By holding the Tokyo Olympics, Japan’s government is gambling with people’s lives | Kosuke Takahashi

The Olympic Games begins in Tokyo on Friday, just as Covid-19 blights the city for the fourth time – and a year after the Games were originally scheduled to begin.

Despite the latest alarming spike in coronavirus infections and hospitalisations across the city’s metropolitan area, Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, has reiterated his resolve to go ahead with the Games, declaring at a session of the International Olympic Committee held on 20 July that “the Games can be held successfully, with the efforts and wisdom of the people”.

But many Japanese either disbelieve him or take his words with a pinch of salt. For one, many people are tired of hearing Suga’s overblown rhetoric stressing the Games’ significance. He has, for example, previously said more than once that the Olympics will be held as “proof that humanity has defeated the novel coronavirus”.

Despite the pronouncements, Suga’s administration has had a hard time dealing with the coronavirus. The more infection cases rise, the more Suga’s disapproval ratings rise also. A national Asahi-Shimbun poll found his disapproval rate climbed to 49% on 17 and 18 July, the highest since the formation of his cabinet in September 2020. Correspondingly, his approval rating dropped to 31% – close to the 30% “danger zone” political observers see as an indicator of imminent government change.

One big question arises. Why has Suga pushed so hard for his plans to host the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics while the pandemic rages, and even as his approval ratings plummet? The short answer: this is a political gamble.

Suga is counting on the Tokyo Olympics to boost his approval rating ahead of the general election for the lower house and the Liberal Democratic party’s election for presidential leader, both of which will be held this autumn. Suga hopes public enthusiasm for the Games will reach fever pitch as Japanese athletes start getting gold medals.

His optimism, however, is not shared by some in his cabinet. “In terms of national security, I don’t see any cause to hold the Olympics at all as we face a national crisis now,” one of Suga’s vice-ministers told me, adding that the real problem with the Games was the question of its finance and the egotistical desire of the Suga administration to be able to say “we made the Games a success” ahead of the elections.

Nobody is sure how successful the Tokyo Olympics can be, not least in the face of the virulent Delta variant. Tokyo 2021 could become a super-spreading event. Suga is taking a dangerous political gamble, and gambling, too, with the health and lives of the people of Tokyo and Japan, as well as the tens of thousands who will travel to the Games.

The gamble so far looks like it might not pay off. The great majority of Japanese people have a very cynical view of the Games. In another Asahi Shimbun survey, 55% were opposed to holding the Olympics with just 33% in support of it. In addition, 68% said they do not believe Suga’s pledge that the Olympics will be “safe and secure”. Only 21% said they felt it could be.

This lack of enthusiasm is built on a series of Olympics scandals being brought to light. After Britain’s Zaha Hadid Architects won the competition to build Tokyo’s new National Stadium, her design was scrapped over ballooning costs in July 2015. The official logo for the Games was also scrapped in September 2015 after weeks of plagiarism allegations called the work of its designer Kenjiro Sano into disrepute. In 2019, Tsunekazu Takeda resigned as president of the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC), following bribery allegations linked to the successful bid for the Games. And Yoshiro Mori, a former prime minister and then-president of the Tokyo Olympics organising committee, resigned in February 2021, following backlash over sexist comments suggesting, among other things, that women talk too much in meetings. Most recently, Kentaro Kobayashi, the opening ceremony director, was dismissed the day before the ceremony due to a Holocaust joke he made during a comedy show in 1998. Both Japanese and foreign media have reported that the Tokyo Olympics are “cursed”.

The Games’ skyrocketing price tag has also diminished public support for the event, which has now reached more than 3tn yen (£20bn) and will become the most expensive Summer Olympics in history. Japan’s government debt stands at 266% of GDP – the highest in the world and twice that of the US. Many fear the cost of implementing coronavirus countermeasures to ensure the Games are safe will add to a growing national deficit. Over more than a decade, Japan has spent hundreds of trillions of yen to stimulate the economy and overcome three major national crises: the 2008 Lehman shock, the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.

Another big reason why many Japanese are against the Games is that Japan is lagging significantly behind numerous other countries in vaccinating its population, which is the oldest in the world. Many feel strongly that the Japanese government should put its efforts into the vaccine rollout, instead of the Olympics. As of 22 July, Japan ranks 69th in the world for those who’ve received two vaccines, with just 23.3% of the total population fully vaccinated.

The country has simply failed to strategically prepare for the Games in terms of vaccine rollout and infection control. Instead, over the past year, Suga has sung the Games’ praises while overlooking the imperative, taken more seriously in many other countries, to vaccinate the people he’s charged with governing. Now, Japan must learn its lessons from the bitter experience of the Tokyo Olympics, and in doing so hopefully the nation’s body politic can heal.

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