TOKYO – If any world leader is thanking the heavens for Japan’s Shinzo Abe, it is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

That was hardly the vibe in 2013 when Tokyo outmaneuvered Istanbul to score a 2020 Summer Olympics that had been Turkey’s for the taking. For months, the sporting and geopolitical worlds alike had reveled in the idea of the Olympic torch burning in the vicinity of the Middle East for the first time.

Tokyo came out of nowhere to best Istanbul. It did not go over well. 

Erdogan accused the International Olympic Committee of “cutting ties with” the Muslim world. Yet Erdogan could be excused for enjoying some schadenfreude today as he watches pandemic-plagued Tokyo 2020 zoom off the rails.

It’s a derailment that may take Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga down with it – leading, perhaps, to a return of the dire Japanese tradition of revolving door PMs.

Things looked different in September.

Back then, six months after the Games had been postponed, Suga grabbed the baton from Shinzo Abe. Since then, Japan has experienced a worse-than-ever third wave of Covid-19 infections.

While not nearly as lethal as the waves striking the EU, UK and US, it is generating fresh doubt that Tokyo 2020 will happen, even after a 12-month delay.

Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Where’s the leadership?

Few had expected Suga, 71, to be a burst of new energy and thinking. He’d been, after all, Abe’s loyal chief cabinet secretary between 2012 and 2020, and a taciturn one at that. Yet voters assumed – wrongly, as it turns out – that Suga would put his technocratic skills to work as premier.

Instead, confusion reigns as the Olympics scheduled to start in five months hangs in the balance, along with Suga’s chances of holding power after a national election that must be held by October.

Perhaps even sooner, given his dismal approval ratings. Over the last month, some polls put Suga’s numbers as low as 33%.

What is the alternative? Given the disarray of opposition parties, the LDP is, for now, expected to maintain power. But a strong challenge within the LDP between now and October is not out of the question.

Suga’s government, for example, only on Wednesday started vaccinating Japan’s 126 million people. The lag raises valid questions about how Tokyo can safely hold a colossal in-person event in July.

So does Suga sticking with the Abe strategy of prioritizing economic growth over containing the coronavirus once and for all. Granted, it’s working for now: The Nikkei 225 Average topped the 30,000 level for the first time since 1990.

Where’s the imagination?

The trouble is, a successful Olympics is among the “buy” signs investors are pricing in, says economist Yoshimasa Maruyama at SMBC Nikko Securities.

What’s more, Tokyo’s stock-valuations-first, vaccinations-later approach could backfire in another way. It may mean Japan will live with Covid-19 spikes for longer than it ever needed to.

Part of Japan’s failure is a lack of imagination. If FIFA football, WWE wrestling, a variety of other US sports and the Australian Open tennis event in Melbourne can go ahead amid and despite Covid-19, why can’t Tokyo?

Political rigidity, for one thing. Had Japan’s Olympic Committee agreed to consider a spectator-free Games, it could right now be planning an unconventional, yet successful event.

That option, widely recommended six months ago, was quashed by Abe’s inner circle – Suga included – which wanted Japan’s big moment in the global spotlight to max out. So did corporate sponsors who paid a mint for VIP seating and glitzy cocktail parties.

They now risk a worse scenario: No Games, period.

Reservations about holding an in-person Games on the parts of voters and corporate sponsors are intensifying. Analyst Tobias Harris of Teneo Intelligence speaks for many when he notes that the “political risks of holding the Games and having them result in a new outbreak are greater than admitting that the risks are too great and working with the IOC to find some alternative plan that is more suitable.”

Jules Boykoff, author of Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics, finds significant polls showing that even Japanese companies are “not happy.” He added that “not only are they taking an economic hit, but they’re attached to an increasingly unpopular event.”

So is Suga’s legacy. The absence of contingency planning and flexibility now leaves Japan with an Olympics that Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso has called “cursed.” Aso’s reference was to chatter about how extraordinary disruptions tend to overshadow the Games in 40-year intervals.

Tokyo 2020 president Yoshiro Mori announces his resignation over sexist remarks, at a meeting with council and executive board members at the committee headquarters in Tokyo on February 12, 2021. Photo: AFP/Yoshikazu Tsuno

Where’s the Games?

The first such example in modern history was in 1940, when, as fate would have it, Tokyo also was scheduled to host the Summer Olympics. The event was canceled due to the outbreak of World War II.

In 1980, Japan, the US and many other Western countries boycotted in protest against the invasion by the then-Soviet Union into Afghanistan.

And now in 2020, there is an Olympics that many Japanese women can’t help but curse.

On February 12, Tokyo Organizing Committee Chair Yoshiro Mori resigned after a sexist-comment scandal. Mori, a former prime minister, complained that women talk too much at meetings, elongating planning sessions.

Women who’ve long had trouble getting seats at the discussion table at all pushed back. So did the IOC brass in Switzerland.

Where are the women?

The controversy reminded half of Japan’s 126 million people why their government is sliding on the global gender-equality tables. On the World Economic Forum’s alone, Japan fell 20 rungs on Abe’s watch between 2012 and 2020. At 121st place, it trails the United Arab Emirates, Benin and Timor-Leste.

The explanation is a patriarchy woefully out of touch with a change-averse political system hardwired to deflect public pressure for change. Call it the socioeconomic bigotry of low expectations.

When Abe took power eight years ago, merely stating his “womenomics” push aimed to make women “shine” seemed radical enough for many.

In the years that followed, what was largely a rhetoric-only campaign imparted a feminist halo on Abe’s government. It lost considerable shine, though, as Covid-19 ravaged Japan’s economy.

Female workers were the first to be cut. The reason was most of the women who entered the labor force over the last five to seven years were horned into “non-regular” gigs that pay less and offer less job security.

President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) shakes hands with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abein happier times. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Where’s yesterday’s spirit?

Japan’s sexism troubles connect to the Olympics fiasco in this respect: both missteps reflect a dismal combination of outsized ambition, hollow spin and sub-par leadership.

Though Tokyo 2020 may end up in “curse” territory, it started out in the realm of magical thinking. When Abe was outmaneuvering Erdogan’s Turkish government in 2013, it was all about recreating the moment his beloved grandfather, also a former prime minister, bequeathed Japan back in 1964.

That year, 24 years after the Tokyo Games were canceled, the city finally had its post-war coming-out party – courtesy of Nobusuke Kishi. Thanks to lots of policy heavy lifting by the government run by Abe’s grandfather, Tokyo wowed the world with its neon-lit skylines, futuristic stadiums, cutting-edge telecommunications and game-changing bullet trains.

After the disgraces and disasters of the Pacific War, Tokyo 1964 proved that Japan had bounced back. Tokyo 2020 aimed to recreate that bounce – albeit, after a rather different period of bad stuff happening.

It was the LDP’s grand plan to change the narrative – from 20 years of deflation and political drift to Japan’s return to global prime time. And to reposition Tokyo as a vital financial hub to keep up with Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Instead, it ended up distracting Team Abe from pledges to remake the economy to increase innovation and competitiveness. As time when on, efforts to internationalize labor standards, cut red tape, strengthen corporate governance, support a startup boom, improve English proficiency and, yes, empower women, took on 2020 timelines.

Before long, it was as if the Olympic Games were the reform.

Observers assessing success or failure tend to zero in on the US$25 billion-plus price tag for Tokyo 2020 hardware. The real price, though, is what economists call “opportunity cost.” This is the extent to which the LDP’s obsession with a few weeks of sporting events derailed vitally needed steps to upgrade the economic software to stay in league with a China racing ahead.

Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games Organising Committee president Yoshiro Mori (L) and CEO Toshiro Muto speak to the media after their video conference with IOC president Thomas Bach in Tokyo on January 28, 2021. Photo: AFP/Takashi Aoyama

Where’s tomorrow’s thinking?

Japan’s gender failings are a case in point. For decades now, the patriarchy that continues to call the shots has effectively tied one limb behind the economy’s back. This, despite all available research indicating that nations that best utilize female workforces are the most innovative, productive and egalitarian.

Mori’s statement on making sure women’s “speaking time is restricted somewhat” because they have “difficulty finishing, which is annoying” went global with unusual speed. After his 2000-2001 stint as prime minister, the Japanese are accustomed to misogynistic cracks from Mori, Aso and a who’s-who of creaky leaders.

But this time, Mori’s gaff had big paying corporate sponsors giving the IOC in Lausanne an earful.

Japanese, notes political scientist Koichi Nakano at Tokyo’s Sophia University, often look the other way when bigwigs put their feet in their mouths. But it suggests progress that “the negative reaction was practically unanimous on this one.”

Yet Suga’s lack of leadership on the issue – he said scant little about it, while standing by Mori at first – suggests the old-boy’s club still holds sway.

“Surely, Japan can do better but women are underrepresented across the board so mediocre males get more chances than they deserve,” says Jeff Kingston, head of Asian studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus.

“Japan’s sclerotic, patriarchal gerontocracy holds the nation back by sidelining and demoralizing women and youth. Overcoming deeply entrenched sexism could revive Japan but that seems a step too far.”

So might Suga’s ability to avoid being just another short-timer as a Japanese leader. Though Abe lasted nearly eight years in power, the six previous governments lasted roughly 12 months each.

Suga now appears to be racing toward the revolving door. Given the pace he is setting, he may win a gold medal for political ineffectiveness in the process.