Mount Fuji, Japan's highest mountain, seen from Lake Yamanaka, next to a Tokyo 2020 Olympics banner. Photo: AFP / Charly Triballeau

It was always going to be a tough, tough call.

The risk-averse option facing Tokyo was, “Please your domestic population, breach a contract with the international sporting community, and kill off Tokyo 2020.”

The damn-the-torpedoes option was, “Hold the Olympics without any chance of an economic windfall, and at massive risk to both the domestic populace and Japan’s global image – but honor the contract.”

To its great credit or grave discredit – which will be judged by posterity – Tokyo took the second path.

That necessitated a massive scale-down in expectations: “Sorry, service-sector players: There will be no incoming spectators, hence no financial bonanza.”

But it also necessitated a massive scale-up in bureaucratic machinery – “Sorry, those of you who do come, the restrictions you face will be onerous – very, very onerous.”

As one of those who has been subject to it, I can report my experience of what it is like to enter something previously unknown in human history: An “Olympic Bubble.”

Into the sausage grinder

For Tokyo 2020 – though it is taking place in 2021, the original brand is being maintained for the benefit of merchandisers – Narita Airport is the key port of entry. Here, one disembarks from one’s aircraft, and enters a sausage grinder of document checking, testing, accreditation, immigration formalities and much more.

I had heard from colleagues who had arrived on previous days of people and groups spending six, eight, even 12 hours getting processed. 

How bad could it be? On the one hand: Very.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga promised, during last year’s party leadership race, that he would take a sharp katana to Japan’s bureaucracy. If Narita is any indication, his drive has failed.

At station after station, one is asked to present the same materials  – passport, Olympic accreditation, QR code, downloaded apps, pre-departure Covid test certificates – again and again. Surely it would be simpler, more efficient and less time-consuming to have different stations specialize in processing these different materials, one by one? 

Overlap in documentation is considerable. This traveler was required to carry with him not one, not two, but three written pledges – one pre-arrival, one handed out on the plane, and on handed out at the immigration concourse – agreeing to abide by the rules.

The fact that one is required to present both old-school paperwork and new-school digital documentation generates a further irritation. 

As one navigates the Narita obstacle course, one enters and leaves multiple Wi-Fi hotspots. This means one is signing up for Wi-Fi again and again as the previous connection fades out behind. I got through four, though according to my smartphone, there are 19.

Naturally, errors occur. One volunteer dropped two immigration forms while handling my vast pile of documents. Fortunately, a colleague spotted them, and they were retrieved from the floor. (And I, from probable disaster.)

Moreover, the course that one follows through this Kafkaesque maze crisscrossed itself twice. (Or was it three times?) One group of several travelers was sent down the wrong escalator; after horrified consultation on the sidelines, a harried-looking volunteer hurried after them to bring them back on course.  

And yes, it is brutally time-consuming. After making landfall at Narita at 13:30, this traveler arrived in his hotel at 20:00.  

Given that all restaurants in Tokyo are required, under Covid guidelines, to close at that time, dinner took the form of a tub of ramen and a can of Sapporo from the hotel’s convenience store.

And if you think that – once you have been admitted and accredited, stamped, sealed and saliva-tested – your registrations are over, well, think again, Gaijin-san.

There are yet further requirements when it comes to daily spit testing, venue entry and professional activities therein, all requiring online registration. (On my second day in-country: four separate processes.)

I would love to see a visual map of how all these working parts fit together. I have no idea how well – or even if – the components of this sprawling and complex bureaucratic web are woven together, and how communications work.

Does any brain know what the various arms and legs, finger and toes, are doing? Can the periphery report to the center?

Search me. Complicating  matters yet further: Japan’s bureaucracy is obviously interfacing with the IOC bureaucracy.

So, the downside: An endless smorgasbord of onerous demands, burdensome digital requirements and piles of paperwork. It generates an inevitable combination of irritation, inconvenience and stress, while consuming many irretrievable hours of human life.

But on the upside: Tokyo 2020 is doing Japan proud.

The Japan that can say ‘Yes’

However burdensome the various processes are, all the local staff and volunteers – all masked up, and many part-dressed in bio-hazard suits – are the personification of calmness and friendliness. 

This does not change when one leaves the airport and gets to the transit station, or arrives at one’s hotel and visits venues. The volunteers and government officials – all dressed identically in branded T-shirts – as well as the camouflaged Self-Defense Forces personnel handling security – are unfailingly polite and pleasant.

The Olympic enablers span a wide range of ages, from attractive maidens to cheery aunties and uncles. English is spoken at a range of skill levels. All evidence a kindly “Where are you from?” curiosity.

They have a hell of a job to do, but all manage to stay upbeat in the face of visitors who are tired, irked and, in a couple of cases, clearly disgruntled.  

In return, I saw a lot of kindness – “Do you want to try Japanese chocolate?” “It’s OK, let me walk out and show you the way, it will only take me 15 minutes” – some humor and an overall desire to help.

Not once did I see a flicker of frustration cross a single Japanese visage. Either these citizens are putting on a brilliant front, or press reports that the average Japanese is furiously opposed to this event are off-base.

This is impressive.

Another impressive facet is the apparent lack of oversight. Japan, it appears, has decided to take its foreign visitors at their words.

Let me explain. Those who come to Japan exclusively for the Olympics do not face the customary 14-day quarantine. However, they are ordered not to leave the Bubble: They can move, in special transport, between airport, hotel and venue, but must not enter the broader economy.

I am sure Japan could deploy enough personnel – military, police or private security – to surround both the hotels and venues with a ring of steel. But it is not.

If I wanted to walk out of my hotel and escape into the multiple delights of Tokyo – the saunas and sake bars, the nightlife zones and shopping districts, the shrines and museums  – I am pretty sure I could.  (In fact, I have heard from colleagues – especially Asians, who do not stand out – that this is very doable.)

A visitor’s verdict

So there you have it. Japan is taking on an unprecedented task in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. It is writing the playbook as it goes along, which is why the processing and systemization are on an unprecedented scale.

And all this in order to keep intact a promise made to the Olympic family.

To me, that is conscientious behavior – particularly as, according to poll findings, the average Hideki and Keiko are unhappy with these “cursed” Olympics. A government facing elections in September or October is taking a huge political risk.

Japan is definitely losing money, and could find its international reputation in tatters if this unprecedented undertaking leads to disaster. (An outcome that a multitude of pundits and naysayers actually seem eager to see eventuate, if only to prove themselves right.)

So who are the winners? Take my word for one thing.

Many Olympic athletes struggle mightily in sporting fields that offer a tiny fraction of the money and fame that professional sportspersons can command. They are in it for love of the game. For them, the chance to compete in, and maybe medal at, the Olympics is their raison d’être.

I personally know of a number who were dismayed and deeply depressed at the one-year delay to the Summer Olympics. For them, an all-out cancellation would have been soul-crushing.

So what is my verdict?

In my life experience thus far, I can’t remember ever being so irked by so many processes – yet so charmed by those who carried them out.

Banzai, Tokyo 2020!

The report above is from a non-Japanese person known to Asia Times who recently arrived in Japan to attend the Olympic Games and submitted the piece on condition of anonymity. Mike McKnight is a pseudonym.