When Japan won the competition to host the 2020 Olympics in the wake of a devastating earthquake and tsunami, then-prime minister Shinzo Abe said it would be a "tremendous opportunity for Tokyo and for Japan to shine at the very centre of the world stage."
Lauding his country as among the safest in the world, Abe vowed in 2013 that problems surrounding the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant would be resolved and hordes of overseas visitors would see that Japan is “marvellous.” Plans raced ahead for new casinos, driverless taxis and a futuristic stadium to dazzle tourists.
Yet many of those projects fell into disarray long before the pandemic forced Abe to postpone the Games last year. And now just weeks before the rescheduled opening ceremony on July 23rd, a resurgent outbreak coupled with one of the slowest vaccine rollouts in Asia has prompted even top business leaders to call for them to be delayed again or scrapped altogether – shining a spotlight on how Japan’s Olympic ambitions have deteriorated.
The flagship stadium and casino plans were halted. A move to release treated Fukushima wastewater into the ocean sparked outrage among its neighbours. And a US travel warning on Monday underscored what had been self-evident for months as Japan’s borders remain sealed for most everyone: An event meant to unite the world will be taking place against a backdrop of isolation and fear, with global spectators watching from their living rooms.
“When the Olympics were delayed last year, the idea was to hold them as proof that the world has defeated the virus,” Katsutoshi Kawano, a former head of Japan’s self-defence forces, said by phone. “The results speak for themselves. People are dying who didn’t have to.”
While polls show a majority of Japan's citizens want the Olympics postponed or cancelled, so far there's no indication prime minister Yoshihide Suga – who took power after Abe stepped down last year – will call them off. Government spokesman Katsunobu Kato said on Tuesday the US told Japan its decision was unrelated to the Olympics, and simply based on infection rates over the preceding 28 days.
But even pushing ahead with the Games at this point – with the virus flaring in Japan and other parts of the world – could prove costly, both for Suga's political future and potentially corporate sponsors. Masayoshi Son, the billionaire founder and top executive of SoftBank Group, criticised the push to hold the Olympics over the weekend while Hiroshi Mikitani, billionaire founder and CEO of online retailer Rakuten Group, compared them to a "suicide mission".
"When it comes to the Tokyo Olympics, we're continuing to witness a cascade of calamities," said Jules Boykoff, a professor at Pacific University in Oregon who has written several books on the Olympic Games.
“That complicates things for corporate sponsors,” he added. “Normally you benefit from the halo effect of the Games and it shines on your brand. But with Tokyo, it’s more complicated, because you could be associated with something that’s become enormously unpopular.”
Since the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has the power to cancel the Games, a decision that one member said could be made as late as the end of June, Japan would face hefty compensation costs if it pulled out now. That appears unlikely because revenue from broadcasting rights is generally much higher than ticket sales, and the IOC and various sporting federations won't get paid until the Olympics actually take place.
"The lifeline for pretty much every international federation is Olympic revenue and broadcast monies," Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics, the global governing body for track and field, told CNN Sport this month.
As the pandemic spread, risk-averse Japan initially fared far better than some nations. It introduced a series of soft, often localised lockdowns, helping keep deaths and infections well below those in Europe or the US.
But cracks also appeared in a system that’s resistant to change. With no rationing, shops ran out of disposable masks. Some cash handouts to help offset the economic hit were delayed for months. Remote learning wasn’t provided at public schools. Small hospitals struggled to cope even with the relatively low number of cases found in Japan. And polls consistently showed the public saw the government’s response as too little, too late.
The restlessness with Japan’s leadership became amplified in February, when former prime minister Yoshiro Mori resigned as chief of the Tokyo 2020 organising committee after making derogatory remarks about women, including saying they talk too much in meetings.
"More than ever, I feel the need for decision-makers to hand over to a younger generation," said Yuki Murohashi, 32, who runs a group that campaigns for more youth involvement in politics.
Dozens of participants dropped out of the renewed Olympic torch relay in March even as the government lifted a state of emergency, only to reverse course the following month. The slow pace of vaccinations in Japan, which didn't manage to develop its own, has left the public facing on-again, off-again clampdowns for months to come. Economy minister Yasutoshi Nishimura last week called for patience as the economy contracted again in the first quarter.
Busy hotlines and crashing websites show Japan’s citizens are clamouring for vaccines. But even though Japan has supplies on hand, Suga’s administration hasn’t authorised enough people to administer them to get close to the million doses a day he promised in early May.
Japan has provided about 10 million doses in three months to its 126 million people. By comparison the UK gave out about 24 million shots in its first three months, and has since more than doubled that to 60 million – nearly equivalent to its entire population.
The Games threaten to put more pressure on a stretched healthcare system. The lack of quarantine and vaccination requirements for Olympics athletes and visitors led some public health experts to voice concern it could even become a superspreader event. Assembling people from all over in one area could allow variants to mix and mingle, before being dispersed throughout the world when they return home.
All of this is a problem for Suga, who told reporters as recently as May 14th that it was possible to stage a safe Olympics. A Mainichi newspaper poll on May 22nd found that just 13 per cent had a favourable view of the government’s handling of the pandemic, while a petition calling for the Olympics to be cancelled has garnered nearly 400,000 signatures – the most since the Japanese-language version of Change.org was launched in 2012, according to Asahi newspaper.
The plummeting approval ratings makes Suga an easy scapegoat if the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, which has governed Japan for all but a few years since 1955, performs below expectations in an election that must be held this year.
For all the reasons to cancel the Games, Suga’s government still sees a rationale to push ahead. Beyond the financial cost and the political commitments, Japan’s national pride is also stake with China set to host the Winter Olympics in less than nine months.
Still, among Japan’s public, the government’s handling of the pandemic and vaccine rollout is eroding feelings of patriotism.
"If you're asking whether my expectations of the government have changed, I didn't have any great expectations to start with, so there's no change," said 22-year-old student Nene Oyama. "I'm envious of countries that are trying to open a path to a brighter future." – Bloomberg