Scandals put a lid on Olympic enthusiasm in Tokyo

Photo: Andrew Mager/Flickr

While the recently initiated French investigtion into Japanese Olympic head Tsunekazu Takeda and his alleged corruption is unlikely to affect the Games themselves, it has not reflected well on Takeda.

In less than 18 months, Tokyo will host the Olympic Summer Games. Nobody moving through the city can fail to notice that. Big posters are everywhere. And large construction and road works are ongoing around the city.

The preparations have been marked by scandals, economic concerns and delays. Even though the media has been banging the drum for the games and there is a great interest for and intense coverage of young Japanese athletes with medal chances, it is difficult to fill the Japanese on the street with enthusiasm.

At the beginning of last year, though, there were a number of positive stories about the completion – or almost completion – of several Olympic venues and about better control of the budget (although the final costs are expected to reach 30 billion dollars, four times the original budget). The IOC president Thomas Bach had even been kind enough to state that he could not “remember any Olympic city being so well and so much advanced two years before the Games as Tokyo 2020 is”. That was music to Tokyoites’ ears.

But then, French media sent out reports that a French judge had initiated a formal investigation into a suspicion against the president of the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC), Tsunekazu Takeda, for ‘active corruption’ in relation to the bid leading up to the 2013 decision to make Tokyo host of the 2020 Games.

Takeda was the man behind the payment of a consultancy fee worth 2.8 million Singapore dollars (1.8 million euro) paid by the JOC to a small company in Singapore whose owner has connections to a son of the former president of the IAAF, Senegalese Lamine Diack.

Lamine Diack is currently indicted for corruption and for covering up doping tests in relation to the Russian-international doping scandal, but he was – say French authorities – seen by Takeda and his advisors as a man who, with sweet talk and payment, could secure or buy votes from African IOC members in favour of Tokyo in the 2013 vote.

Officially, the 2.8 million fee was for a 30-40-page report from the Singaporean company about what it would take to win the hosting rights, how to plan the bid, consulting regarding lobbying and an analysis of international media.

Most of the case’s details have already been dug up by skilled reporters from the Japanese business magazines Zaiten and Facta two years ago. Since then, the case has been regularly referred to by The Guardian and other international media. But now, French authorities believe that they have enough evidence to raise a case against Takeda.

Tsunekazu Takeda is a big name in Japan. He is a distant descendant of the Meiji emperor who reigned the country from 1867-1912. As a young equestrian, Takeda competed in the 1972 and 1976 Olympics.

Takeda has consistently called the money a ‘standard fee for consultancy work abroad’.

“It was a standard fee for overseas consulting and all efforts to invite the games were done fairly,” he has said repeatedly.

It is far from the only accusation that has been aired about money and corruption playing a part when Tokyo won the vote. But because of the relatively large sum and Takeda’s direct involvement, this is the biggest scandal in the eyes of the Japanese public.

For a couple of years now, it has lingered as a dark cloud above the games. A cloud that the French decision to start an investigation has made very dense.

The case will take its course in distant France and is not likely to have any direct effect on the Games. But, psychologically, it could not have come at a worse time. Now, just when the tone in the media coverage of the Games had turned to the more positive, both nationally and internationally.

Some Japanese newspapers wrote about shock and outrage. The liberal paper, Tokyo Shimbun, even ran a header saying the Games were hit by “shock and chaos”. Most, however, were far more cool about it.

A row between Japan and France
The Japanese people are not in a state of shock. They have become accustomed to the tone in the Olympic news shifting between ups and downs. Nevertheless, many are disappointed by and annoyed with the Takeda-story, and quite a few, both nationally supportive media and the man on the street, openly express viewpoints that the court case is, in fact, a childish and ridiculous French revenge for the Japanese prosecutor’s office’s recent arrest of Carlos Ghosn, CEO of car manufacturer Nissan, who was formerly with Nissan’s French partners, Renault.

This portrayal of a political row between France and Japan as the backdrop of the Takeda investigation can be seen in both mainstream and tabloid media. TV hosts present it as an already established fact and this has become the general understanding of the case.

“France is retaliating after the Goshn case,” writes weekly magazine Aera, which is published by liberal paper Asahi Shimbun, on its front page.

The annoyance, however, stems just as much from Takeda himself. He held a seven-minute-long press conference in Tokyo during which he repeated what he had previously said, and denied all allegations while refusing to answer as much as one single question referring to the ongoing case.

“I’m extremely sorry that this ongoing situation may have thrown cold water on efforts made by those who have dedicated themselves to steadfastly preparing for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, and on any positive movement toward the games,” Takeda said.

The press conference did not place Takeda’s in a more positive light to the Japanese observers.

”Seriously, I would like to ask him what the hell he is up to,” said Shiraku Tachikawa, a famous performer of the Japanese stand-up, rakugo, to sports newspaper Sports Hochi.

And Koji Kato, known from hosting a number of popular TV shows, wondered why Takeda would not take any questions from journalists. “It makes me think that he has something to hide. Has he no PR team available ahead of such press confrontations?”

It is clear that if an actual court case against Takeda is initiated in France, it will further damage the image of the Tokyo Games and Takeda himself. Damage, which he would have been able to control better had he been more open towards answering to the accusations.

”Keeping up with the rules of the games means something in Japan,” a Japanese journalist with one of the large papers writes to Play the Game.

But, besides the damages in the already tarnished image of the event, it is unlikely that more will happen. The affair will not threaten the hosting of the games, predicts the renowned sports journalist Masayuki Tamaki in a statement to The Japan Times.

“There is no way Tokyo will be disqualified from hosting the event, given the economic losses that would arise from such a decision,” he argues.

The pressure of the tabloid
This does not, however, keep the tabloids in Japan from feasting in scandalous stories on Takeda. Once one has fallen victim of a scandal in Japan, it is hard to escape the media.

The weekly Shukan Bunshun has, like other Japanese tabloids, been digging relentlessly in Takeda’s past, which is both lesser known and less glorious.

As a young man, he is said to have been involved in a traffic accident leading to the death of a young woman. His then father-in-law was a wealthy owner of a private hospital and his mother-in-law allegedly got the charges against him dropped by paying 100 million yen to the deceased’s family from the hospital’s insurance fund. Later, the mother-in-law was said to have regretted this, when Takeda divorced her daughter and chose to marry his secretary while the mother-in-law went bankrupt after a number of failed real estate deals.

The Dentsu-connection
Another piece of information about Takeda’s life, which could have an even greater impact on the case of alleged Olympic corruption, but which Japanese media from right to left has been strikingly reluctant to focus on, is his close relationship with Haruyki Takahashi, the former CEO of the largest advertising company in Japan, Dentsu, who he went to school with.

Dentsu allocates a very large part of ads in private media in Japan so no media wants to be on too bad terms with Dentsu. For decades, Dentsu has been a company with very close ties to sport and the Olympic top, and has previously been connected to controversial cases. Dentsu owns the exclusive rights for the advertising of the 2020 Games globally and has made the groundwork in securing the Tokyo Games sponsor contracts with large Japanese companies worth 329 billion yen (approx. 2.6 billion euro).

It also appears as if Dentsu has played a significant role in establishing the contact between Takeda and the controversial Black Tidings as well as other companies with relation to Lamine Diack. Haruyki Takashahi, Takeda’s old school pal, is known for having had a close business ties to both Black Tides and apparently also directly with the Diack family and at least one of its many companies. These ties have been revealed primarily through foreign media, while Japanese coverage has been scarce – and not very critical.

Japanese society is astonishingly free from bribes among ordinary people, even everyday tips. On the other hand, there are many stories of corruption and friendly favours in the higher layers of society and there is definitely a cynical expectation that rules are followed. Rules usually are, but if the rule is to not always play by the rules, there is no changing this.

That is probably what went through the mind of Tsunekazu Takeda when somebody advised him to pay the large fee to a small company in Singapore on a humble address in a not so fancy part of town.

It was a ’standard fee’, Takeda has persisted, and underlined that this was no different from what was done the first time Tokyo bid for the games four years earlier.

With this type of stories displayed both on tabloid billboards in the subway and in more serious media, there can be little doubt that Takeda’s reputation has suffered significantly and that his days as president of the Japanese Olympic Committee are numbered. 

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