Abe’s Olympic Lies
SNA (Tokyo) — Shinzo Abe loved his grandfather, and so the chance to follow in his footsteps must be exhilarating indeed. In 1959 Tokyo was awarded the 1964 Summer Olympics. The prime minister of Japan in 1959 was Nobusuke Kishi, the current prime minister’s grandfather.
Shinzo Abe, of course, had nothing to do with initiating Tokyo’s bid for the 2020 Olympics. This was very much the personal project of former Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara, who pursued the idea even after the failed 2016 bid when most Tokyoites wanted nothing to do with it and saw it mainly as a waste of public money. Strangely, though, now that Tokyo has beaten out the competition from Istanbul and Madrid, no one is talking about Ishihara’s prescience; rather, it is Abe that has become associated with successful bid.
It had been clear for a couple months that Tokyo was the favorite to win the 2020 Summer Olympics. Madrid was always dogged by questions about its financial viability and was expected to run third all along. Istanbul was the city to beat for a long time, but then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blew Turkey’s chances through his remarkably arrogant handling of popular protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. In a sense, then, Tokyo won by default.
Abe is a skillful enough politician that he sensed the momentum was with Tokyo and, smelling that sweet aroma of success, put himself at the head of the march during its final, glorious kilometer. It would be Japan’s prime minister in person who would fly down to Buenos Aires to convince the skeptical International Olympic Committee that Tokyo was their safest bet.
The one remaining concern was the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Tons of highly radioactive water was leaking from Fukushima Daiichi, not only into the Pacific Ocean, but also into the global news headlines. There remain many people around the world who have a rather exaggerated fear of radiation and imagine that the 35 million residents of the Tokyo region are due to sprout extra limbs or second heads at any time now.
Abe could play his role by stepping up and easing these fears. Indeed, it wasn’t a difficult case to make: There’s no scientific reason to believe that athletes and visitors to Tokyo in the year 2020 have anything at all to fear from the Fukushima disaster. But Prime Minister Abe did not stick to the facts and the convincing arguments that would have been on solid ground; instead, he made some extravagant claims that went far beyond the realms of reality.
During his English-language speech to the International Olympic Committee, he declared that “the situation is under control” at the Fukushima plant. That is, he didn’t promise that it would fully under control before 2020, but that it is under control today, in September 2013.
After his speech, committee members had the chance to question Prime Minister Abe, and one of them challenged his claim, asking: “Prime Minister, although you have stated that there was no effect on Tokyo, what is the basis of that claim? Why are you so assured? Please tell us from a scientific point of view.”
Abe’s answer to this question was stunning: “The contaminated water from Fukushima Daiichi has been completely blocked within a 0.3 kilometer estuary… In terms of health problems, I promise that there has not been, is not, and will not be any problems at all.”
Up until the very moment the prime minister said these things to the International Olympic Committee, there was no one at all in the Japanese government arguing that the radioactive water had been “completely blocked” or that the public health impact of the Fukushima disaster was, and would be, zero.
In fact, the Nuclear Regulation Authority was in the midst of criticizing TEPCO for its lack of urgency in getting radioactive water leaks under control and was describing the situation as a “crisis.” As for the public health issue, even if we leave aside the more than a thousand people who have died of various causes that are recognized by local governments as being directly related to the Fukushima disaster, it is perfectly obvious that the longterm health impact of the massive radiation releases is unknowable. Surely it will produce some cancers in future decades; the reasonable debate is only about whether this will be just a handful of cases or many tens of thousands of cases.
So, if we dispense with the exaggerated deference usually given to powerful, establishment figures by the mainstream media, we can quite accurately say that Prime Minister Abe told some straight-up lies to the International Olympic Committee.
There are several possible explanations for why Abe didn’t stick to the facts (which were themselves quite defensible), but none of them reflect well on Japan’s national leader.
One major possibility is that Abe was so desperate to win the contest and to bring home a victory that he figured his lies were in the national interest and so perfectly acceptable. He may have calculated that, in the end, few Japanese would really care what he said to the International Olympic Committee and that his words would soon be forgotten in the cheers of national celebration.
Another major possibility is that Shinzo Abe is one of those self-deceptive kinds of people who can convince themselves that their own lies are the truth. This pro-nuclear politician may have surrendered to the comfortable belief that the skillful Japanese engineers already have the Fukushima problem under full control and that the screams of the anti-nuclear crowd about the dangers of radiation are little more than leftwing hysteria. This kind of fits in with Abe’s approach to Japanese history — believe what is most comfortable to believe.
Whatever the reason, Prime Minister Abe did say some things about radioactive water leaks that were demonstrably untrue, and some parts of the media and the political opposition have cautiously been pointing that out.
One example is provided by the Kochi Shinbun, based on the island of Shikoku. Their editorial on the subject read:
“We were surprised at Prime Minister Abe’s declarations about ‘under control’ and ‘completely blocked,’ and it made us uneasy. Certainly he was thinking primarily in terms of an appeal to the IOC which held the key to the Olympic bid, but words should not be allowed to run ahead. Hearing Prime Minister Abe’s comments, local fishermen have been angered and experts have raised their voices asking for the basis of such statements. Despite holding a Cabinet meeting related to the Olympics when he returned to Japan, the prime minister gave no detailed explanation. Why did he make such remarks? Unless he reveals their basis, the dissatisfaction and the anxiety of Fukushima residents cannot be alleviated.”
Among opposition politicians, perhaps the most outspoken so far has been DPJ Acting Secretary-General Akira Nagatsuma, who accused the prime minister of “broadcasting a mistaken message to the world” and vowing that Abe would face questioning on this matter after the Diet resumes its business.
Furthermore, in spite of the fact that Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has explicitly defended the statements, a Mainichi Shinbun poll found that 2/3 of the public did not agree with Prime Minister Abe’s assessment that Fukushima’s radioactive water has been “completely blocked.”
So is Prime Minister Abe in political trouble for telling lies to the International Olympic Committee? The answer is quite clearly “no.”
In fact, Japanese are generally so happy that Tokyo landed the 2020 Summer Olympics that Abe’s job approval rating jumped in the polls from about 55% to about 62% after the results emerged. As they say, nothing succeeds like success.
Critics of Shinzo Abe will win few immediate political points over this matter precisely because the perception of many will be that he “bent the truth” for the greater good of the Japanese nation. The majority of the public isn’t going to worry too much about it, especially since it ended well.
Nevertheless, we do believe there is ground for concern in the medium and longer term; mainly because it was clearly unnecessary for Abe to tell the lies that he did.
Wouldn’t the International Olympic Committee have been perfectly satisfied with a strong and simple declaration that Tokyo could host the 2020 Summer Olympics without fear of any lingering effects from the Fukushima crisis? Couldn’t Abe have just as easily have said that while Japan was still facing serious challenges, that those challenges would be met in coming years and that by 2020 the nation would be ready to celebrate its triumph together with the rest of the world?
The most troubling part about Abe’s Olympic lies is what they hint about his character; that he is someone who isn’t very sensitive to uncomfortable facts. Either he has no compunctions about deceiving others or else he has the ability to deceive himself.
One wonders at the future context when this personal flaw might reappear again, perhaps with more serious consequences.