A devilish Shinto mask may well be representative of the curse haunting Tokyo's 2020 Games. Photo: Tom Coyner

How many deaths are an acceptable price to pay to hold the Tokyo 2020 Olympics this year? Ten? 100? 1000? 

Today, Monday April 26, is the day the 10,000th person died of Covid-19 in Japan. It is the second day of the latest state of emergency. It is a day after the ruling political party headed by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga lost three important by-elections. And it is also the day the safety measures for the upcoming “greatest show on Earth” were leaked.

All these things are connected. The connection? The “cursed” Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

For Suga, for his predecessor Shinzo Abe, and for the Liberal Democratic Party, saving Japan’s bid to host the 2020 Olympics has become more important than saving lives during the pandemic.

The public get this. Eighty percent of Japanese want the Games postponed or canceled; 70% are unhappy with how the government is handling the pandemic. 

Granted, 10,000 deaths in a country of 126 million doesn’t seem like many compared with the carnage that has roiled Brazil, India, the UK and the US. However, in Asia, for reasons complex and still unknown – though possibly related to the widespread use of BCG vaccine – the mortality rate has been low across the board.

It has been considerably lower in those countries that used common sense, science, and real lockdowns to put the virus in check. Note the mortality figures in some countries close to Japan: South Korea (population 51 million): 1,815; Thailand (population 69 million): 129; Vietnam (population 96 million): 35; Taiwan (population 23 million): 12. 

Taipei put saving lives ahead of saving face; unlike Tokyo, it didn’t worry about looking good for the Olympics. The timing and rules of the state of emergency are a microcosm of Japan’s toxic relationship to the Olympics.

The show must go on

Consider this: All sporting and music venues are currently shut for the next two weeks to avoid a superspreader event. Yet in less than three months Japan is going to hold the largest sporting event in the world.

Does this make sense? 

If you wonder why the state of emergency is only going to last two weeks, it’s because International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach is visiting Japan on May 17. Senior politicians and Japan Olympic Committee (JOC) members have made clear that it would look bad to have Bach visiting Tokyo during a state of emergency.

So whether or not Japan’s “fourth wave” coronavirus surge is under control, the show will go on.

Tokyo is adept at crunching numbers to make things appear better. On January 22, the city without much fanfare announced that it would minimize contact tracing, and the number of cases detected declined within weeks.

“The fewer tested, the fewer infected.” That’s the magical math that Japan has applied during the entire pandemic. And for a time it sort of worked. Japan’s contact tracing measures, based on proven methods of dealing with tuberculosis, proved effective

But these measures were always supposed to be stopgaps. Over and over Tokyo promised to up the number of tests up to 60,000 per day, quarantine the infected, and stem the tide of the virus.

That widespread testing never came. After stopping contact tracing in January, there were days when fewer than 6,000 people were tested.

And now as the rest of the developed world starts to exit the pandemic, Japan’s national vaccination rate is 1%. 

Bad beginnings, bad endings 

A Japanese saying states: “From bad beginnings come bad endings.” That would seem to apply to the Tokyo Olympics – for Japan’s bid began with a bribe and was sealed with a lie.

The bribe was given by the government, via the JOC, and channeled  by Dentsu, the largest advertising firm in Japan, to former members of the IOC to make sure that Japan won the bid. French authorities investigated, and the head of Japan’s Olympic Commission resigned in disgrace.

But no one at the IOC or the JOC gives a damn. What’s a little corruption between friends? The JOC wasn’t even bothered when its vice-chairman was shown to have had Yakuza ties. Not a problem!

The bid was sealed with a lie. That lie was when then-prime minister Abe assured the world in September 2013 that the Tokyo 2020 Olympics would be safe because the nuclear disaster at Fukushima, which occurred in March of 2011, was under control. It wasn’t then and it isn’t now

While barely reported in the West, radioactive waste is spilling from some of the 8,000 corroded containers on site. In two years, Japan will dump radioactive water into the Pacific. And it will keep dumping the water for years after, because TEPCO (Tokyo Electric Power Company) must inject water into the reactors indefinitely to keep the melted cores cool.

Guess what happens if they would stop pumping in the water? It’s not good. It’s a disaster still happening

Now Japan claims that it has the pandemic under control. Is this credible? 

Houses burn amid flood tides in the wake of the tsunami that visited eastern Japan, sparking the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. That disaster is far from over. Photo: AFP

Bad measures, taken late

Japan has so desperately wanted to look good so that the Olympics could go forward that it failed to take proper measures to stop the spread early, unlike Taiwan. On the same day – January 16, 2020 – that Taiwan’s equivalent of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned the world of a virus spreading from China, Japan recorded the first case outside of China.

In February, the infected cruise ship Diamond Princess arrived on Japanese shores. Japan refused to let passengers be taken ashore and treated at hospitals, because it didn’t want the numbers of infected and dead to be counted as Japan’s numbers. That wouldn’t look good for the Olympic Committee. So the authorities kept them on board, in effect turning the ship into a giant floating petri dish

Then, Tokyo let the Japanese passengers leave the ship after insufficient testing and despite warnings that passengers not showing symptoms might still be carrying the disease. They went home by public transport. Several turned out to be infected – the total number hasn’t been made public. 

It also became clear that health-care workers who had been aboard the Diamond Princess and staff from the Ministry of Health had become infected. However, at first the Japanese government refused to test them. Refused! When it did test them – sure enough, there were infections. 

Japan’s first cluster of Covid-19 cases after the Diamond Princess was at the Ministry of Health. It has been a clusterfuck ever since.

For weeks Abe, as well as Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, seemed unconcerned about the coronavirus. Abe wined and dined the media while the virus was fermenting. Koike barely mentioned the word until the Olympics were officially postponed on March 23, 2020.

The next day, as if she had awoken from a coma, Koike sounded the alarm bells, calling for a lockdown, and the number of reported coronavirus cases in Tokyo miraculously surged. What a coincidence!

Even so, at times it looked like Japan’s “hear no evil, see no evil, do nothing but mandate self-restraint” policy was working. The decision to spend billions of dollars promoting a domestic travel and dining-out program called “Go To Travel” last year practically ensured that the virus would surge again, all over the country

Yet the ruling elite believed they had it under control. Last June, Minister of Finance Taro Aso bragged that the low number of deaths in Japan was due to the cultural superiority of the Japanese people.

And indeed, some may argue that Japan has done much better than the UK or US. But the relatives and loved ones of the 10,000 dead in Japan will likely consider that irrelevant. 

Yokai, or traditional Japanese monsters, at a Halloween festival in Hiroshima prefecture, in 2020. The Olympics set for this summer may become a real-life horror. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun

How many lives will the Games devour? 

I would argue that the Tokyo Olympics have already killed hundreds. They have been killed because priorities were skewed, because critical decisions were delayed in hopes of holding the Olympics last year and this year. 

If professional criminal negligence resulting in death and injury were an Olympic event, Abe would win gold, and Suga would win silver. #Tokyo2020? More like #Toxic2020. 

Even the early original decision to hold the Olympics in the Japanese summer was questionable, putting athletes and spectators at risk. In 1964, Japan held its first Olympics in October – precisely to avoid the heat-related casualties that would have resulted from Games being held in sweltering summer heat and humidity

If the Olympics continue as planned this year, it is very likely that as a direct or indirect result, more will die. It will be a superspreader event. Participants may take home not only prizes and souvenirs, but also deadly variants of the virus with them.

Japan’s Olympic stadia are going to be additional versions of the Diamond Princess: giant petri dishes for Covid-19, that cannot float away. 

Tokyo’s hospitals often have difficulties dealing with the influx of heatstroke victims during the summer. How well will they be able to deal with a pandemic that is already straining the medical system here, among 40,000 foreigners who don’t speak Japanese?

Is even one death acceptable to hold what is simply a sporting event?

Even one of Japan’s top athletes opposes holding the event this year. Hitoymi Niiya, a noted long-distance runner, said, “As an athlete, I want to compete in the Games. As a person, I don’t. Honestly, human life is more important than the Olympics.” 

The IOC would disagree.

We know that the IOC has no moral compass. Sometimes I wonder if the IOC truly stands for the International Oligarchs Club – their true masters. They have no qualms about hosting Olympics in China, a nation that is allegedly committing genocide against a minority of its own people.

The British Journal of Medicine, in an op-ed published this month, makes a devastating case for postponing the Olympics. It is worth quoting at length.

“Unlike other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, Japan has not yet contained Covid-19 transmission. Despite its poor performance, Japan still invokes exceptionalism and continues to conceptualize Covid-19 within previous planning for pandemic influenza.

“The second state of emergency in the Greater Tokyo area was lifted in late March despite early indications of a resurgence and an increase in Covid-19 patients with variants of concern, which have now spread across Japan.

“The country’s limited testing capacity and sluggish vaccine rollout have been attributed to lack of political leadership. Even health-care workers and other high-risk populations will not have access to vaccines before Tokyo 2020, to say nothing of the general population.

“To properly protect athletes from Covid-19, Japan must develop and implement a clear strategy to eliminate community transmission within its borders, as Australia did before the Australian Open tennis tournament.”

With all Olympic visitors sealed in venues, practice sites and hotels, the service economy in Japan won’t get much of a boost. Photo: Jake Adelstein

Time to do the right thing

I was able to obtain copies of the safety manual being given out to Olympic staffers.  

Athletes, coaches, officials and media associated with the Games will not be quarantined for two weeks. However, they will be confined to three areas – hotel, venue and place of practice – and will have to use Japan’s faulty contact tracing app. They will be made to sign a pledge (poorly translated from Japanese) agreeing to all the above. If they violate it, they may lose the right to participate in the Games.

This doesn’t sound like a strategy to eliminate community transmission.

On the plus side, all athletes will be tested every day – a surprise in a country that has a per-1,000 testing rate that is lower than Kazakhstan’s. But of course, athletes and Olympic cronies first!

Everyone else? You are on your own.  

Aso – the minister who asserted that Japan’s so-called victory over the novel coronavirus was due to national superiority – was right about one thing. He called the Tokyo 2020 Olympics “cursed.” 

For the sake of all the nationals who participate in the event, and all people living in Japan, it’s time to kill that curse. It is a curse brewed from greed, bribes, and hubris. 

But even now, it is not too late. Just two magic words are needed to exorcise this unnecessary evil: “Postpone,” or “Cancel.” 

So, a final question: Who in Tokyo’s corridors of power has the moral courage to speak them? 

Jake Adelstein, a long-term Tokyo resident, is an author and journalist.