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Why Tokyo Turned Against the Olympics

The city is the center of a great experiment at a dangerous new phase of the pandemic.

Chelsea Szendi Schieder

July 23, 2021

Protesters gathered to demonstrate against International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach’s visit to Hiroshima amid concern over the safety of holding the Games during the coronavirus pandemic. (Yuichi Yamazaki / Getty Images)

Tokyo—People often avoid unpleasant topics in casual conversation in Japan. Yet the impending Olympics have transformed the mood, and my exchanges over the past few weeks have often touched upon the disgust, anxiety, and bewilderment people living here feel now. My next-door neighbor laments that the children in her life, her grandchildren but also my child, have had to give up so many of the events important to them. “How can they hold the Olympics when the kids can’t have their Sports Day games?” she asked me the other day, as I lingered outside her always-open window and gossiped. My own students have made so many sacrifices; many are still learning online. Others are returning to in-class instruction even without any clear idea about when they will be eligible to get vaccinated. The staff at our local day cares and schools are similarly often in the dark about when they can get a vaccine, and in the meantime daily cases of Covid-19 in Tokyo, now under its fourth State of Emergency, are hitting highs not seen since January.

This is very different from when Tokyo first won the bid to host the Games in 2013. Whereas an earlier bid to host the 2016 Olympics failed because of a lack of public support, a poll in early 2013 found that 73 percent (10 million) of Tokyo residents supported the 2020 bid, many of them young people. I could feel the excitement among my university students, many of whom wanted to work as volunteers. They saw it as a great opportunity to practice English, gain a more global perspective, and introduce the city in which they live to visitors from all over the world. Universities prepared to organize their semesters to facilitate volunteering.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics were sold to the public as “The Recovery and Reconstruction Games.” A central promise was to support the regions in the northeast devastated by the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown in March 2011. Since the bid was successful in 2013, Japan has had many more natural disasters: earthquakes, floods, and, most recently, a deadly landslide. But all these disasters have been eclipsed by Covid-19, and the promise made when Japan decided to postpone the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics to summer 2021 was that the Tokyo Games would symbolize a global recovery from the pandemic. With that promise now void, the goalposts have shifted again. The International Olympic Committee is now affirming the Games as a symbol of “peace.”

Sudo Kimiko, a member of the group Hangorin (Anti-Olympics), told me that before Covid it was hard to reach people with the group’s anti-Olympics message. Since 2013, Hangorin has tried to emphasize the inherently discriminatory and unequal nature of the Olympics. Residents of host cities have very little input on the contract process, yet they must contribute money and manpower to facilitate the events. The profits benefit an elite few. As has been the case in other places, Olympic preparations in Tokyo have included a hostile campaign against the city’s homeless population. But the group was up against what Sudo called the “terrifying power” of the Olympics’ popularity. “People like the Olympics,” she said—or at least they did. Popular support for hosting has collapsed, with polls now showing a majority of Japanese people against going ahead with the Games.

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Still, anti-Olympics organizers are struggling to determine the best strategy for harnessing this discontent. Partly because of Japan’s contemporary extreme right-wing protest culture, partly because of the left’s own relatively recent history of street protest and political violence, street activism in Japan has a hard time getting positive attention from the media. In one instance, the national public broadcaster, NHK, muted a segment of a livestream of the Olympic torch relay, cutting off the audio just as protesting voices could be heard. Even when the media notices the protests, it is an uphill struggle. Sudo echoed a comment I’ve heard from other activists I’ve spoken with in Japan in recent years that many people in Japan think of street protests as a nuisance. I know from my own research that one negative legacy of the vigorous protest culture of the 1960s in Japan has been an aversion to contentious street politics among many who became persuaded that it ultimately does little to effect change and could led to extremist violence.

Some citizens are turning to the courts to try to get some traction. On July 9, a group sought a court injunction to stop the opening of the Olympics and Paralympics, on the grounds that organizers have not effectively shown how the Games will be “safe and secure” in the midst of the pandemic. This failure, they argue, violates their constitutional right to live.

Professional organizations and some companies have entered the debate as well. In May, magazine publisher Takarajimasha ran a full-page ad in three national daily newspapers likening preparing for the Tokyo Olympics to preparing for an Allied invasion in the 1940s, featuring an image of a giant red coronavirus imposed upon a historical photograph of children practicing with spears. It declared, “At this rate, politics will kill us.” Shortly after that, the Asahi Shimbun, a progressive newspaper but also an official Tokyo Olympics sponsor, published an editorial asking Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide to “please call off the Olympics this summer.” Many medical professionals and groups like the Japan Medical Women’s Association have consistently objected to holding a global sports event that could strain Japan’s medical institutions. Reflecting how poorly the public views the upcoming Games, corporate sponsors are also distancing themselves. Toyota has announced that it will not run Olympics-related advertising.

My neighbor and others I’ve chatted with in Tokyo over the past few months often feel powerless in the face of this large event descending upon our city—an affair curated for a television audience since the only local spectators will be dignitaries. We share our fears that we will be at the center of a great experiment at a dangerous new phase of the pandemic. Because Covid has been framed as an “outside threat” to Japan, there is also the risk that a disastrous Olympics will deepen xenophobia in Japan. Throughout the pandemic, Japan has had some of the strictest border closures, which at times even excluded current visa holders, long-term residents of Japan, and non-Japanese spouses of Japanese citizens. Now we have thousands of visitors pouring in from abroad into what seems to be a porous “bubble,” under incredible media scrutiny. The whole situation seems manufactured to maximize misunderstandings.

I worry that a poorly managed pandemic Olympics will create links in the mind of the domestic audience between inviting those from “outside” with contagion and danger. The only thing more frustrating than understanding that those charged with organizing this cannot hear the voices of the residents is realizing that they also will not have to live with the consequences. In speaking with Tokyo’s residents, ranging from my students to struggling local businesses to my elderly neighbors, I often hear the phrase, “What are they thinking, holding this event just now?” They are not thinking about us.

Chelsea Szendi SchiederChelsea Szendi Schieder is a professor in the Faculty of Economics at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, Japan, and the author of Coed Revolution: The Female Student in the Japanese New Left (Duke University Press, 2021).

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