What the Japanese Really Think of the Tokyo Olympics Going Ahead in 2021

Japan covid olympics

We’re just over three weeks out from the rescheduled 2020 Tokyo Olympics and organisers are insisting that the games will go ahead.

Japan has fewer than 10% of its population vaccinated (hey, they’re still way ahead of us) and recent surveys have placed the percentage of the Japanese population who are against the Olympics going ahead this year at around 80%.

International pressure has also been mounting on the games, with some athletes refusing to compete and some countries dropping out to avoid the risk of their athletes bringing COVID back to the country with them.

It’s not hard to see why. The Olympics this year will be very different indeed, with athletes performing in a COVID ‘bubble’ — meaning no travelling and no partying — and a 50% cap on venue capacity with only domestic fans allowed to watch. Even alcohol has reportedly been banned from the games.

It’s a huge risk for the country to be ploughing ahead with the international celebration of sport, particularly after Japan has only just managed to quell its recent fourth wave of the virus, where cases were peaking at over 6,000 per day.

So why is Japan going ahead with the Olympics despite the internal and external pressures against it? And what do the people of Japan actually think about the games?

National pride versus national health

On a recent episode of The Daily podcast, Motoko Rich, the Tokyo Bureau Chief for The New York Times, said that the public is wondering exactly why the games are going ahead.

“We’re kind of amazed that it’s going to happen,” she said.

She said that the games pose a huge risk to the country and that “There’s a lot of anxiety” around the games.

The Olympics has already come at a great financial cost to the country but it’s possible that it could come at an even bigger health cost if the Olympics becomes a super-spreader event.

From their perspective, this is about proving to the world that Japan can pull off this huge challenge. They’ve spent US$15 billion on the Olympics already, with US$3 billion having been spent in the past 12 months alone.

The 2020 Olympics were supposed to be a demonstration and celebration of recovery. The Olympic bid was made in 2013, just two years after the devastating 2011 earthquake, and subsequent tsunami, which left 19,000 people dead and led to the catastrophic failure of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant.

At the time, Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that these games would be a symbol to the world that Japan has recovered from that disaster and give the people of Japan something to rally behind that would revitalise them after the events of 2011.

The International Olympics Committee

The host nation does not have the power to declare the games cancelled or postponed, though they do have a strong say in the matter. That’s the decision of the IOC.

The IOC is an incredibly powerful organisation that make billions of dollars every four years selling broadcasting rights for the games to various TV networks and media companies around the world.

It’s not that money is the only motivation here, but you can’t discount the role that the financial aspect plays in keeping the games going.

The IOC recently dug their heels in and made the announcement that the Olympics would be going ahead in Tokyo this year ‘“even if Japan is under a state of emergency”.

IOC member Richard Pound said that a final decision on whether the Olympics will be cancelled or moved would be made by the end of June.

Since we’re just hours away from that deadline, it’s safe to assuming the Olympics, much like the Titanic, is simply too big to steer off course now.

“It seems bound and determined”, Rich said.

“It feels like a runaway train. There’s no stopping it”

The Olympics is political

The Olympics Games has always been political, however much we pretend its just about sport.

Beijing’s Olympic opening ceremony was a demonstration of strength and might with its vast processions of uniform gymnasts all working together to create incredible displays of artistry.

The UK used the London Olympics opening ceremony to remind the world of the once-great status the country held in the Industrial Age and cement its place in the future by linking past technological achievements with music, arts, and the internet.

And of course, we can’t forget the 1936 Berlin Olympics in which Adolf Hitler used the games to send a message to the world about the might of the Nazi party. A lot of awkward flag waving at that one.

This is Japan’s time to shine on the world stage, to showcase Japan as a strong, capable country that has a lot to offer to the world. With the amount they’ve invested in the games, they’re not likely to give up on that opportunity any time soon.

What about the people?

Japan’s borders have been closed for over a year, with travel heavily restricted in and out of the country. In less than a month, however, thousands of people will be entering Japan to compete and assist with the games.

Many of those people will be vaccinated, but there are many who won’t — or they’ll have had vaccines that might not be as effective against COVID and its subsequent variants.

Two Ugandan athletes have already tested positive for COVID in Japan after landing in the country which has sparked fears for Japan and prompted it to strengthen its testing regime.

The traditional Olympic torch relay across Japan has already begun, though it has been cut short by COVID, and the relay itself has been dogged by protests against the games.

Rich said that the people of Japan were initially “overwhelmingly” excited about the games when Tokyo was chosen as the 2020 host city.

That excitement, however, was soon clouded as questions of corruption were raised overpayments made by a Japanese official in attempting to secure the game.

The financial cost of the games also began to mount and Japanese people weren’t too happy about the amount the government was spending on what is essentially a big party that many of them won’t be able to attend.

COVID-19 subsequently supercharged all of those concerns in 2021.

In 2020, when the Olympics was called off, Japan was initially doing relatively well. It shut its borders early and had relatively low case numbers while the rest of the world was engulfed by the virus.

However, COVID complacency and low rates of vaccination (sound familiar?) led to subsequent waves of COVID at the end of 2020 and the start of 2021, unlike anything the country had seen before.

Big cities were recording record high case and death numbers and the government was forced to put many parts of the country into lockdown.

In spite of this, the government has appeared to be marketing the games not as a triumph over the Fukushima disaster, but as a triumph over the pandemic, according to Rich.

“The people are saying ‘well, we don’t see a triumph over the pandemic, we’re seeing the opposite, and why are you spending all this energy on holding the Olympics and inviting a potential super spreader event to our country?”

The traditional Olympic torch relay across Japan has already begun, though it has been cut short by COVID, and the relay itself has been dogged by protests against the games.

Even Japanese athletes have been speaking out against the games, with some saying that they do not feel the measures put in place to protect them will be strong enough.

It’s evident that the Olympics juggernaut cannot now be stopped even in the wake of a disastrous COVID outbreak. Whether the Japanese government will be able to recover and unify the country around the games if it does lead to another wave remains to be seen.

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