Georges Baumgartner

Tokyo and the Olympic Games: History and Challenges (1/3)

Tokyo on the cusp of the Games

The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 will be taking place in what are undoubtedly exceptional circumstances. In 2013, two years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster caused by the huge earthquake and tsunami, the election of Tokyo as host city of the Olympic Games was seen as a source of hope, to the extent that the event was labelled “the Reconstruction Games”. But in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the postponement of the Games to 2021, in what was a historic decision.
One year on, the virus is still with us, but the Games preparations are very much on track. Staging the event in an unprecedented health situation continues to be an incredible challenge – and one that will undoubtedly go down in history.
But what has the postponement been like for the people of Japan? And how are they preparing to host the Games? To find out, The Olympic Museum spoke to Georges Baumgartner, an extremely well-known figure in French-speaking Switzerland, for his personal take on the event based on his experiences of Japan.

Georges Baumgartner:

© 2020, G. Baumgartner

Having lived in the country since 1982, Georges Baumgartner is an expert in all things Japan. The Swiss journalist, who was the Japan correspondent for Radio Télévision Suisse (RTS) until 2012 and President of the prestigious Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan from 2010 to 2013, was especially known for his classic sign-off: “Georges Baumgartner, Radio suisse romande, Tokyo.” Baumgartner, who become a celebrity thanks to his professionalism and his famous catchphrases, still lives in Tokyo, where he keeps a close eye on current affairs in his adoptive country.
To mark the 10th anniversary of the 2011 earthquake and nuclear disaster in Fukushima, RTS invited its now retired former correspondent to give his analysis of the consequences these tragic events had on Japanese society.


#3, Georges Baumgartner : Tokyo and the Olympic Games: History and Challenges (1/3)


Tokyo, a modern-day city

To provide some context at the start of the conversation, Baumgartner recalls the status of the city of Tokyo. It is the youngest of the world’s major cities, and its points of reference are rooted in the present much more than the past. The Japanese capital, which was completely destroyed three times between 1855 and 1945 – twice as a result of earthquakes and once due to the American wartime bombardments – has maintained a tradition as a phoenix city that continually rises from its ashes. First and foremost, Tokyo is a modern-day city that continues to reinvent itself every day. Today, it is one of the wealthiest cities in the world, ahead of the likes of Los Angeles, Seoul, London and Paris.


“The Reconstruction Games”

Baumgartner explains how the current mood among Tokyoites is a sombre one, in the context of the worldwide pandemic. But he also quotes Jakuchō Setōchi, a Buddhist nun and Japanese writer: “There is no hope if you focus on a single problem. Sometimes all it takes is to alter your perspective slightly, and you realise that worrying is absurd.” Baumgartner also discusses the historic cancellations of the Games in Tokyo and Sapporo in 1940, due to the Second World War, and observes how, 80 years later, it was the postponement of the Games that Japan had to contend with. Before 2020 and the outbreak of the pandemic, the Tokyo 2020 Games had been labelled “the Reconstruction Games” – the message being to show the world how a city and country, after a tsunami and nuclear disaster, had been able to recover. The conversation has now shifted slightly, with the focus turning, naturally, to the global pandemic.

The Japanese Government is determined to show that everything is back to normal in Fukushima. The Torch Relay, for instance, started from Fukushima’s J-Village complex, which will also be used as a training centre for the Japanese teams this summer. Preliminary matches in the Olympic football tournament will be played around 100km from the nuclear plant. The hope is that the Tokyo 2020 Games will help turn the page from the disaster, just as the Tokyo 1964 Games helped Japan turn the page after the American atomic bombings of 1945.

The J-Village, the national football training centre and starting point of the Olympic Torch Relay. © 2020, IOC


A shift towards greater diversity in Japanese society

Baumgartner explains how, in a society with a rapidly ageing population, Japan is starting to understand that it needs to open up to immigration and become a multi-racial country. He recalls how the Rugby World Cup in 2019 became a national celebration of diversity, but also raises the question as to whether a handful of sports stars can transform Japanese attitudes about “Japaneseness” on their own.
Baumgartner also cites the example of tennis player Naomi Osaka, born to a Japanese mother and Tahitian father, who looked set to become the face of the Tokyo Games before the pandemic. Osaka chose Japanese nationality to represent Japan, which does not recognise dual nationality. Yet, Baumgartner claims, her mixed-race heritage means that she has not necessarily been universally accepted in Japan; her fame is seen as controversial to some, who feel that she is not truly Japanese because of her multicultural background.

Japan’s Naomi Osaka at the 2021 Miami Open in Florida. © 2021, Getty Images / Mark Brown


The challenge of staging Games in a pandemic

For Japan, demonstrating to the world that – despite the pandemic and the scepticism from some parts of the local population – it can organise a competition that will bring together some 11,000 athletes will be as impressive a feat as staging the Tokyo 1964 Games.
Baumgartner notes that the Games will take place in a bubble, with what he describes as an arsenal of health measures in place to guarantee the safety of the participants. It’s a scenario that, as he sees it, is not without its risks; but he notes that if the system proves successful, it could serve as a model for other sporting, cultural and economic events throughout the world.
Baumgartner believes that there is no doubt Japan will succeed in its mission to stage the Games in such a difficult context. He also notes that some Japanese customs are already quite well suited to the situation: greeting people by bowing from a distance – at differing angles of inclination, depending on the context – is an important part of Japanese etiquette, and handshakes, a practice imported from the West, are now avoided; greeting people with kisses on the cheek, as is common in much of Europe, has never been part of social etiquette; and children are scrupulously taught about the importance of handwashing and mask wearing from an early age. These are all practices that will need to be encouraged among Games participants to help significantly reduce the risk of infection.

Join us for episode 4, in which we’ll be taking a trip back in time to discuss the Tokyo 1964 Games, once again in the esteemed company of Georges Baumgartner.

The Tokyo 2020 exhibition can be seen free of charge at The Olympic Museum until 21 November 2021.

A la Croisée des Jeux (At the Crossroads of the Games), the podcast that brings sport and culture together, exploring the influence of the Olympic Games on you, on us, on our imaginations and on society, produced by The Olympic Museum.

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