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From the Field

The Postponed Tokyo 2020 Games: From Planning Conflicts to Covid

One of the many consequences of the Covid‑19 pandemic was the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, held in summer 2021; however, the health crisis was not the only issue to adversely affect the Games. Here, Raphaël Languillon-Aussel looks behind the scenes of Tokyo 2020 and examines the multiple conflicts and stakes that beset the Games.

On March 24, 2020, the Japanese central government announced its decision to postpone by one year the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games that were initially to be held in the summer of 2020. [1] This unprecedented decision in the history of the Olympics occurred in the context of the international health crisis caused by the Covid‑19 virus. Tokyo is thus the only host city in Olympic history to have been subject to both a cancellation, in the case of the Summer Games of 1940 [2] (Collins 2007; Ikeda 2020), and a postponement. But is the latter of these really the sole consequence of the world health situation, or can symptoms of more structural problems also be detected?

An Olympic bid under pressure

The organization of the Tokyo 2020 Games encountered many obstacles, starting with the bidding phase, which followed the failure of its previous bid, for the 2016 Games, won by Rio de Janeiro (Languillon-Aussel 2017). In order to win the 2020 Games, the Tokyo team had to overcome two weaknesses in the 2016 bid, namely the weight of the personal ambitions of the former governor of Tokyo, the populist Shintarō Ishihara, and the lack of support among the local population. The record on both counts is mixed. On the one hand, Shintarō Ishihara abruptly resigned from his position as governor in October 2012, a sudden and unilateral decision that initiated a crisis of succession that was damaging to the project’s advancement and subsequently to the governance of the Games. On the other hand, the lack of public interest remained a constant throughout the Tokyo saga (Hiller and Wanner 2018). At the beginning of 2021, a majority of the population was for this reason still in favor of canceling the event. [3]

Moreover, the submission of bids in September 2011 coincided with a political agenda that had become particularly sensitive following the triple disaster of March 11, 2011, where an earthquake of rare intensity, followed by a deadly tsunami, led to the nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi power station (Scoccimarro 2012; Asanuma-Brice 2017). The idea of submitting a bid for the 2020 Games a mere six months after the meltdown of several nuclear reactors just 250 kilometers (155 miles) from the Japanese capital, when the question of a massive evacuation of Tokyo had been raised with the then–prime minister, Naoto Kan, [4] seemed at the time almost disqualifying. Ultimately, however, it was not, and the Games were awarded to the city two years later, on September 7, 2013.

Preparations for the Games bedeviled by political planning issues

The transition from candidate-city to host-city status has not been accompanied by an easing of tensions around the Tokyo Olympics. In addition to growing opposition from residents (Hiller and Wanner 2018), the preparatory phase of the Games was plagued by a number of planning conflicts.

Figure 1. Location of the main event sites of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games

Source: Tokyo 2020 candidacy, vol. 1, pp. 2–3. Mapping: Raphaël Languillon-Aussel.

A first area tension, of international scope, developed around the Olympic stadium, which the 2020 project was to symbolically rebuild on the site of the 1964 Games. A first appeal, won in 2013 by the firm of the Anglo-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, was cancelled by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on July 16, 2015. Officially, the reason given was that of its disproportionate cost, but a more geopolitical issue emerged during the second call, five months later, when Zaha Hadid was not allowed to participate, and only two exclusively Japanese firms were selected in the final phase: that of Toyo Ito, and the winning firm of Kengo Kuma, associated with the construction companies Taisei Corp. and Azusa Sekkei Co.

Another, more domestic, planning conflict involved the construction of a stretch of freeway, the Kanko Nigosen, connecting the center of Tokyo to the Olympic Village, located on Harumi Futō, an island resulting from land reclamation. The infrastructure required the razing of the old Tsukiji fish market, after its relocation to a new venue on the former industrial Toyosu neighborhood, a little further into the bay. This stretch of road was highly strategic for the Games, as it lay at the heart of the key principle of a compact project, allowing for rapid access to all the capital’s sports facilities from the athletes’ village, within a radius of less than 4 kilometers (2.5 miles).

Figure 2. The territorial issues surrounding the displacement of Tsukiji fish market

Mapping: Raphaël Languillon-Aussel.

However, as the new buildings at Toyosu were completed at the end of 2016, a further soil survey revealed a level of contamination too high for food logistics activities, halting the move from Tsukiji. The dismantling of the site, and thus the construction of the portion of the road to Harumi, was accordingly suspended. This unexpected environmental issue was a major political and urbanistic obstacle in the preparatory phase of the Games between 2016 and 2018. The situation was resolved in extremis: the new Toyosu market opened on October 11, 2018, following cleanup and political agreements, the old Tsukiji site was destroyed, and the road was completed by the end of 2019, making access to the athletes’ village operational (Figure 2).

Complex and conflictual governance

The many difficulties encountered by the Tokyo 2020 Olympics can largely be explained by governance conflicts between the three main entities involved in the preparation of the Games, which were led by three major political figures: the central government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (2012–2020), the Tokyo metropolitan government of Koike Yuriko (2016–present), and the Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (OCOG) chaired by Mori Yoshihirō. These conflicts concerned not just the institutions but also the personalities involved.

Although all three are members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the relationships between Koike, Abe and Mori are delicate. Koike was an environment minister in the Koizumi government (2003–2006) and a defense minister in 2007 in the first Abe government. This dual experience has given her a solid knowledge of environmental issues and an enmity towards Abe. For his part, Abe has held the position of head of government twice: first for a very short period in 2006/2007, and a second time between 2012 and 2020. Mori is also a former prime minister of Japan, and close to Abe—both are on the right wing of the LDP, while Koike is more progressive. Koike and the Abe–Mori duo thus differ in multiple respects: political, institutional, generational and probably also gendered. Around these three key figures, an ecosystem of secondary actors also gravitates (Figure 3).

While the central and metropolitan governments and the OCOG have responsibilities that sometimes overlap, a distinction can be made between the financing of infrastructure (central and metropolitan governments) and the management and communication of the Games (the OCOG). However, while the Tokyo metropolitan government is in part responsible for infrastructure, it has only limited influence over the sponsoring arrangements, which are managed by the OCOG and represent a very significant source of income. To remedy this situation, Koike decided to use his expertise and his mastery of the environmental portfolio to not only put pressure on the OCOG and central government to change the direction of Olympic project, but also bring in funds via the issuance of environmental bonds that play an alternative financial role to that of the sponsors without having that title or official status. In this way, just a few months after taking office, Koike issued two threats to the OCOG and the central government, justified by budgetary issues that were reinforced by environmental arguments: first, the downsizing of the infrastructure; and second, the relocation of certain sites from the capital to the provinces. The OCOG’s reaction was very hostile, and ultimately only certain infrastructures were scaled down by Koike. For Koike, the environmental issue was a very effective negotiating strategy—as can be seen, for example, in the pressure exerted when the Tsukiji fish market was moved.

Figure 3. The complex ecosystem of conflictual governance of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics

Source: semi-structured interviews conducted between 2016 and 2020.
Mapping: Raphaël Languillon-Aussel.

Covid‑19 in Japan: crisis management dictated by the Olympic agenda?

The hectic agenda of the final six months of preparation for the Olympic Games came head to head, in early 2020, with the international health crisis caused by the spread of Covid‑19. The virus officially entered the Japanese territory on February 5, 2020, when a cruise ship suspected of contamination, the Diamond Princess, was quarantined in the port of Yokohama by the Japanese health ministry. At that time, the number of cases identified in the rest of the country was zero. Although the number of detected cases remained officially low (Figure 4), the announcement of the postponement of the Olympic Games was made on March 24. On April 7, a state of health emergency was declared in seven prefectures, including Tokyo. On April 12, the number of daily infections reached its peak with 743 additional cases detected. The state of emergency was then extended to the whole country on April 16. [5] On May 4, the government announced its prolongation until the end of the month, a measure that was finally repealed on May 14 with the exit of 39 of the country’s 47 prefectures from the state of emergency owing to the continued decline of the pandemic in Japan. [6]

Figure 4. Number of daily cases of patients testing positive for Covid‑19, with regard to the political agenda surrounding the Olympics and lockdown measures

Source: World Health Organization.

Graph: Raphaël Languillon-Aussel.

In the timeline of health-related and Olympic decisions, it is significant to note that, despite the rather slapdash management of the quarantine of the Diamond Princess, [7] the increase of new detected cases of Covid‑19 fluctuated but remained below 60 per day until March 24, the day of the announcement of the postponement of the 2020 Olympics. Then, from March 25, not only did the daily number of new detected cases remain above 60 until May 11, 2020, but the daily number of new cases increased almost continuously until the peak of the spring wave on April 12 (743 new cases detected in 24 hours). Although at this date the spread of the epidemic did not concern only Japan, the fact that the postponement of the Olympics and the sudden acceleration of contamination rates in Japan coincided was disturbing: was this down to anticipation, luck, correlation or statistical bias?

In the Covid‑19 crisis, we find the same institutional and personal differences as those at play in the governance conflicts of the Olympic Games and the related environmental and budgetary issues. On the one hand, Abe’s central government and Mori’s OCOG were hostile to a postponement of the Games; on the other, Tokyo governor Koike lobbied alongside other major mayors of Japanese cities for their postponement. In the end, it was the progressive closure of international borders and the imposition of quarantine measures in a great number of countries which forced the Abe government to formally confirm a postponement that he did not want—a decision taken and announced by the prime minister himself on March 24, and then ratified by the president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach.

As with environmental issues, health issues have political and institutional dimensions. The careers of Abe and Mori explain in part why they sought to maintain the Games: the Olympics were, for them, the culmination of two long careers, the first as prime minister (Abe was then aged 65, and health concerns jeopardized his continued power in the long term [8]), the second as a national political figure (Mori was then 83). Their proximity to the business community and the absence of a credible prospect of re‑election allowed them to play the economy card against the public-health card by refusing quarantine and postponement. In Koike’s case, things were different: although aged 68 at the time, she was in an ascendant phase of her career and her environmental expertise led her to pay greater attention, politically, to the health and social consequences of the pandemic. The political leverage of Covid‑19 in her personal and institutional opposition to the OCOG and the Japanese central government was paramount for Koike—so much so that there were similarities in the way she made use of environmental issues, on the one hand, and health issues, on the other, in the governance conflicts over the Tokyo 2020 Games. The postponement was a clear political victory for her.

The conjectural and the structural

The economic consequences of the postponement of the Tokyo 2020—or “Tokyo 2020+1”—Games were considerable, both for the balance sheet and for the tourism sector as a whole, as well as for the development of infrastructure over the long term. This was the case in particular for the Olympic Village, whose units were to be transformed into housing following the Games—an operation for which the new residents would have to wait a year before being able to start moving in, raising in the process the question of their temporary rehousing and compensation for the delay.

Covid aside, the numerous conflicts over planning and governance around the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games can be explained by the degree of institutional fragmentation and the large number of actors involved. As a product of circumstance, the outbreak of Covid‑19 led to a recontextualization within structural considerations, where health issues replaced environmental ones in the power relations between the Tokyo metropolitan government, the OCOG and the Japanese central government. In a word, the crisis was situational, but the conflict was structural. At the start of 2021, the situation showed no signs of abating, raising the question of whether to cancel the Games entirely. Ultimately, though, they went ahead, albeit with scaled-down opening and closing ceremonies, and no public spectators for the sporting events.

It should be remembered, however, that as democracy is a matter of pluralism and negotiation, conflict is not a sign of failure or dysfunction, but rather of institutional strength. In the case of Tokyo 2020, it is from the plurality of actors and the strong commitment of the new governor of Tokyo that environmental issues have emerged and been taken into account. It was also at the metropolitan level that the request to postpone the Games was made in light of the Covid‑19 crisis. What lessons can be taken away for the Paris 2024 Olympics? Principally, that critical discourse should be put into perpective with regard to institutional fragmentation, and that any aversion to conflict should be recontextualized as a means of ensuring the emergence of happy third ways, such as concern for the environment and public health. While some voices took advantage of the crisis in Tokyo to call for the cancellation of the 2024 Olympics, it is now unlikely that Covid‑19 will have a significant impact on the Paris Games—but we can at least be sure that the risk of a future pandemic will be included in Olympic roadmaps, resulting in unprecedented levels of preparedness.


  • Asanuma-Brice, C. 2017. “Les migrants du nucléaire”, Géoconfluences [online], “Japon, les fragilités d’une puissance” special issue.
  • Collins, S. 2007. The 1940 Tokyo Games: The Missing Olympics: Japan, the Asian Olympics and the Olympic Movement, New York: Routledge.
  • Hiller, H. and Wanner, R. 2018. “Public Opinion in Olympic Cities: From Bidding to Retrospection”, Urban Affairs Review, vol. 54, no. 5, pp. 962–993.
  • Ikeda, A. 2020. “The Tokyo Olympics: 1940/2020”, The Asia-Pacific Journal, no. 11.
  • Languillon-Aussel, R. 2017. “Tokyo, ville globale olympique : de l’échec du projet de 2016 au succès de la candidature de 2020”, Géoconfluences [online], “Japon, les fragilités d’une puissance” special issue.
  • Scoccimarro, R. 2012. “Séisme et tsunami du 11 mars 2011 : spatialisation de la catastrophe”, Ebisu, no. 47, pp. 13–25.

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To cite this article:

Raphaël Languillon-Aussel & translated by Oliver Waine, “The Postponed Tokyo 2020 Games: From Planning Conflicts to Covid”, Metropolitics, 9 September 2022. URL :

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