It’s surely a coincidence that Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee’s chief, arrived in Tokyo on July 8th, 2021, a hundred and sixty-eight years to the day since an American naval fleet sailed into Edo harbor unannounced, forcibly ending more than two centuries of Japanese isolation and contributing to the nation’s ensuing societal and political turmoil. Bach’s appearance portends an eerily similar moment of high anxiety for the people and politicians of Japan: the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics, finally set to kick off officially on Friday, after a yearlong delay.
Once again, Japan finds its quarantine broken, not by a foreign fleet but by the arrival of thousands of foreign Olympians and their entourages. Now the city’s mood ricochets between fury and resignation, fuelled by a toxic mix of unpopular policies and scandals: Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s unalloyed boosterism for a sporting event that few citizens seem to truly want; a restriction of the operating hours of eateries and the sale of alcohol, measures intended to blunt the spread of COVID-19; and, perhaps most grating, promises of safety that ring hollow. Suga’s insistence that the Olympics will serve as “proof that humanity has defeated the coronavirus,” despite evidence to the contrary, and Bach’s claims of “zero” risk to the public, despite athletes in the Olympic Village and dozens of other participants testing positive for the coronavirus, have inspired more unease than confidence—particularly given that the government has managed to fully vaccinate little more than twenty per cent of the Japanese population.
Polls have consistently shown that a majority of people in Japan would prefer that the Games be postponed again or abandoned altogether, and approval ratings of Suga’s cabinet are at an all-time low. As COVID-19 cases rose relentlessly throughout July, the Prime Minister was forced to declare an official state of emergency in Tokyo from July 12th through August 22nd—the fourth since the start of the pandemic last year, and a span of days that will cover the entirety of the Summer Games. On Tuesday, a cabinet minister gave an anonymous interview with the Asahi Shimbun, describing the decision as “the worst-case scenario” for the government.
There are a lot of other worst-case scenarios. These are the first Olympics to be held mostly without spectators, who are being asked to refrain from gathering on the public roads being used for marathons, triathlons, and cycling events. The prospect of competing in empty stadiums has “perplexed” athletes. “A lot of people’s tax money is going to hold these Olympics,” Maya Yoshida, the captain of Japan’s men’s soccer team, said. “Despite that, people can’t go and watch. So you wonder about who the Olympics is for, and what it is for.” A number of high-profile sponsors seem to be wondering, too. Toyota announced on Monday that it would not air Olympics-related advertisements on Japanese television, citing “mixed public sentiment towards the Games.” Other companies quickly followed suit: NEC, Panasonic, and Fujitsu are among the firms that have said they won’t be sending executives to the opening ceremony.
In my own neighborhood, in the western suburbs of Tokyo, there is little to indicate enthusiasm for the proceedings. In the local park, public benches have been roped off with metres of bright-orange temporary fencing, to prevent groups from gathering, giving the area the dismal appearance of a crime scene. About the only signs of the impending Games are the lampposts from which “Tokyo 2020” banners are hung, fluttering weakly in an oppressive midsummer haze that reminds one of why the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games were actually held in October. As a longtime resident of Tokyo, I recall the widespread unease that many of my friends expressed upon hearing the announcement, in 2013, that we would host the Summer Games in 2020. The idea of holding a large-scale outdoor sporting event at such a dangerously hot time of year seemed ill advised. Now, with the coronavirus added to the mix, it feels like madness.
Tokyoites regarded the idea of hosting with skepticism from the very beginning. The former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, a polarizing right-wing populist whose hawkish rhetoric stoked fury domestically and abroad, first began pushing for the Olympics in the two-thousands. Critics derided his nationalistic appeals as “Olympic fascism.” In the lead-up to the Olympic selection, the approval rating for the idea of hosting the Games in Tokyo was the lowest of any of the candidate cities—in 2012, at the climax of the government’s efforts to secure the rights to the 2020 Games, just forty-seven per cent of those polled in Japan said that they wanted them, as compared with seventy-eight per cent public support in the rival city of Madrid.
Nevertheless, Tokyo won hosting privileges the following year; still, local enthusiasm remained lukewarm. And what little trust the public had in the promises of government officials to hold a “compact” Olympics were shattered in 2015, when the government of Shinzo Abe, the Prime Minister at the time, announced that a new Olympic stadium’s estimated costs would top two billion dollars, which would likely have made it the most expensive sports facility ever constructed. The public outcry forced Abe to scale back, but total costs for hosting the Olympics have ballooned to $15.4 billion, more than double the initial estimates. Because of the pandemic, the people of Tokyo won’t even be able to make use of the facilities that they helped to pay for. I recently visited the new stadium, situated near Sendagaya Station. The streets were eerily quiet; the only signs of activity were police patrols and the occasional booming disembodied voice of a recorded announcement being tested. This was several days out from the opening ceremonies, but, as I gazed upon that giant, oval-shaped structure, I recalled the semiotician Roland Barthes’s 1970 book “Empire of Signs,” in which he famously said that Tokyo “offers this precious paradox: it does possess a center, but this center is empty.” Barthes was referring to the terra incognita of the Imperial Palace: the vast, protected space that sits at the heart of a neon-ringed megalopolis. But it seemed a prescient metaphor for a luxurious custom-built stadium that would, in the end, seat no fans.
Ambivalence and even outright opposition are not uncommon reactions among the residents of cities hosting Olympiads, but negativity often gives way to enthusiasm once the competition actually begins. The 2002 Winter Games, in Salt Lake City, got off to a bumpy start, but they are remembered with pride by locals today. Even the beloved 1964 Tokyo Olympics had its critics. After they were first announced, in 1959, public opinion was mixed; today, they’re widely regarded as a watershed moment in Japan’s reinvention of itself as a global economic power. Were it not for the cosmic wild card of COVID-19, it is likely that the 2020 Games would have benefitted from this rebound effect, as well. But the coronavirus makes comparisons to previous Games all but impossible. The problems facing Tokyo’s Olympic organizers are a combination of the familiar—public opposition, budget overruns, logistical inconveniences, scandals—and the unprecedented hazards of holding an international sporting event amid a global pandemic still very much not under control.