Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2021.12.24

Should Tokyo boycott the Beijing Olympic Games?

First and foremost, Japan needs to stand up for human rights and universal values

the japan times on December 16, 2021


Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said on Thursday that he will not be attending the Beijing Winter Games. But as of now, Japan still has not made a decision on whether or not Tokyo should send a delegation, and, if it does, on the composition of that delegation.

Japanese media appears divided over Tokyo’s possible response. While liberal papers have either been silent or declined to take a position, other dailies are more insistent. The Nikkei, an economic daily, for example, wrote in an editorial: “Even if it is not a complete diplomatic boycott, we should take some measures such as adjusting the scale and level of the delegation.”

A more conservative Sankei editorial argued that the government should not send a delegation “including the prime minister, Cabinet ministers and the head of the sports agency.” The conservative Yomiuri Shimbun was less critical but claimed “we must not allow the peace festival to become a propaganda venue for China.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno repeated his government’s position that it “will make its own decision at an appropriate time, taking into account a comprehensive range of issues,” despite the diplomatic boycott announcements already made by Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Reportedly, the Kishida administration will make a final decision sooner rather than later. But in the end, however, the decision won’t matter much, because the concept or significance of the “diplomatic boycott” is sketchy in the first place. The following are some of my personal observations.

What does a “diplomatic boycott” mean? I do not know exactly because this is the first time I’ve heard of a “diplomatic Olympic boycott.” When U.S. President Barack Obama decided not to send his wife and then-Vice President Joe Biden to the 2014 Sochi Winter Games in Russia, as I vividly remember, the measure was not even called a “diplomatic boycott.”

The dictionary definition of boycott is “to combine in abstaining from, or preventing dealings with, as a means of intimidation or coercion.” If so, a diplomatic boycott sounds rather self-contradictory because, to the best of my knowledge, diplomats by definition are not supposed to intimidate or coerce foreign governments.

What the United States and some of its allies have announced, therefore, is not a diplomatic boycott, but rather just another measure to express their strong displeasure to China on issues involving universal values, such as human rights, and they are using the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Games to make their point.

The Japan Times ran a thought-provoking article on the matter earlier this month. It said that “pressure is mounting on Japan as it attempts to walk a fine line between the U.S. and its top trading partner, China.” After reading it, however, I wondered where such pressure was coming from.

Is the pressure coming from China? Hardly. Beijing is not in a position to request official support from Tokyo for its Winter Games based on the principle of “reciprocity,” because, to the best of my knowledge, Tokyo has never made a diplomatic deal with China to support each other’s Olympic Games.

Is the pressure coming from the United States? Not likely. The White House Press Office stated, at least officially, that “countries’ decisions to boycott the Olympics … their decisions that they have to make for themselves.” And naturally, many countries have not made a final decision so far on the boycott.

The Japanese government reportedly “will refrain from sending a Cabinet minister” to the Winter Olympics in Beijing. A Jiji article, quoting anonymous government sources, even speculated that Japan might send either Yasuhiro Yamashita, the president of the Japanese Olympic Committee, Seiko Hashimoto, the president of the Tokyo Games’ Organizing Committee, or Koji Murofushi, commissioner of the Japan Sports Agency.

All are eligible candidates and can lead a government delegation if the circumstances permit. They are, however, just test balloons that reflect an attempt by the Japanese government to gauge public opinion both in Japan and abroad over Tokyo’s possible diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Games.

What should Japan do and not do? First of all, Tokyo should send a clear message to Beijing that Japan will not “attempt to walk a fine line between the U.S. and China.” Tokyo will not make light of China’s abuse of universal values including human rights. No matter what decision the government makes, Japan’s position on human rights should not be compromised.

That said, Japan should not automatically follow the measures taken by other countries, such as this so-called diplomatic boycott. Japan is located in the Western Pacific and China is an important neighbor. Whatever Tokyo does or doesn’t do will have an economic or political impact on Japan-China relations.

One thing is for sure. Japan must do something to send a message of its strong displeasure for China’s handling of human rights, whether it is called a “diplomatic boycott” or not. We still have some time, however, before Tokyo has to make up its mind on the issue.

It is time for diplomacy and not for a diplomatic boycott just yet. I am confident that, after exchanging views with other like-minded allies and friends in the international community, Tokyo will soon reach a correct conclusion for the measure that it will take for the Beijing Games.

Japan must continue to champion the universal values promoted by the international community. This is the lesson Tokyo painfully learned from World War II. Hopefully, China will not make the same mistakes Japan made 80 years ago.