In Brief

Here’s Why Tokyo Is Hosting the Summer Olympics Despite COVID-19

The challenge of hosting the Olympic Games in Tokyo amid the coronavirus pandemic has confounded Japan’s government, but postponing the Olympics further does not seem to be an option.

Why is Japan going ahead with the Summer Olympics?

Japan’s Olympics bid was about so much more than hosting the summer games. For Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the 2020 Summer Olympics were to be a demonstration of renewal, one more statement to the world that “Japan is back!” Echoing the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the themes were to be Japan’s technological prowess, its ability to recover from difficulty, and its hospitality. Though the games were postponed in 2020 and Abe stepped down last year due to health reasons, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has insisted that the Olympics proceed.

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A substantial financial investment has been made. Officially, Japan has spent $15.4 billion on the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Government audits put the bill much higher, however. Private companies have also invested a considerable sum, which the Mainichi Shimbun estimates to be an additional $3 billion.

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The International Olympic Committee (IOC) also had a hand in the decision to proceed. On May 21, the committee’s vice president confirmed that the games would go on despite the growing disgruntlement of the Japanese public.

Do Japanese citizens support holding the games?

By May, the public’s concerns seemed to peak; polling by the Asahi Shimbun revealed that 83 percent of Japanese were against the government’s plan to go ahead with the games this summer. About 40 percent wanted them postponed, while 43 percent wanted the Olympics canceled altogether. A citizen-led petition asking Suga to cancel the games garnered over 430,000 signatures. Even Olympics Minister Seiko Hashimoto complained that Japan’s hand was being forced by decision-makers outside the country.

Seiko Hashimoto stands left of Olympic cauldron lit by actor Satomi Ishihara and athlete Aki Taguchi, who is in a wheelchair.
Olympics Minister Seiko Hashimoto watches as actor Satomi Ishihara and Paralympian Aki Taguchi light the celebration cauldron on the first day of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic torch relay. Kim Kyung-Hoon/Pool/Reuters

Japan’s continuing struggle with the pandemic was the root cause of concern. Vaccinations were slow, in part due to negotiations with suppliers and the government’s inability to adapt its own regulatory approach. Once begun, the rollout suffered from confusion and a lack of information about accessibility for the 28 percent of Japanese who are over the age of sixty-five. With the caseload rising, medical facilities were hard-pressed to ensure adequate treatment.

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Some business leaders also challenged the government’s assurances that it could manage this risk. Masayoshi Son, president of SoftBank, tweeted, “Does the IOC have the power to decide that the games will go ahead? There’s talk about huge penalties [if the games are canceled] but if one hundred thousand people from two hundred countries descend on vaccine-laggard Japan and the mutant variant spreads, I think we could lose a lot more.” Hiroshi Mikitani of Rakuten, the largest online retailer in Japan, joined Son in criticizing the decision to hold the games. Even Japanese companies sponsoring the Olympics privately called for the games to be postponed to the fall.

However, by June, public resistance toward hosting the games this summer had softened somewhat.

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What are the potential consequences?

For starters, there is the health risk. The high case numbers in Tokyo and Osaka this spring raised concerns about the country’s medical infrastructure, and the coronavirus’s Delta variant, discovered first in India, has epidemiologists around the world worried.

Suga has promised that vaccinations will be made available quickly, pledging that all Japanese who want to be vaccinated will have access by the end of October. The Prime Minister also vowed in early May that the country would be vaccinating at the rate of one million shots per day by the end of June. According to Bloomberg’s analysis, Japan reached that goal last week.

On June 22, Tokyo Olympics organizers announced that spectators will be allowed into the games. Hashimoto told NBC News the next day that a spectator ban is still possible if COVID-19 cases surge.

There could be political consequences as well. In October, Japan will hold its first Lower House election since Abe stepped down, and it will be a tough election for the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP) and its coalition partner, Komeito. The opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan seems unlikely to take power, but it could damage the supermajority that the governing coalition has enjoyed in the Lower House since 2012. Suga’s public approval rating plummeted to a low of 33 percent coming into the summer, and the next few months will be difficult. Both an accelerated vaccination schedule and a safe Olympics are necessary to boost his political standing.

Is diplomacy also on the agenda?

Asia’s geopolitics will undoubtedly be on the minds of many in Tokyo. Coming up after Japan’s summer games are Beijing’s 2022 winter games. Japan will not want to be overshadowed by China.

South Korea’s winter games in 2018 became the stage for President Moon Jae-in’s high-stakes diplomatic gamble to embrace diplomacy with North Korea, and Abe attended at Moon’s request in a show of support for peace on the peninsula. Although there is little reason to expect that inter-Korean diplomacy will be on view in Tokyo this summer, Japan and South Korea could use the occasion to improve their relationship.

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