View From Tokyo: The Successful 2020 Olympic Bid Signals New Hopes for Japan

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Ian Walton / Pool / Reuters

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe celebrates with members of the Tokyo bid committee in Buenos Aires on Sept. 7, 2013, after hearing the International Olympic Committee's announcement that Tokyo will be the city to host the 2020 Summer Games

Tokyo’s bid for the 2020 Summer Olympics wasn’t a sexy one. But the promise of efficiency, competence and high-tech wizardry was more than enough to convince members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), who on Sept. 8 Tokyo time chose the Japanese capital over upstart Istanbul, which, had it won, would have been the first predominantly Muslim host city. (Madrid, the third contender, appeared to have been eliminated in a previous secret IOC vote.)

After Tokyo’s victory in the IOC vote in Buenos Aires, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — who flew to Argentina for the balloting and whose ruling Liberal Democratic Party recently won a landslide election with the motto “Restore Japan” — pledged a “safe and reliable” Olympics.

Tokyo’s choice was seen as a valediction for an island nation that in March 2011 suffered the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear peril. Around 20,000 people died (or have been labeled as missing) during the calamity, and the aftereffects of the radiation outflow from the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant continue to fester.

Back in 1964, Tokyo, still less than two decades removed from a catastrophic wartime defeat, held the Summer Games for the first time. That successful hosting was meant to prove the nation’s resurgence, just as the 2008 Beijing Olympics signaled the birth of a powerful, proud People’s Republic. This time around, the 2020 Games are designed to show that Japan can once again stand tall, despite epic natural disaster and more than two decades of economic stagnation.

(MORE: Your 2020 Olympic Host City: Tokyo)

Breaking the Japanese imperial family’s habit of abstaining from international advocacy, Princess Takamado, the widow of a cousin of Emperor Akihito, joined other Japanese officials in Buenos Aires. Despite the early hour of the decision — 5 o’clock in the morning Japan time — revelers in Tokyo flocked to public spaces outfitted with giant TV screens. In an emotional public pitch for the Olympics, Team Tokyo brought in a Paralympic long jumper from Kesennuma, one of the cities devastated by the 2011 tsunami, to make the case for sport’s ability to inspire courage over adversity.

Despite a wish to geographically diversify the Olympics, Istanbul’s chances were likely hurt by the political violence that convulsed the city earlier this summer. The deaths of dozens of protesters earned Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan rare criticism from the international community amid a campaign to modernize Turkey’s economy.

But despite Abe’s pledge of a “safe and reliable” Olympics, Japan hasn’t proved itself as the paragon of organizational supremacy. Although the nuclear disaster at Fukushima may have been triggered by the double whammy of earthquake and tidal wave, at least some of the continuing crisis is man-made.

(MORE: The News From Fukushima Just Gets Worse, and the Japanese Public Wants Answers)

TEPCO, the utility company in charge of the crippled plant, which continues to leak radiation into the Pacific Ocean, has been plagued by paralyzed leadership and what some see as an almost deliberate disregard of the damaged reactor’s potentially harmful impact. Nor has the Japanese government acted as quickly and forcefully as many have hoped in taking TEPCO to task.

Radiation is, of course, an invisible enemy. Its poison can affect not just the Japanese themselves but also citizens of nations vulnerable to tainted seawater lapping up on their shores. Japanese Olympic officials have promised to ensure the safety of athletes and others joining the Olympic festivities in 13 years’ time. But TEPCO’s underwhelming record thus far hardly inspires wider confidence, no matter how much Abe promised in Buenos Aires that “the [radiation] situation is under control.”

There’s also the question of whether an Olympics is a financially wise move for a developed economy that has a habit of trying to spend its way out of recession through lavish infrastructure projects. But for at least one day, none of that second-guessing or worrying triumphed. Tokyo 2020 was all that mattered.

MORE: Japan: Economy Is ‘Recovering Moderately’