On 25 March, the Olympic Torch Relay is to set out from Fukushima with its “sacred flame” on a national circuit, visiting all 47 prefectures and arriving at Tokyo’s Games venue for the opening ceremony on 23 July. But will this scenario really play out?
The Games were awarded to Japan because Prime Minister Abe Shinzo assured the International Olympic Committee in September 2013 that matters relating to the Fukushima nuclear disaster were “under control”. The “Recovery Games” would signal to the world Japan’s recovery from the 2011 quake, tsunami, meltdown.
The grim fact, however, is that that assurance was unfounded. Not only has the 2011 declaration of emergency caused by the Fukushima crisis yet to be rescinded, but it has been followed by the Covid-19 pandemic, already several times declared a national emergency.
The people of Fukushima, and of Japan, continue to suffer from the impact of the 2011 meltdown of the cores of reactors 1, 2, and 3 of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, which released into the soil, air and sea a radioactive slurry, including caesium-137 and strontium 90, which was equivalent to 1,000 Hiroshima bombs, according to nuclear physicist Koide Hiroaki.
Within the reactors, more than 1,100 tons of nuclear fuel, debris and waste remain. But Japan will remain in a state of nuclear emergency far into the future given that even in 100 years’ time, caesium will diminish by only one-tenth.
Many thousands of citizens remain displaced.
In April 2011 2,700 tons of “less radioactive” water was released into the sea, but much more has accumulated since, having absorbed some measure of radioactivity from being poured to cool the melted reactor cores. The build-up of polluted water continues at a rate (as of early 2020) of several hundred tons each day, with a total volume now in excess of one million tons. Over the next decade, the government plans to pour into the ocean substantial quantities of irradiated fluids although nobody knows what effect that will have. The water dump, however, won’t be done until after the Tokyo Olympics.
Japan has so far escaped international censure over such high-risk plans. One may readily imagine what would be the response globally if North Korea, for example, were to announce such a step.
As for the pandemic, in Japan about 400,000 have contracted Covid-19 and 7,000 have died. The emergency declaration covers Tokyo and its surrounding prefectures and extends from January to March 2021.
As if the two emergencies were not enough, in February 2021 an unexpected complication occurred. The head of the Japanese Olympic Committee, Mori Yoshiro, declared that meetings in which there were many female participants were slow to get anything done because women talked too much. It stirred a wave of outrage, from women and men, in Japan and internationally. He issued a perfunctory apology and retraction, declaring that he had no intention of resigning, but as sentiment in favour of sacking him spread, Mori resigned 10 days after his casual remark.
The question remains as to what his gaffe signified. As a major political figure, including a year (2000-2001) as Prime Minister, Mori stands out in early 21st century Japan as a believer in the absolutist Shinto formula upon which the pre-war Japanese state was built and which led to war with much of the world in the 1930s and 1940s.
He has been a major figure in the ranks of those pressing for revision of the constitution to bring it back into accord with the 1889 imperial constitution. As he put it in May 2000, “everyone should recognize that Japan is the land of the gods, centred on the emperor.” It was precisely the formula of the Japanese state that reached its apogee and then collapsed catastrophically in 1945, giving way in 1946 to the post-war constitutional order based on popular sovereignty.
Support for his government quickly drained away, recording a nadir of 6.5 per cent in February 2001, at which point Mori resigned as Prime Minister. However, his archaic and reactionary world-view was no serious obstacle to his continued high profile roles as a core member of the Shinto Politics League in the Diet and from 2005 the national coordinating figure for Japanese sport.
Mori continued to stir controversy.
In June 2003, as chair of a ruling Liberal Democratic Party committee on Japan’s falling birth-rate, he stated that it was inappropriate for women who declare they would not have children to be given any subsidy from the public purse.
In July 2016, as Olympic President, he declared that any athlete who did not sing the “Kimigayo” imperial anthem (for a victory ceremony) was not a representative of Japan (implying that their selection would be cancelled).
The latest, contemptuous, reference to women may be seen as a further expression of the feudal framework, in which the emperor is the supreme, concentrated expression of unsullied Japanese-ness, and women are impure, inferior beings, as in the expression danson johi (men to be revered, women to be contemned).
Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide and Minister of Finance (and Deputy Prime Minister) Aso Taro distanced themselves from Mori’s 2021 offensive remark, though both are known to share his attachment to the pre-war emperor-centred polity. They refrained from calling for his dismissal and focused on the possible impact of Mori’s words on the “national interest” (kokueki) rather than on its inherent sexism.
They thus seemed unaware that the problem of Mori’s statement was not damaging to the national interest but a breach of a fundamental principle of modern democracy, offending at once the Olympic Charter that defined the Olympic movement as transcending national interest but also the Constitution of Japan (Article 14), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Preamble), and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1981).
The “uprising” by furious women was probably decisive in forcing Mori’s resignation. The Games plan attributed a key role to an army of 80,000 volunteers, including many talented bi-lingual or tri-lingual women. Japan’s institutional sexism is a harsh reality, with the country ranking No. 123 of 153 countries on the World Economic Forum’s 2020 “Gender Gap” table. Women, and men, resigned in the hundreds, a phenomenon that was only arrested by his resignation.
And now the government, in consultation with the International Olympic Committee, must decide whether or not to proceed with the Games. Surveys consistently report public opposition in the 80 per cent range. In the corporate sector, an early February survey found a mere 7.7 per cent of firms in support, with 56 per cent favouring further postponement or cancellation. Even athletes are reportedly concerned over the potential risk or participating.
Yet the government seems determined that the Games will go ahead at any cost, reportedly contemplating events held in empty stadiums, only athletes being admitted, and the torch being escorted through empty streets.
It seems the Japanese people and the business sector don’t see the XXXll Olympiad as symbolizing recovery from nuclear disaster and a pandemic. With the Torch being readied to set off on its grand national tour in a matter of weeks, how will the Japanese Olympic organization and government reconcile their need for public attention, grand spectacle and multiple “celebrations” with the pandemic principle of social distancing and three “avoidances?”