For Japan, the Olympics is just the icing on the cake

The country's quiet revival on the global stage has culminated in the summer games

Japanese athletes compete during an athletics test event for Tokyo 2020 Olympics Games at the National Stadium, in Tokyo, Japan. AP Photo
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One-and-a-half centuries ago, Japan embarked on a tortuous journey, which not only changed the fate of a once-isolated island nation, but arguably also the world’s. Following a brutal civil strife, better known as the Boshin War, and revolutionary reforms under Meiji Restoration, feudal Japan rapidly transformed into a military and industrial behemoth.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Japan became the first non-western nation to master modernity and, over the course of a century, shape the contours of our contemporary global order. Its defeat of Czarist forces, during the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War, was cheered by anti-colonial nationalists from Cairo and Istanbul to Tehran, Mumbai and Manila.

The same century, however, also saw Japan’s catastrophic transmogrification into, first, a grievous imperial force during the Second World War and, following a massive stock market crash in the late-1980s, a byword for economic stagnation and demographic winter.

The Olympics, the most expensive of its kind featuring Japan’s state-of-the-art technology and world-renowned organisational prowess, should serve as a gentle reminder that the Asian country is far from a has-been power. Notwithstanding its healthy share of sceptics amid a raging pandemic, the mega-event is the capstone to Japan’s stealthy yet steady reemergence as pivotal force across the Indo-Pacific, the world’s most dynamic region, in the past decade.

For Japan’s leaders, the stakes couldn’t be any higher, especially with neighbouring China, an arch-rival, set to host the Winter Olympics early next year. Having had to postpone the summer games originally scheduled last year, the Suga government is in no mood to let the Asian superpower steal its thunder. In a proud nation obsessed with values of honour and dedication, the Japanese leadership is fully intent on proving that it can competently and safely host a mega-event against all odds, including a raging pandemic and a skeptical global audience.

Perhaps no country can match the dramatic rise and fall in fortunes that Japan has experienced in the past century. On at least two occasions, the island nation came close to achieving global supremacy. Formerly the north star of anti-colonial nationalism, Imperial Japan embarked on a brutal campaign of subjugation across East Asia, beginning with its scorched-earth invasion of China.

Following its surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, a voracious Tokyo rapidly established foundations of a so-called Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, whereby Japan stood at the centre of an Asiatic geopolitical order that stretched from the Pacific Islands in the south to Manchuria in the north and all the way to the borders of British India in the west.

Japan’s first shot at pan-regional hegemony collapsed in the face of a joint American-Soviet mobilisation, culminating in the nuclear devastation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and the almost total destruction of the imperial capital of Tokyo.

Within a single generation, however, the island nation was back on its foot and, shortly after, knocking at the doors of American primacy in Asia. Following its post-war economic miracle, which saw Japan rapidly re-assuming its role as an engine of growth and industrialisation across the region, the country was prepared to host the 1964 Olympics in style.

07 Dec 1941, Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii, USA --- Smoke and flames make a spectacular sight as the USS Shaw explodes during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  December 7, 1941. --- Image by © CORBIS

Only two years later, Japan oversaw the establishment of the Asian Development Bank in Manila, then the economic hub of South-East Asia. Then came Japan Inc's global invasion, as the country’s conglomerates snatched up America’s most renowned studios and skyscrapers.

The sheer scale and speed of Japanese economic resurgence came as a shock to much of the world, especially the West. So much so that the renowned political scientist Ezra Vogel penned a book in 1979 titled Japan as number one, in which he discussed how the Asian country was on the verge of global economic supremacy. The subtitle of his book said it all: “Lessons for America."

The great historian Paul Kennedy followed through with his oft-cited 1987 book titled The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, which emphasised the centrality of economic dynamism to global leadership. Once again, Japan’s economic success served as a warning to a seemingly stagnating America.

Then all of a sudden, Japan’s economy came crashing down. Not long after Washington utilised its geopolitical might to crush its massive trade deficit with Tokyo, most notably through The Plaza Accord in 1985, Japan’s overinflated real estate and stock markets collapsed. The upshot was the “Lost Decades” of economic stagnation, which would be exacerbated by the 2008 Great Recession and a shrinking population.

10 Oct 1964, Tokyo, Japan --- Original caption: Yoshinori Sakai touches Olympic torch to the urn signifying start of the 18th Olympiad. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS *** Local Caption ***  bz23se-p6-Japan-MAIN.jpg
In South-East Asia, Tokyo’s total pledges of big-ticket infrastructure investments are even larger than China’s

Once responsible for up to 15 per cent of total global economic output, Japan would lose its long-held status as the world’s second-largest economy and the centre of trade and investment in Asia. No less than China, would assume those roles by the beginning of the 21st century.

A scion of Japan’s ruling establishment, former prime minister Shinzo Abe took up the cudgels for revitalising his country. Following his decisive victory in 2012 election, he embarked on a politics of redemption, seeking to make up for his earlier forgettable stint at power in the mid-2000s as well as Japan’s overall underperformance in global affairs.

Pursuing his lifelong dream of making Japan a “beautiful country”, one that is both dynamic and cosmopolitan, Mr Abe embarked on a series of structural economic and constitutional reforms, which would enable him to project greater Japanese power overseas.

Although his domestic policies produced mixed results, Mr Abe’s foreign policy was nothing short of revolutionary. As Japan’s longest-serving prime minster, he transformed his country into a pivotal force in global affairs, overseeing the finalisation of major trade agreements, including free trade deals with the EU and major economies across the Asia-Pacific region.

Recognising the growing importance of infrastructure development as a tool of global influence, Mr Abe also pressed ahead with a number of massive initiatives. With an eye on China’s prized Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), he launched a $110 billion infrastructure investment programme for Asia, focusing on high-quality projects that create employment and generate goodwill in strategic regions.

The upshot is the reemergence of Japan as an engine of development in places such as South-East Asia, where Tokyo’s total pledges of big-ticket infrastructure investments ($367bn) are even larger than China’s ($255bn).

Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe kickstarted Japan's reemergence less than a decade ago. AP Photo
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and IOC President Thomas Bach have been determined to continue with the Olympics despite the Covid-19 pandemic. AP Photo

His long-time aide and protege, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, has doubled down on Mr Abe’s initiatives by signing up to $4.5bn joint high-tech infrastructure initiative with the Biden administration. Japan is also at the centre of two other major global infrastructure initiatives, namely Blue Dot Network and Build Back Better World, which aim to provide literally constructive alternatives to China’s BRI by emphasising good governance and environmental sustainability.

Not to mention, Japan’s own vaccine diplomacy amid the raging Covid-19 pandemic, with strategic states such as Vietnam and the Philippines receiving millions of desperately needed vaccines in recent months.

Mr Abe’s calibrated relaxation of post-war constitutional restrictions on Japanese military power has also allowed the country to rapidly expand defence co-operation with major Indo-Pacific powers as well as ramp up arms exports to key regional states across South-East Asia.

Thanks to its proactive contribution to regional peace and prosperity, Japan has consistently been voted as the trusted external power in the annual survey of the influential Singapore-based Institute of South-East Asian Studies. For many countries that have warmly welcomed Japan’s quiet reemergence as a global leader, the Olympics, which will provide a feel-good distraction amid a raging pandemic, is just the icing on the cake. For Japan, it will serve as a historic opportunity to demonstrate national resilience, announce its re-arrival on the global stage after all the “lost decades”, and showcase its commitment to become a force for good in the 21st century.

Published: July 22, 2021, 8:42 AM