England fans celebrate as a goal goes in, but there'll be no crowds cheering gold medal winners at the Tokyo Olympics. Photo: AFP

It is a tale of two cities, a tale of two sporting fixtures and a tale of two pandemics. And quite possibly, a tale of two cultures.

English football fans were delirious with delight on Wednesday after their team knocked out Denmark with a 2-1 victory to advance to the finals of the UEFA European Championship. Maskless fans danced on the roofs of buses and flooded into Trafalgar Square to celebrate the national squad’s best result since their World Cup win in 1966.

But while English fans anticipated yet more mania at the final against Italy at London’s Wembley Stadium on Sunday, Tokyo’s citizens were in a somber mood the following day.

In Tokyo on Thursday, stoicism was the norm as the city recorded 896 new Covid-19 infections only 15 days before it fires the starter pistol on what will be a uniquely glum Olympic Games.

The Olympic host city’s seven-day rolling average of daily infections is 631.7. Any number above 500 is the worst level on the government’s four-point scale.

Late on Thursday afternoon, as had been widely anticipated, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared a state of emergency. It takes effect from next Monday and prevails through to August 22, covering the entire Olympic period from July 23 to August 8.

It is the weary metropolis’ fourth such emergency since the start of the pandemic in 2020. Among other measures, it means restaurants in a city famed for its dining and drinking culture are prohibited from selling alcohol and must close at 8pm.

Still, Tokyo’s cautious approach may be merited, given that Japan has weathered the coronavirus storm at a lesser cost than other G7 nations.

Japan – population 126 million – has suffered a far lower body count than the UK, with its population of 66 million. According to Statista, the Asian nation has suffered 14,848 dead, compared with the UK’s staggering 128,037.

According to the same data, Japan suffered 10,051 cases in the last seven days and 94 deaths, while the UK recorded 161,886 cases and 139 deaths.

All indications – from pronouncements by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the easing of Covid restrictions earlier this week to the maskless crowds celebrating in the streets on Wednesday – are that the UK believes the worst is behind it.

What explains this blasé, even exuberant, British attitude, as opposed to Japan’s conservatism? Do different degrees of risk tolerance divide the two societies? Or are other factors at play?

There is little passion, and much concern, surrounding the imminent Tokyo Summer Olympics. Photo: AFP / Norikazu Tateishi / The Yomiuri Shimbun

Different approaches

Pundits pointed to several issues that divide two nations which are, in some ways, mirror images of each other in different hemispheres.

While enraptured Brits celebrated a very rare win in their national sport – a sport they rarely excel at internationally – Japan’s attitudes toward the Olympics are far from passionate. In fact, while different polls have come up with different findings, what is clear is that there is considerable anti-Olympic sentiment in play.

“The only passion here is passionate anger that they are going to hold the Games,” said Jake Adelstein, a long-term US expatriate who has written a number of books about Japan.

Timing is another relevant issue.

“For us, the outdoor season is the cherry blossoms, and that was in April,” Haruko Satoh, an Osaka-based academic who grew up in the UK, told Asia Times. “But the sporting and outdoor season in the UK – football, cricket, Wimbledon – is the summer.”

Then there are different cultural norms when it comes to letting off steam.  

“Japanese go to karaoke boxes to make a noise, while Brits go to pubs and drink on the streets,” Satoh mused. “That style of leisure might have something to do with it.”

But above all, the two populations have had very different experiences with Covid-19.

“Here, we had no hard lockdowns, whereas in the UK, the lockdowns were real,” she said. “We have been in low-simmer mode, letting out steam bit by bit – we have not had to be that explosive.”

It is not just containment strategies that divide the two countries. They have also taken different approaches to vaccinations.

While a carnage-wracked London plunged into an emergency vaccination program as soon as vaccines came online, the more cautious, less impacted Tokyo proceeded at a more moderate pace.  

According to research site Our World in Data, in the UK, 79.3 million vaccine doses have been administered, and 33.9 million people, or 50.8% of the population, are fully vaccinated.

In Japan, the picture is less rosy with 52.6 million jabs having been given, with the result that only 19.1 million, or 15.2% of the population, is fully vaccinated.

Welcome to misery city

While Europeans have been basking in the joy of the beautiful game, IOC officials mull the prospect of a distinctly unjoyous Olympics. International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, who has arrived in Tokyo, is reportedly set to join imminent discussions over whether spectators will be allowed in stadia.

Still, gloomy conditions in the host city will – remarkably – be almost irrelevant to these Olympics. Tokyo 2020 is going to enjoy little, if any, of the global carnival ambiance that customarily animates the Summer Games.

Tokyo’s famous Ginza district will, sadly, not be welcoming Olympic visitors. Photo: AFP

No foreign fans have been allowed in. Those Olympic visitors who do arrive from overseas will essentially only be able to see Tokyo from their hotel windows.

All incoming athletes, coaching staff, officials and media will be strictly confined to a bubble. That bubble will surround them from the moment they step onto Japanese soil to the moment they depart.

Monitored by apps they will be required to download pre-arrival, and under strict instructions to refrain from physical greetings, they will use exclusively sealed transport and stay at exclusively assigned accommodation. Virtually the only locations they will be permitted to visit will be the venues where events take place.  

All this means that they will not – unless they have undertaken a full, two-week quarantine – be allowed to take public transport in Tokyo, let alone go shopping, dining, drinking, clubbing, sightseeing or merry-making in the city.

“It is going to be a misery for everyone, and there will be an uproar because the Japanese measures are so draconian,” Adelstein predicted. “Journalists and other people coming in are already turning up on Tinder – but how are they going to be screwing in a bubble?”

The bubble concept is being taken super seriously by many visitors.

Asia Times has learned that some South Korean officials have been issued with portable ramen cookers for the Games – so they can prepare lunches and dinners in their rooms in hotels where the restaurants only serve breakfast.

As matters stand, Japanese authorities know that the economic bonanza and global brand upgrade they had hoped for prior to Covid changing the game is long lost. Now Tokyo is primed to motor grimly ahead and get it all over and done with.

But however carefully managed, major risks still hang over the event.

“Maybe we will be really lucky and no competitors will die of heat stroke, and there won’t be an outbreak in the Athletes Village,” said Adelstein. “But if the new Covid variants show up in Japan any time now, everybody is going to blame the Olympics.”