After Tokyo was awarded the Olympics nine years ago, the Japanese public strongly supported the event, which offered hope of social and economic revitalisation after decades in the doldrums. But Tokyo 2020 has proved a curse rather than a cure.
Japan’s mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis is symptomatic of a deeper malaise stemming from a dysfunctional polity, a venal and inefficient bureaucracy, and a fundamental loss of faith in the nation’s future.
In the time it took the United States and the United Kingdom to fully vaccinate one third and one quarter of their respective populations, Japan managed less than one percent. A news report by NHK, the national broadcaster, showed a medical clinic resorting to a “lucky dip” to decide who received the shot, as patient numbers far exceeded availability. The AstraZeneca vaccine, in wide use around the world for months, is yet to be approved by Japanese regulators. All this is occurring in a country that has invited athletes representing 200 nations to a vast sporting extravaganza two months from now. The only Games event of pressing concern to the locals, however, is the possibility of a “super-spreader” event.
The Games are scheduled to start on 23 July and run until 8 August. A recent Kyodo News poll found 72 percent of Japanese want them cancelled or postponed, although officials have already stated that another postponement is not an option. Holding the Games and protecting the welfare of the people, says the leader of Japan’s main opposition party, Edano Yukio, has become an impossibility. Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide, reading his response in the Diet (parliament) through a large mask, mumbled something about “responsibility,” “safety and security,” and “future decisions” then sat down again.
The pains Tokyo 2020 was meant to relieve are today more acute than ever. Last year’s postponement completed the collapse in public trust for Suga’s once high-flying but later scandal-ridden predecessor, Abe Shinzo, who resigned in August supposedly due to ill health. Suga was Abe’s long-serving chief cabinet secretary, a politician without flair or ideas whose only claim to the top job was knowing where the skeletons lay hidden in the Liberal Democratic Party.
The Suga government failed to use the extra time to crush the COVID-19 outbreak and organise a rapid vaccination program. Some initiatives, such as the “Go To Travel” campaign to stimulate economic activity by encouraging domestic tourism, made things worse. Responsibility for the pandemic response has been allowed to devolve to individual prefectures and cities, and wards within cities, creating a patchwork of complex, varying, and often contradictory measures. Ineffectual requests for “restraint” have been preferred over hard lockdowns, mainly because politicians haven’t wanted to offend commercial or other vested interests. Cynicism reigns supreme. For instance, an attempted “shaming by naming” of pachinko parlours flouting early-closure rules led to customers flocking to the venues they knew would be open. The normally obedient Japanese, sensing nobody’s in charge, have ignored appeals to give up partying and stay at home.
New infections have reached between 4000 and 7000 per day in recent weeks, the highest level since January. Mysterious cases are turning up in nursing homes previously thought to be infection-proof. While Japan’s toll of 11,000 deaths from COVID-19, measured on a population basis, is comparatively low, its poor rate of testing and aged demographic amount to serious vulnerabilities. This became apparent in Osaka, where deaths from the virus during a recent seven-day period, 22.6 cases per million people, exceeded India’s 16.5 (as of 8 May).
A third state of emergency was declared for Tokyo, Osaka, and other areas in April. Meant to last two weeks, it has been extended. Public trust in government statements is minimal. Asked whether they believed Suga’s promise to have all elderly Japanese vaccinated by July, only nine percent said they did. The same survey found the Suga Cabinet’s approval rating had plunged to 35 percent, down nine points in a month.
The only reason the Tokyo Olympics hasn’t been cancelled already has to do with money. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) obtains nearly three-quarters of its income from selling broadcast rights, in this case worth US$2-3 billion. Even as a television-only event, they are considered worth the extraordinary measures planned by Japanese organisers, including no international spectators, limited domestic spectators, and requests to participating nations to send smaller delegations. The loss of $800 million in ticket sales will throw an additional burden onto the public purse for an event with an estimated price tag, including ancillary costs, of up to $35 billion.
The saddest losers from a Games already stripped of international tourism are the many small towns and community organisations that had planned to host visitors and show off their locales. Conducting an Olympics stripped back to television monitors and starting guns, without the spontaneous and celebratory elements, seems a travesty. For the citizens of Tokyo, the experiment of holding such an event amid a pandemic turns them from hosts into guinea pigs.
The IOC’s playbook for keeping the Games safe is to create bubbles around the participants: restricted movement, regular testing, no mingling, no parades, and a quick exit from the country once competitors and officials have completed their events. With more than 11,000 athletes expected, that’s a lot of bubbles. At least, without foreign spectators, the requirement for Olympic volunteers is reduced – a good thing since nearly a thousand quit after the Mori debacle (see below).
A fresh appeal by the Japanese Olympic Committee for hundreds of doctors and nurses to volunteer for the Games, at a time when medical resources are stretched, has been met with derision. Even the use of the word Olympics is being avoided in job ads seeking staff for a “big summer sporting event.”
The Games began as a symbol of recovery from the devastating Tohoku Earthquake of 2011. Once the pandemic hit, it was meant to prove humanity’s ability to overcome adversity by defeating COVID-19. Now the Tokyo Olympics is being touted as a symbol of worldwide solidity, or “unity in diversity.” Not only viruses mutate. The Torch Relay, which began in nuclear-scarred Fukushima, has proceeded in fits and starts, with some legs being cancelled and others rerouted to avoid crowds. Whether it will ever reach its destination is the big question.
In the long haul to Tokyo 2020, some of its loudest proponents have fallen by the wayside. Ishihara Shintaro, governor of Tokyo when the bid was made and who once boasted of the greenest ever Games (then approved the clearing of a nearby mountain forest), has gone. Takeda Tsunekazu, president of the Japanese Olympic Committee, stepped down in 2019 following allegations of bribery related to the Tokyo bid. Mori Yoshiro, a former prime minister, quit in February as head of the organising committee after a spate of sexist remarks. A month later, Sasaki Hiroshi, creative director for the Tokyo Olympics, resigned after suggesting that a plump female comedian would make a good “Olympig.” And then there’s Abe himself, who surely regrets his surprise appearance as Super Mario during the Rio Closing Ceremony. Imitating a game character who navigates sewer systems was inviting trouble.
The president of the IOC, Thomas Bach, the man left with the final decision, was due in Japan the middle of the month to review progress. The trip has been postponed to a date to be fixed. It is fair to say almost every Olympics has endured a bad press in the lead up, but once the competition starts most fears are laid to rest. Regarding the first stage, Japan has already won a dubious contest.
Walter Hamilton spent eleven years reporting from Japan for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in the 1980s and 1990s. He is the author of Children of the Occupation: Japan’s Untold Story (NewSouth Books, 2012).
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