TOKYO — Only a few steps off the jetway, visitors arriving at Narita International Airport are met with a sign showing two people high fiving each other with a red X through the image.
As much as anything, the warning sums up the overwhelming feeling in the host nation for an Olympic Games few in Japan are celebrating.
The first Olympic Games held in a state of emergency because of a pandemic are so unpopular that a government official felt the need this week to tell the Japan Times that Emperor Naruhito would likely avoid using the word “celebrating” or similar terms when he formally declares the Games open at the Opening Ceremony at National Stadium Friday night.
Naruhito was scheduled to meet with International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach at the Imperial Palace Thursday afternoon in Japan. There would be no eating or drinking involved and the two men would speak to each other from a “sufficient physical distance,” the Imperial Household Agency said in a statement.
Others in Japan, from titans of industry to politicians to Japan’s top medical and scientific minds, seem determined to put even greater distance between themselves and Bach and the Games that, according to the most recent Kyodo News poll, 87 percent of the Japanese public have “concerns” about.
Toyota is pulling its advertising from the Japanese broadcasts of the Games. Keep in mind this is a company that signed on in 2015 to be a top tier IOC sponsor through 2024 in a deal worth a reported $910 million. Toyota’s CEO is skipping the Opening Ceremonies as are the top executives for several other leading Japanese companies. Other companies have also followed Toyota’s lead in pulling their ads from Olympic broadcasts. Another corporate sponsor of the Tokyo Games, Asahi Shimbun, the nation’s second largest newspaper, in a May editorial demanded the cancellation of the Games.
“We cannot think it’s rational to host the Olympics in the city this summer,” the newspaper wrote.
Toyota and the other companies have received little if any criticism for trying to distance themselves from an event that Japanese health officials acknowledged this week had “super spreader” potential even with spectators banned from attending Olympic events.
A month ago, Norio Ohmagari, director of the Disease Control and Prevention Center at Japan’s National Center for Global Health and Medicine, warned, “The virus is rebounding in Tokyo.”
“There’s reason to believe this surge will spread further than the fourth wave,” Ohmagari said.
This week’s surge in coronavirus cases has surpassed even Ohmagari’s worst fears.
Tokyo reported 1,832 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, nearly three times the number from a week earlier, and the highest number of cases in the city since mid-January. The daily new cases in the host city could top 2,200 by the Games’ second week, health officials predicted.
“The fifth wave (of the virus) is already under way,” Toshio Nakagawa, president of the Japan Medical Association, said during a press conference this week.
News of the latest wave comes just days after Bach promised “safe and secure” Games.
The boast is among a number of missteps by Bach, who was already viewed as Public Enemy No. 1 for his insistence on going forward with the Games, postponed in March 2020, no matter what. There have been protesters outside the five-star Tokyo hotel where Bach and other top IOC officials are staying. Bach was greeted with shouts of “Go home Bach” at a wreath ceremony at Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial last week. It is unclear whether Bach, who has long been charged with being tone-deaf by his critics, was aware the ceremony came on the anniversary of the Trinity Test in New Mexico in 1945, the Manhattan Project’s dress rehearsal for the atomic bomb detonations on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Desperate for some good news, the IOC formally awarded the 2032 Summer Games to Brisbane Wednesday. But afterward, even Bach, the ultimate spin doctor, seemed worn down. And Bach isn’t alone in that regard. Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike was hospitalized last month with “severe fatigue.”
“I was also thinking that, starting with Tokyo, we would have a tranquil period,” Bach. “I keep my fingers crossed for the rest of my (term), and even more so for my successor. The Olympic movement is living in the middle of society and we are not living in a tranquil world, we are living in a very fragile world, and therefore we have to react to this and to find the right way for the Olympic movement.”
Wednesday night the Opening Ceremony was only 48 hours away but still couldn’t come fast enough for Bach.
“I am not a prophet,” Bach said. “We will see. I think the Opening Ceremony will be a moment of joy and relief, joy in particular for the athletes, as I know how much they are longing for this moment, and they can finally enjoy this moment under very special circumstances. And a feeling of relief because the road to this Opening Ceremony was not the easiest one. There is a saying that if you feel this kind of relief, there are stones falling from your heart, so if you hear some stones falling then maybe they are coming from my heart.”
For many arriving at Narita just making it out of the airport is a relief. Processing at the airport includes athletes, officials and journalists having to provide the required pages and pages of activity schedules, pre-arrival testing results and other documents. They must show they’ve downloaded the required four tracking and health confirmation status phone apps even before undergoing a saliva COVID-19 test. It has been common for the process to take seven, eight or nine hours. It can take 30 minutes for workers just to laminate an official credential for the Games. A delegation of USA Volleyball players, coaches and employees were detained for 18 hours after beach player Taylor Crabb tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after arrival.
And for all Japanese government and Tokyo 2020 and IOC officials’ emphasis on social distancing, athletes and others in the steps leading up to the testing area are herded like cattle at a stockyard through a serpentine maze, athletes from South Africa, Tunisia, Ukraine, Ireland and Uganda practically on top of each other.
And the bad news hasn’t been limited to Narita.
A Tokyo 2020 worker was arrested this week, charged with raping a co-worker at National Stadium after watching a dress rehearsal for the closing ceremony Sunday night. Japanese musician Keigo Oyamada, who performs under the name Cornelius, was to be featured at the start of the opening ceremony performing a composition he had written specifically for the event. But Oyamada was forced to resign this week after an interview he gave in the 1990s resurfaced this week. In the interview, Oyamada said he bullied classmates with disabilities and others as a child “without any regrets.”
The episode was a major source of embarrassment for Tokyo 2020 president Seiko Hashimoto.
“I will say that the responsibility rests with me,” she said. “We should have checked solidly and we weren’t able to do that.”
But it’s not anger or embarrassment or the protesters that mark these Olympics and this city on eve of the Games, but a sense of indifference, of emptiness.
By and large, Tokyo seems to have chosen to just ignore the Games as if they aren’t even taking place. Visitors can walk for blocks and blocks down crowded streets in business districts and shopping areas not far from National Stadium and not see a single reference to the Olympics. Even during the day, there is no buzz, no electricity generated by what had been reduced to a made-for-TV event. Instead, workers and school children go about their days in silence. At night the stillness is pierced only by ambulance sirens. Hour after hour of sirens wailing through the darkness of a city once aglow in neon, providing an eerie soundtrack for the Games no one is celebrating.
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