Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is taking massive public flak as he presses ahead with the Summer Olympic Games. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Destiny is hurtling toward Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at a pace that is both inexorable and accelerating.

With a hugely problematic Summer Olympics just weeks away, he is making promises to speed up what has been the slowest national vaccination drive in the G7.

And it is not just health and sport where matters are coming to a head.

Currently, Japan Inc and the Japanese public are strongly against the Games. In the political sphere, Suga and his conservative Liberal Democratic Party must fight a post-Olympics general election on or before October 22.

Yet matters may not be as dire as they appear.  

Infection rates are down from their January peak and vaccinations are picking up steam. Multiple benchmarks exist to hold sporting events amid the pandemic, and only one country has so far pulled out of the Games.

And regardless of widespread public dissatisfaction with the prime minster, the ruling LDP has little to fear at the post-Games polls.

An elderly man is vaccinated in the Setagaya district of Tokyo. Photo: AFP

Upgrading vaccinations  

With the Summer Olympic Games due to kick off on 23 July, Japan – population, 126 million – plans to have administered 40 million vaccinations by the end of June, Suga told the Diet on Wednesday.

That is more than double the current number of 19,371,685,  according to Reuters world coronavirus tracker. Still, it comes amid a fall in infections. Over the last three weeks, average infection rates have dropped 53% from their peak in January.

Suga also put forward the end-game for vaccinations.

“We hope to complete all citizens who want to be vaccinated from October through November this year,” Suga said during Wednesday’s parliamentary debate.

His reference to citizens’ desire is germane. Japan, unusually in East Asia, is home to a long-held anti-vaccine belief.

Even before Suga spoke to the Diet, the speed of the national vaccination drive had been increasing, quadrupling in the last two weeks.

But despite the modest good news on the infection and vaccination fronts, Suga has to pull out all the stops to ensure that a successful – or at least, crisis-free – Games takes place.

On the surface, that looks doable.

De-risking the Olympics

Major sporting events – from wrestling extravaganzas to tennis fixtures to Olympic qualification tourneys – have taken place under strict management in Japan and around the world amid Covid-19.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s party looks set to win the next election but may dump him first. Photo: AFP / Mitsuru Tamura / The Yomiuri Shimbun

And the multinational UEFA Football Championships – which, like the Summer Olympics, were canceled in 2020 – will take place for a month from June 12. Matches will be held in 11 venues across Europe, filled to varying degrees of capacity.

Though multiple nations, particularly across the Global South, lack vaccine supplies, on May 6, Pfizer and BioTech signed an agreement with the International Olympic Committee to provide free vaccines to athletes attending the Games.

In March, it was announced that no foreign fans would be allowed into Japan as spectators. A decision has not yet been reached on whether local spectators will be permitted at venues – though Japanese sports stadiums are currently operating, albeit at reduced capacities.

Upon arrival, an estimated 100,000 Olympic visitors – athletes, coaches, officials and media – will be kept away from the general population.

From their ports of arrival, they will take sealed transport to sealed hotels, and will compete, officiate and view events in sealed venues. They will not be permitted to exit these bubbles, or to sightsee or recreate among the general populace – though they will be permitted to use bicycles.

According to the Olympic Playbook, visitors will be tested pre and post-arrival and their movements in Japan will be monitored over GPS via app. There will be a regimen of tests and temperature checks. Masks will be mandatory off the field of play.

While some individual athletes and teams have pulled out, only one country – hermetically sealed North Korea, hardly an Olympic powerhouse – has said it will not attend the Tokyo Games.

None of these steps, however, has erased public fears.

Tokyo’s famous wining, dining and shopping options will be off-limits to Olympic visitors. Photo: AFP/ Charly Triballeau

Corporate wobbles, public anger

So far, 13, 868 Japanese have died from Covid-19. In the latest wave of the crisis, medical systems have been strained in some regions to the point where people have died in their homes, unable to gain entry to hospitals.

At a time when the host city is under a state of emergency – set to be lifted on 20 June, though that is no certainty – dire headlines continue to dominate Olympic news.

The CEO of leading online distributor Rakuten called the Games “a suicide mission” in an interview with CNN. According to other news reports, multiple Olympic sponsors have hired consultants to assess the damage their brands will accrue through being attached to the event.

Meanwhile, police are investigating the death of an Olympic official who allegedly committed suicide by leaping in front of a subway train last week.

The lack of spectators means that the Games are not going to deliver the bonanza to Japan’s tourism operators – a sector heavily promoted by Suga’s predecessor, Shinzo Abe – that had been anticipated.

And the bubble conditions Olympic visitors will operate within points to something less than the joyful, carnival ambience that animated 2019’s Rugby World Cup – globally hailed as a triumph of host nation organization and host population goodwill.

Yet Tokyo has marched in lock-step with the International Olympic Committee, rather than demanding that the Games be pushed back by another year – something the IOC has insisted is not on the table.

This lack of pushback has generated some ire.

“I don’t think a European country would have tolerated a compromised Olympics,” said Tosh Minohara, a Kobe University professor.  “Who cares what is in the contract? This [pandemic] is an act of God.” The government could have used public pressure as an excuse to cancel the Games.

South African lock Eben Etzebeth holds up the Web Ellis trophy as the World Cup winning team parades in Durban. The tournament in Japan in 2019 was seen as a model event. Photo: AFP / Sbu Ndlovu

That is the economic downside. The public health downside is the fear that the Olympics could become a super-spreader event.

“I am wondering if the next Covid variant will be the Tokyo variant,” Minohara fumed.

Considerable frustration is aimed at the hapless Suga’s administration.

“I think nobody trusts the government here,” said Haruko Satoh, an academic at the University of Osaka. “If the government had had clear guide lines and policies….it seems like there is no organizational power to get things done. It is very, very upsetting.”

Still, the finger is not just pointed at the powers that be, but also at a hidebound and paper-centric civil service which has been slow to approve vaccines and poor at overseeing their administration.

“Bureaucracy is part of being Japanese, it’s part of the Japanese system,” Minohara said. “They are slow to react, they don’t like risk and they tread very cautiously. They require one doctor and two nurses to administer a shot.”

A demonstration against the Tokyo Olympics is held in front of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government on June 6. Photo: AFP / Anadolu Agency / David Mareuil

LDP fortress remains secure

A shock poll finding by the liberal Asahi Daily in May – that 80% of Japan’s population were against holding the Games this summer – was widely publicized.

But negative sentiment among a resigned public may be ameliorating – at least to a degree.

A poll this month by the conservative Yomiuri Daily found that 50% said that the event should proceed. A different survey by broadcaster TBS found that 44% were in favor – hardly a surging vote of confidence, but a nine percentage point advance over a poll the month prior.

Currently, Suga’s poll numbers are trending in the 30% approval range.  That suggests that he could be ditched by his party, but the LDP looks unassailable in the general election after the Olympics.

“The opposition is divided – that is the biggest problem,” said Satoh.  

Moreover, there remain bitter memories of the last period of opposition rule by the (then) Democratic Party of Japan, between 2009 and 2012.  

During that period, the party suffered from internal conflicts and widespread legislative ineffectiveness. And it held power when a compound catastrophe – the 2011 tsunami, earthquake and Fukushima nuclear plant shutdown – showcased its hopelessness at disaster response.

“The years that they were in power they pretty much messed everything up and in 2011 had no ability to lead whatsoever,” said Minohara. “Most ordinary Japanese have not forgotten that.”

Given this situation, “I don’t think the electoral turnout will be high, people know it is going to be the LDP,” he said. “Even if there is corruption and bribery and half the LDP politicians are idiots, it is a choice between a rotten apple and a piece of excrement.”