpassed most others, with Mr Abe quick to close all schools until April and rush through legislation to declare a state of emergency.
Japan’s government is intoxicated with the idea of national duty and are adamant that they will overcome the spread of the coronavirus
But the clock is ticking with the games’ organisers facing deadlines that are just months away
But reality is dawning as deadlines approach. Olympic teams mobilise as early as May, travelling to the holding camps to begin preparations. The prospect of there even being airlines to fly them looks remote, just two months out.
Three of Japan’s 15 ‘gold sponsors’ have concluded this week that the Olympics will be cancelled. Levels of infection on the Diamond Princess cruise-liner, off Japan’s coast, were the starting point of the country’s struggle with coronavirus.
Determined though Mr Abe might be, an Olympic Village in Tokyo would, in the words of one of the country’s academics, be ‘a cruise ship on land’. The notion of athletes falling ill on Japanese soil and taking a virus back out across the world would be a national humiliation beyond any other.