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Opinion

Swift Olympic cancellation will boost Japan's soft power

Shinzo Abe must start redeploying country's efforts in global coronavirus fight

| Japan

On March 3, in response to the yearlong #KuToo protest against employers forcing working women to follow impractical dress codes, like mandatory high heels, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that this should not be allowed.

But he added that it was difficult for the government to make a final decision since private companies had their own rules on the high heels policy. It would require further discussion with all the parties involved.

Sound familiar? Abe hedging his bets here mirrors a problem as uncomfortable as a tightfitting stiletto: a final decision on whether to hold the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

Given the spread of the coronavirus and reactive global lockdowns, it is not now a matter of if the Olympics will be canceled but when. Abe needs to get ahead of the situation by announcing the cancellation, or risk dawdling further and diminishing Japan's immense soft power.

Abe has been dodging making a decision while waiting for the World Health Organization or the International Olympic Committee to give him cover to cancel. But the WHO has had its agenda full since naming COVID-19 a global pandemic on March 11. Worrying about whether or not Japan should host the Olympics is likely not high on its triage list of priorities.

The pandemic announcement was the perfect time for Japan's government to let word filter out that holding the Olympics in 2020 was in jeopardy. But Abe let the chance to signal leadership and national sacrifice quickly pass.

In its place came Olympic minister Seiko Hashimoto saying that the International Olympic Committee and Japanese organizers are "not considering cancellation or a postponement, absolutely not at all."

Japanese public opinion has run past Abe: a Kyodo poll released on March 16 said 69.9% of those surveyed did not expect the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games to be held as scheduled.

The rest of the world does not exactly look like it is concerned about the Olympics either.

On March 17, Japan's top ally and Abe's friend, President Donald Trump, told people not to gather in groups of more than 10, while U.S. cities and states have forced restaurants, bars and theaters to shut. Residents of one of America's most beloved cities, San Francisco, were told to "shelter in place."

Spain's 47 million citizens are on nationwide lockdown under orders of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, prompting the head of the Olympic Committee in Spain to call for the Olympics' postponement. French President Emmanuel Macron announced a similar measure, along with a mobilization of 100,000 police to enforce the restricted movement.

Japan's response to this united declaration of war on a virus and this violent altering of lifestyle? It held another news conference on Tokyo 2020 preparation buoyed by an IOC commitment to go forward.

Should Japan delay too much longer, it will create confusion and propagate a message that Japan thinks it is the exception to the new global rules of self-sacrifice and social isolation. It cannot keep planning a sports competition while top Olympic countries like China, the U.S., Italy, Spain, France and the U.K. have made staying at home the norm.

How Abe handles the final decision and announcement and its cascading consequences will reflect on Japan's leadership in future global matters and its preeminent soft power.

In fact, Monocle magazine named Japan its number one soft-power country in 2020 for everything from tackling rural depopulation and the management of an aging society to service industry excellence and emergency preparedness.

What can Japan do now to preserve its goodwill? It could fully embrace the Olympic spirit of competition and celebration but in a new worldwide exchange program of ideas and solutions for relief and recovery, marshaling Japan's global reputation.

The Japanese government has shown a strong commitment to the U.N.'s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals; these goals did not evaporate with the arrival of COVID-19.

Just a month ago, the government of Japan's communications mismanagement of the coronavirus outbreak on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, docked at Yokohama, was a visible part of the problem. It lacked precision then. Now the government must become a visible part of the coronavirus solution.

Shinzo Abe takes part in the video conference with G-7 leaders from this room on Mar. 16. (Handout photo from Japan's Cabinet Public Relations Office)

Abe is shielding any decision behind IOC communiques. He remains defiant: "I want to hold the Olympics and Paralympics perfectly, as proof that the human race will conquer the new coronavirus, and I gained support for that from the G-7 leaders."

But it is impossible for Abe, much less Japan, to host a perfect games. A better message would have been the following: "In light of G-7 leaders calling for sheltering at home and temporary lockdowns to conquer the coronavirus, Japan has a much bigger competition to support now.

"Please come visit Japan when it is safe for all nations to gather together again. We'll be stronger and offer something bigger and better when we meet in person."

Now that is soft power the human race will embrace.

Dr. Nancy Snow is Pax Mundi (World Peace) Professor of Public Diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies. She is author or editor of a dozen books, including the forthcoming Japanese-language version of "Japan's Information War."

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