A five-ring Olympic emblem in front of National Stadium in Tokyo on May 30. The Tokyo Olympics, which would be held in 2020, has been postponed to 2021 due to Covid-19. It starts July 23. Photo: AFP / Norikazu Tateishi / The Yomiuri Shimbun

Despite widespread concern about Tokyo 2020 becoming a superspreader event and polls showing that up to 80% of the Japanese public opposes the Games, the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics will open on July 23 after a one-year postponement. 

And notwithstanding the overwhelmingly negative headlines, a June 4–6 poll by the Yomiuri Shimbun shows that there are signs that opposition to the Games is decreasing, with 50% saying that the event should go ahead in July.  

Whether it be the billions at stake in infrastructure investments and broadcasting revenue, or a one-sided host-city contract favoring the International Olympics Committee, or paralysis and lack of leadership in Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party under Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, there is just too much momentum and too much need for face-saving to cancel the Games.

Another postponement is a non-starter. Thus, despite the public opposition and despite the Japanese medical establishment’s concern about a potential Tokyo Olympic virus strain and an over-extended medical system, the proverbial show – albeit devoid of the usual Olympic pomp and circumstance – will go on.

Much of the Japanese public’s resentment is due to supercilious and insensitive comments by IOC members and frustration at the slow response of the Japanese government in dealing with Covid-19, with most of the country remaining under a state of emergency until June 20.

IOC Vice President John Coates arrogantly pronounced that Tokyo 2020 would go ahead even if Japan was under a state of emergency. Dick Pound, the IOC’s longest serving member, stated that opposition to the Games was political posturing, and that only an “Armageddon” would cancel the Games. One Japanese weekly magazine even reported that Pound said that the Games would go on even if Prime Minister Suga wanted them canceled.

Mascot of Tokyo Olympics Miraitowa is drawn on a wall of a venue for vaccination in Tsukiji, Tokyo, on June 8. Photo: AFP / Ichiro Ohara / The Yomiuri Shimbun

Kaori Yamaguchi, a Japanese Olympic Committee board member and former Olympian, blasted the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (TOCOG) and the Japanese government for ignoring public concerns about holding the Olympics during a global pandemic. 

She went on to say, acerbically, “I believe we have already missed the opportunity to cancel. We have been cornered into a situation where we cannot even stop now.”

The cherry on top of these perceived insults was IOC President Thomas Bach’s comments during an online Athletes’ Commission meeting that athletes should travel to Tokyo “with full confidence that the 2020 Games will be safe for competitors and not jeopardize the health of the Japanese people.” 

This comment followed an earlier gaffe by Bach when he said, “The athletes definitely can make their Olympic dreams come true. We have to make some sacrifices to make this possible.” The Japanese media equated sacrifices with potential Japanese deaths.

Many Japanese media outlets carried reports of the “royal” status Bach and other senior IOC and sports officials would enjoy during their time in Japan, detailing that Japanese taxpayers would foot the bill for hotel suites and other luxuries the IOC required in the host city contract. 

This tone deafness and arrogance, appearing during a pandemic when many are suffering economically and emotionally, certainly has not removed from people’s minds the IOC’s reputation as an entitled aristocratic institution. 

A recent poll by the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun has also shown falling support for Suga’s government, with his approval rating falling from 43% to 37%, while the government’s disapproval rating has gone from 46% to 50%. The poll also showed the public’s dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the pandemic, with 68% expressing disapproval.

‘Suga stop!’ reads a poster as people stage a demonstration against the Tokyo Olympics in front of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in Tokyo, on June 6. Photo: AFP / David Mareuil / Anadolu Agency

This lack of confidence in the government naturally translates into disapproval of the Olympics, and Suga and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party will most likely suffer at the polls in the upcoming election in the fall.

As a Japanese contact at a sponsor for The Olympic Partner (TOP) program recently remarked to me, “the Olympics is not in a positive phase in Japanese society.”

In the public eye, the Games symbolize the mistrust aroused by the government, “whose strategy is unclear and actions tend to be always behind, especially related to Covid-19.”

The Financial Times reported on June 4t that several of the 47 domestic Japanese sponsors have proposed to TOCOG to further postpone Tokyo 2020, as they are frustrated at the diminishing value of their sponsorships and the lack of spectators who will be allowed to attend the Games. 

“I’m worried that by airing Olympic ads, it could be negative for the company,” said a source at a domestic sponsor. “At this point, no amount of publicity we could get would make up for what we paid.”

TOCOG denied that it had received any such proposal, but the uncertainty has undeniably led to headaches in corporate boardrooms and for sponsor hospitality and marketing managers.

Even mainstream corporate Japan has uncharacteristically expressed doubts, with Toyota Operating Officer, Jun Nagata saying saying that Toyota was deeply concerned by reports that athletes have become the target of some people’s frustrations. “We have been working to identify what we can do as a sponsor to help that situation because we are really concerned with the situation as a top sponsor,” he told CNN.

While there is no chance of these companies being successful in causing any sort of postponement, it is a sad comment on the state of Olympic sponsorship not only for Tokyo 2020 but also for Beijing 2022, as sponsors are concerned that they will be caught up in the negative publicity surrounding Tokyo 2020 and the boycott calls for Beijing 2022.

Despite all of this negativity, however, two recent polls have shown that the Japanese public’s opposition to holding the Tokyo Olympics may be weakening, as athletes begin to arrive and the pace of vaccinations starts to pick up.

A June 4–6 poll of 1,070 people by the conservative Yomiuri newspaper found 50% of respondents saying the event should go ahead in July, a rise from 39% in a similar survey carried out by the paper in early May. 

Japanese artistic gymnast Kohei Uchimura, an Olympic two-time all-round gold medalist, secured a spot for the Tokyo Olympics as horizontal bar representative. Photo: AFP / Kunihiko Miura / The Yomiuri Shimbun

Yomiuri asked respondents to choose from three choices concerning the Olympics: 1. The Olympics should be held but spectators should be limited; 2. The Olympics should be held but spectators should not be allowed; 3. The Olympics should be canceled. Twenty-four percent chose answer 1 while 26% chose answer 2 (for a total of 50%), while 48% said that the Olympics should be canceled.  2% did  not respond.

A separate survey by broadcaster TBS found 44% saying Tokyo 2020 should go ahead in some form, up 9 percentage points on last month.

And while a majority of those polled were still in favor of cancelation (31%) or postponement (24%), these numbers were still much lower than the 80% total negative figure bandied about in polls taken just a few weeks earlier.

After some false starts, Japan’s much-delayed vaccine rollout is finally picking up.  The seven-day average of doses has quadrupled in just two weeks to about 500,000 per day, with about a quarter of the nearly 18 million shots given coming in the past two weeks alone.

Approximately 15% of Japan’s population has received at least one dose, and Prime Minister Suga has called for up to 1 million doses to be administered nationwide each day after mid-June and vaccinations of people aged 65 and over to be completed by the end of July.

Despite all of the doom and gloom, the Covid-19 situation in Japan has been improving, with the average number of new infections falling by 3,500 over the last 3 weeks. This is 48% of the previous peak and falling.  Average new infections are now around 2,200, 65% of from the peak of January. 

There have been about 760,000 infections and more than 13,500 coronavirus-related deaths reported in Japan since the pandemic began.

Seiko Hashimoto (right), president of Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games and director-general Toshiro Muto. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun / Pool

The Australian women’s softball team landed in Japan on June 1, becoming the first group of athletes to arrive for a pre-Olympic training camp. All members of the delegation, who had received Covid-19 vaccinations, tested negative for the virus at Narita airport, according to Japanese health authorities, before heading to their training camp by chartered bus.

They will be subject to daily PCR tests and will be confined to three floors of their hotel in Ota City, according to an article in the New York TimesThey will use a dedicated elevator, eat in their own dining room, and are not allowed to visit local bars, restaurants or tourist spots. 

And while the US track and field team and other teams have canceled their early arrival and training plans in Japan, a steady stream of other athletes and Olympic-related staff has started to arrive

Regrettably, the athletes will lose out on experiencing Japanese culture and hospitality due to their just-in-time arrivals, but that is a small price to ensure the health and safety of all of those involved.  Most of the athletes are expected to arrive in July.  With some exceptions, most athletes are encouraged to arrive only 5 days before their first day of competition and to leave the Olympic Village 48 hours after their last competition

Originally, approximately 600,000 foreign visitors were expected to attend Tokyo 2020, and Japan had hoped for a record 40 million overseas visitors in 2020.  While the IOC and broadcasters are still hoping for a robust international viewing audience, it is almost certain that only those living in Japan will be able to see the Games in person. 

Japan has postponed a decision to set the number of domestic spectators until the end of June, and will decide capacity on a venue-by-venue basis.  One possibility is that venues will be limited to half capacity or a maximum of 20,000 spectators, a practice that has become common in Japanese professional baseball and soccer leagues. 

While there has been an uptick in demonstrations in Tokyo against the Games, the protests have been small-scale (under 100 people) and confined to local anti-Olympic groups such HanGorin No Kai and 2020 Olympics Disaster.

These groups do have international links. However, since international NGOs and Olympic protest groups will be precluded from visiting Japan due to Covid restrictions, the locals will not be able to leverage the organizing skills and media networks of more savvy international anti-Olympic activist groups to make a large impact. 

There was also a “Stop Tokyo Olympics” petition that got more than 350,000 signatures that was submitted to TOCOG and Tokyo Governor Koike. The petition was symbolic of the frustration of the Japanese people with the government’s lackadaisical handling of the pandemic, but did not have any material effect.

People demonstrate against the Tokyo Olympics in front of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in Tokyo, Japan on June 6. Photo: AFP / David Mareuil / Anadolu Agency

Regardless, international media will be on hand, and we expect these groups to receive attention from international media looking for “juicy” stories.

Most of the anger of these protest groups is against the Japanese government, and has focused on the diversion of resources away from the recovery effort responding to the March 2011 Fukushima earthquake. They are also vocal regarding marginalized communities that have been displaced due to Olympic construction and gentrification efforts.

On the international scene, Jules Boykoff, a former US under-23 Olympic soccer player and a professor at Pacific University in Portland, Oregon, has written several scathing op-eds in the New York Times, Washington Post and other publications, and has been a prominent critic on the BBC, CNBC, and in Japanese news outlets. 

His May 11, 2021, New York Times op-ed carries the headline: “A Sports Event Shouldn’t Be a Superspreader. Cancel the Olympics.” It is a scathing criticism of the IOC, saying that there are only three reasons that the Olympics will be held in Tokyo – money, money and money. He also lambasts the Olympics for causing the militarization of the police, leaving the host city with piles of debt, and causing the dislocation of vulnerable communities.

In the end, despite an abundance of negative news and calls for the postponement or cancelation of the Olympics by international activist groups and Japanese domestic stakeholders, the Tokyo 2020 Games will open at the National Stadium on July 23. 

Despite the best precautions, cases of Covid-19 will inevitably be found among some athletes and officials. (A Ghanaian soccer athlete tested positive on arrival in Japan despite a negative test upon departing from Ghana.) Any such positive tests will be put under the microscope by the international and Japanese press, and could cause emotional and political decisions to be made that could lead to cancelations or postponement of events during the Games. 

With luck, rigorous testing regimes and tracking efforts will be able to identify and isolate any cases, preventing any widespread transmission.

In the optimistic scenario, despite the widespread opposition to the Games among the Japanese populace, omotenashi – the Japanese tradition of wholeheartedly looking after guests – will ultimately prevail and athletes and anyone else attending the Games will be duly impressed with Japanese culture and hospitality.

Howard Snyder is currently Asia project manager for TorchStone Global, a boutique US security firm. He was security manager for a TOP sponsor at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games and the 2008 Beijing Summer Games, and has lived in Asia for over 30 years. He speaks fluent Chinese and Japanese.