Japan looks to the future — and its past — for 2020 Olympics

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World. Canada has just come through the Women’s World Cup with flying colors. As the host? Definitely. A little less so as a competitor. Canada was eliminated by England in the quarter finals. Now, the next big multi-nation sporting event will be the Olympics next year in Brazil. Japan will get the Olympics in 2020. By the time that happens, the triple disaster of an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown will be nearly a decade old. But for people affected by the 2011 catastrophe, they’re worried about what life will be like for them in 2020. Malka Older is a senior fellow with the Carnegie Council for Ethics and International Affairs. She just came back from Japan, where she was doing research for Carnegie and for her graduate work. So, Tokyo will be the site in 2020 of the Summer Olympics. We’re still five years out from those games, but in Tokyo, how are those games being seen? Is there excitement?


Malka Older: I think in Tokyo, yes, people are starting to feel excited about it. And not so much just the excitement but also the sense that they’re showing the world that, yes, Tokyo is safe, that Japan is safe, and that people can come back, whether it’s tourists or as visitors for the games.


Werman: Right, so they in Tokyo are thinking specifically about earthquakes and what became of the northeast of Japan in 2011?


Older: Earthquakes are actually a big concern still for Tokyo and that’s something that you hear people talking about a lot, is how they use what they learned from that disaster to prepare for the earthquakes that are predicted for both Tokyo and the Western half of Japan. But when they’re looking at international perception, they’re much more worried about the radiation. The coverage of the radiation was outsized internationally particularly, and they’re very aware of that, that that was a concern for people who thought about coming to Japan. And so, the Olympics were in many ways--and you see it in the way they structured their bid--a lot of it was a way of saying, “Yes, we’re safe and we have this international committee that’s awarding us this to show that we are safe and that people can come here.”


Werman: So, you were in the northeast of Japan researching the continuing response to the triple disaster in 2011. What do people there think of the Olympics?


Older: The people that I talked to, there was a fair amount of concern and even resentment that so much money had been spent first on the bid and is being spent now on the construction and the preparation for the games when there’s still so much to be done up in the north. And there’s another thing that I heard as well, too: as the reconstruction of those areas is starting to heat up and there’s a lot of need for rebuilding, because the construction is starting for the Olympics as well, that’s also causing problems in terms of materials and contractors and putting a squeeze on it, which leads to higher prices.


Werman: So, people in the northeast clearly feel like they need some attention. What is happening reconstruction-wise there right now and how much money is it sucking up?


Older: Right after the disaster, there was this huge sense of unity and this word, “kizuna” in Japanese, which means unity and being tied together, was the word of the year in 2011, and there was just this outpouring of volunteers and donations. And there was also a decision on the part of the government that included the people; there was a communal decision that they were going to put a lot of funds towards the reconstruction and there was actually an agreement that the Japanese people would take higher taxes for a certain amount of time and the government staff would actually take a pay cut as well for a certain number of years to be able to fund this. So, there’s a terrific amount of money going up there. But even with that, and even with very strong approaches to having a reconstruction strategy and putting a lot of organizational as well as financial effort to it, it’s still taking a really long time.


Werman: So, how is the Japanese government itself kind of justifying big expense on the Olympics and at the same time we’ve got to somehow make these towns viable again?


Older: Well, as I said, for the Olympics they felt like it was really important to be able to show the world that Tokyo and the rest of Japan were safe, that there was not a risk from radiation, that people could come back, and also I think that the government had the capacity so soon after this disaster to put on a big event. I think these games tend to be a lot about perception and a lot about face, not just in Japan but really all over the world. And there is this theory as well that there will be an economic benefit. Most studies show that, in fact, it doesn’t have a great economic impact for the host country, so it’s a big concern.


Werman: So, as the government kind of pushes this line for the Olympics, “It’s safe to come back,” there are a lot of people in the north who are being told, “It’s not safe to go back to your homes.” They must be looking at this and taking it quite personally.


Older: Exactly. Now, it’s important to remember that the area affected by Fukushima is a very small fraction of the area affected by the tsunami as a whole. So, you have two problems: one is the rebuilding and the risk of another tsunami happening at one point and whether you want to live on the coast; but the other problem, which is really serious even though it’s a smaller area, and really tragic for the people who are involved, are the places that are contaminated by radiation from the Fukushima accident.


Werman: So, I know you were looking at a lot of response to the tsunami but also how consensus is built between these various players. Will the Japanese in the northeast and those who live in the capital be able to reach some consensus on how to address the urgent needs for reconstruction and apparently what the government sees as an urgent need to get ready for the Olympics?


Older: I think it’s going to be very difficult. I think since that moment of unity after the disaster, these paths have started to diverge. It’s natural, to a certain extent. There are people who are still living the disaster every day, there are people who are still living the effects of the Fukushima accident every day and people who are still living the effects of the tsunami every day. For the rest of Japan, it’s really faded. But in terms of having a whole sense of what needs to be devoted to reconstruction and what needs to go towards the country as a whole moving forward, I think that’s going to be very tough from here on in. I mean, I have to give a lot of credit to the people of Japan overall, because agreeing explicitly to this deal to pay more taxes or to have their salary cut in order to rebuild part of the country that’s far away from them is a really big sacrifice and a really big show of that kind of unity.


Werman: Malka Older, senior fellow with the Carnegie Council for Ethics and International Affairs. Thank you.


Older: Thank you.