Sunday 27 June 2021

Profit over Human Life? Why Japanese don't want the Olympics

Out in Tachikawa, western Tokyo, the other day, I spotted an Olympic/Paralympic countdown clock cheerfully informing me that there were only 30 days to go until the games begin (they start July 23rd). The Japanese slogan read minna no kagayaki, tsunageteikō (everybody's radiance/brightness, let's join together). Now, given that we are in the middle of a pandemic, one that appears to be getting worse rather than better in a country whose vaccination program is way behind the rest of the world's, "joining together" seems like a monumentally bad idea. But Tokyo taxpayers like me whose money has been poured into this $26 billion plus black hole, don't have much of a say on the matter.

What do you think about holding the Olympics?


So what do the Japanese public think about holding the Olympics? The pie chart shows a combination of last month's Asahi and Mainichi polls which show 41.5% think they should be canceled (中止する・すべきだ)and 31.5% saying that they should be postponed again (再び延期する・再び延期すべきだ). A Yomiuri poll from this month showed a similar picture, with 48% opting for cancel. The number of respondents thinking they should be cancelled has been growing steadily over the past year. 

The pandemic has meant that most of the opposition to holding the Olympics has been online, though there was a small protest in front of the Tokyo metropolitan government building (Shinjuku) on June 23rd (article and video here). Online, English hashtags such as #This is no time to stage the Olympics and #cancelTheOlympics have been trending; Japanese hashtags include #オリンピックより命を守れ and #五輪より命は大切/大事 which both say that lives are more important than the Olympics. Meanwhile, an online petition has gathered almost 500,000 signatures (English here and Japanese here). 

Even the Japanese Emperor has joined the chorus of concern and is apparently very worried about a spike in infections during the games. Public - and royal - concern merely reflects the opinions of medical professionals both inside and outside Japan. The Tokyo Medical Practioner's Association called in May for the Olympics to be cancelled saying hospitals are already overwhelmed. When I was in Tachikawa, I passed Tachikawa Sogo Hospital which has a huge sign in its windows beginning with the word fun'nu (憤怒) in red meaning a hotpotch of anger, rage, resentment, indignation, and exasperation. Thereafter, the message reads 医療は限界!五輪やめて (“Medical capacity has reached its limit. Stop the Olympics!”) and below that もうカンベン!オリンピック無理!("Give us a break! The Olympics are impossible!")

But the government has not listened - or cannot listen - to any of this. With the Japanese Anthony Fauci, Shigeru Omi, chief of the government's virus sub-committee, now resigned to the government's decision to go ahead with the Olympics, preparations are in full swing. The state of emergency ended Sunday (June 20th) and with it the rule which banned the serving of alcohol. Now, restaurants are allowed to serve alcohol (the first time in 2 months) but only to a maximum of two customers for 90 minutes (here). Spectators have also been set at 10,000 or 50% of the venue capacity, whichever is lower, a decision that Omi vehemently disagreed with. To add insult to injury, spectators were originally slated to have access to alcohol (Asahi is one of the Olympic sponsors); only after an outcry that the Olympics were getting preferential treatment while ordinary businesses were suffering was there a U-turn.

While most delegations have yet to arrive, the Uganda delegation - only the second group to fly-in - arrived at Narita Airport the other day cheerfully waving their national flag; soon after, one of their coaches tested positive for the Delta variant. The response? Quarantine the coach only and bus the rest off to Osaka, accompanied by various local officials, guides, and drivers. The day after, a second member tested positive and soon everyone was in quarantine with new rules being drawn up - too little too late, like much else about the government's ad-hoc response.

Amid signs of another COVID spike and possible fifth wave, those of us who remain unvaccinated will have to put up with the circus that is the Olympics over the next month. Quite honestly it is difficult to know whether to laugh or cry. Maybe the former is the healthier response. John Oliver's take on Tokyo holding the Olympics is rather funny; The Mainichi Shimbun's parody of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, depicting IOC executives gorging on broadcasting rights, was very clever; and newspaper stories about the distribution of 160,000 condoms during the games amidst strict rules to avoid "unnecessary contact" brought a wry smile to the lips. Nevertheless, the laughter is mixed with despair. Indeed, the overwhelming emotion is anger, anger that, ultimately, profit is being put before human life. For further reading, check out the book below for a good analysis on the connection between Japanese politics, society, economy, culture, and the Olympic Games.

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