Staging an Olympics during the worst pandemic in a century? There’s a widespread perception that it couldn’t happen in a better place than Japan.
A vibrant, open democracy with deep pockets, the host nation is known for its diligent execution of detail-laden, large-scale projects, its technological advances, its consensus-building and world-class infrastructure. All this, on paper, at least, gives the strong impression that Japan is one of the few places in the world that could even consider pulling off the high-stakes tightrope walk that the Tokyo Games represent.
Some in Japan aren’t buying it.
“No country should hold an Olympics during a pandemic to start with. And if you absolutely must, then a more authoritarian and high-tech China or Singapore would probably be able to control COVID better,” said Koichi Nakano, a politics professor at Sophia University in Tokyo.
The bureaucratic, technological, logistical and political contortions required to execute this unprecedented feat — a massively complicated, deeply scrutinized spectacle during a time of global turmoil, death and suffering — have put an unwelcome spotlight on the country.
Most of all, it has highlighted some embarrassing things: that much of Japan doesn’t want the Games, that the nation’s vaccine rollout was late and is only now expanding, and that many suspect the Games are being forced on the country because the International Olympic Committee needs the billions in media revenue.
The worry here isn’t that Tokyo’s organizers can’t get to the finish line without a major disaster. That seems possible, and would allow organizers to claim victory, of a kind.
The fear is that once the athletes and officials leave town, the nation that unwillingly sacrificed much for the cause of global sporting unity might be left the poorer for it, and not just in the tens of billions of dollars it has spent on the Games.
The Japanese public may see an already bad coronavirus situation become even worse; Olympics visitors here have carried fast-spreading variants of the virus into a nation that is only approaching 25% fully vaccinated.
The Tokyo Olympics are, in one sense, a way for visitors to test for themselves some of the common perceptions about Japan that have contributed to this image of the country as the right place to play host. The results, early on in these Games, are somewhat of a mixed bag.
On the plus side, consider the airport arrivals for the thousands of Olympics participants. They showcased Japan’s ability to harness intensely organized workflow skills and bring them to bear on a specific task — in this case, protection against COVID-19 that might be brought in by a swarm of outsiders.
From the moment visitors stepped from their aircraft at Narita International Airport, they were corralled — gently, cheerfully, but in no uncertain terms firmly — into lines, then guided across the deserted airport like second-graders heading to recess. Barriers, some with friendly signs attached, ensured they got documents checked, forehead temperatures measured, hands sanitized and saliva extracted.
Symmetrical layouts of chairs, each meticulously numbered, greeted travelers awaiting their COVID-19 test results and Olympic credentials were validated while they waited. The next steps — immigration, customs — were equally efficient, managing to be both crisp and restrictive, but also completely amiable. You emerged from the airport a bit dizzy from all the guidance and herding, but with ego largely unbruised.
But there have also been conspicuous failures.
After the opening ceremony ended, for example, hundreds of people in the stadium were crammed into a corrallike pen, forced to wait for hours with only a flimsy barricade separating them from curious Japanese onlookers, while dozens of empty buses idled in a line stretching for blocks, barely moving.
Japan does have some obvious advantages over other democracies when it comes to hosting these Games, such as its economic might. As the world’s third-largest economy, after the United States and China, it was able to spend the billions needed to orchestrate these protean Games, with their mounting costs and changing demands.
Another advantage could be Japan’s well-deserved reputation for impeccable customer service. Few places in the world take as much pride in catering to visitors’ needs. It’s an open question, however, whether that real inclination toward hospitality will be tested by the extreme pressure.
A geopolitical imperative may be another big motivator. Japanese archrival China hosts next year’s Winter Games, and many nationalists here maintain that an Olympic failure is not an option amid the struggle with Beijing for influence in Asia. Yoshihide Suga, the prime minister, may also be hoping that a face-saving Games, which he can then declare successful, will help him retain power in fall elections.
And the potential holes in the argument that Japan is the perfect host nation for a pandemic Games?
Start, maybe, with leadership. It has never been clear who is in charge. Is it the city of Tokyo? The national government? The IOC? The Japanese Olympic Committee?
“This Olympics has been an all-Japan national project, but, as is often pointed out, nobody has a clear idea about who is the main organizer,” said Akio Yamaguchi, a crisis communications consultant at Tokyo-based AccessEast. “Uncertainty is the biggest risk.”
Japan has also faced a problem particular to democracies: a fierce, sometimes messy public debate about whether it was a good idea to hold the Games.
“After the postponement, we have never had a clear answer on how to host the Olympics. The focus was whether we can do it or not, instead of discussing why and how to do it,” said Yuji Ishizaka, a sports sociologist at Nara Women’s University.
“Japan is crucially bad at developing a ‘plan B.’ Japanese organizations are nearly incapable of drafting scenarios where something unexpected happens,” Ishizaka said. “There was very little planning that simulated the circumstances in 2021.”
Another possibly shaky foundation of outside confidence in Japan is its reputation as a technologically adept wonder of efficiency.
Arriving athletes and reporters “will probably realize that Japan is not as high-tech or as efficient as it has been often believed,” Nakano said. “More may then realize that it is the utter lack of accountability of the colluded political, business and media elites that ‘enabled’ Japan to hold the Olympics in spite of very negative public opinion — and quite possibly with considerable human sacrifice.”
The Tokyo Games are a Rorschach test of sorts, laying out for examination the many different ideas about Japan as Olympic host. For now, they raise more questions than they answer.