Five-ring Circus

The Tokyo Olympics Were Always Cursed

For those of us in Japan, it’s not just COVID that’s darkened vibes around the Games.

The Olympic rings as "do not enter" signs.
The 2020 spirit. Illustration by Slate.

It’s a hot and muggy summer in Tokyo.

Crowds swarm outside the limited number of bars and restaurants that are still open during the city’s latest pandemic state of emergency. People are rushing to get in their orders before the mandated closing time of 8:00 p.m. COVID infections in Tokyo started going up again seemingly seconds after the third state of emergency expired on June 22. Three weeks later, Tokyo’s government announced a fourth.

Seventeen percent of the population in Japan is fully vaccinated. Supply delays have forced local governments to suspend vaccine appointments. Strict border closures have separated loved ones and prevented even those with newly issued visas to come work or study. But the Olympics will go on: A limited number of Olympic staff and athletes have been allowed to enter the country, on the condition that they quarantine under location-tracked supervision in their hotels for 14 days after their arrival in Japan. Spectators will no longer be able to attend any Olympic events. Worst of all? The athletes don’t even get free condoms to use during the Olympics. Yes—everything is unfolding exactly as planned for the Tokyo Olympics.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

I live in Nagoya, a large city 200 miles away from Tokyo. COVID is a little more virulent in the capital than it is here; on the eve of the Games, we’re just starting to see the light of day. The state of emergency here ended on July 11, and restaurants are inching their closing times later and later. Some of my more cautious acquaintances are starting to get out. The elderly are getting vaccinated in droves at local ward offices, and vouchers for the rest of us are supposed to arrive in early August.

Under different circumstances, the Olympics could have been a celebration of overcoming the coronavirus. It didn’t happen. And after two years of reporting on the Olympics, I’m not grateful that these Games are about to come at all. Most people living here aren’t, either. According to polls, the majority of Japanese have been opposed to this whole damn thing for more than a year.

Advertisement

This isn’t the first time an Olympics in Tokyo has struggled to get off the ground. Japan won the bid for the eventually-canceled 1940 Games after treating the president of the International Olympic Committee to an all-expenses-paid 20-day trip to Japan, and swinging a backdoor deal with Benito Mussolini. But Japan withdrew after its costly and violent invasion of China forced domestic austerity measures. Then in 1964, the Tokyo Olympics were considered cursed, due to Olympic construction taking place on land—much of it reportedly haunted—that belonged to the Tokugawa clan, the rulers of Japan during the Edo Period.

Advertisement

If that history doesn’t make these Tokyo Olympics cursed, what about the discovery of the bones from 187 human skeletons at the construction site of the city’s new Olympic stadium?

Advertisement

The deeper you dig, the more troubling premonitions you find. The Japanese government repeatedly promised the 2020 Olympics as a “recovery games” that would mark the symbolic completion of recovery from the 2011 East Japan earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster. But as recently as 2019, high radiation levels and open fields filled with piles of toxic soil were reported in Fukushima prefecture, and radiation hotspots were found near the Fukushima Olympic site. Contrary to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s famous 2013 remarks, Fukushima was not “under control” then, nor is it now. (Most recently: radioactive pig-boars.)

The 2011 disaster caused nearly 16,000 deaths and created more than 300,000 refugees—and the government’s enthusiasm to declare that everything is fine inspired prominent anti-Olympics organizations in Japan, including the Tokyo-based “No Thanks, Olympics.” One of Japanese activists’ main talking points is that the government didn’t do nearly enough to help the affected, and instead has invested billions and billions of dollars in a sporting event.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Another major talking point from the government about the Tokyo Olympics was omotenashi, a Japanese word meaning hospitality. In the aftermath of Fukushima, the Japanese government set—and in the run-up to the Games, had already met—ambitious tourism targets to help spur the domestic economy and open up Japan to the rest of the world. The 2010s saw the government create several new avenues for skilled immigrants to come live in Japan and help combat the nation’s labor shortage. By 2019, a record number of foreign nationals lived in Japan. With the Olympics literally putting Japan on the world stage, leadership presented the Games as an opportunity to showcase the nation’s newfound global savvy and launch Japan into a new era of welcoming outsiders.

Advertisement

But the pandemic made it impossible for the government to walk the omotenashi walk. In mid-March 2020, Japan’s borders closed to non-Japanese citizens—which excluded Japan’s foreign resident population of nearly 3 million from entering or reentering the country and suspended new visas for new students and hires. The Japanese government went on to change this rule for foreign residents, who are now able to return, but the nation by and large is still not accepting new residents. In some areas, foreign residents were sent vaccine vouchers after Japanese residents, and restaurants banned non-Japanese patrons. Earlier this month, Japan requested that France, Italy, and Greece begin accepting vaccine passports from Japanese travelers—while having no plans to reciprocally accept vaccine passports from them or any other nations.

Advertisement
Advertisement

The upshot of all this has been that the planned Hospitality Olympics are instead landing as an operation to allow in only a selection of elite visitors under prohibitive circumstances—an event being imposed upon a home population that does not want it and is not even welcome to watch the Games in person.

It didn’t have to be this way. After the decision to postpone the 2020 Olympics last March, the Japanese government and the I.O.C. had a year to suppress the virus and make the Games a success. But a combination of logistical issues and Japan’s insistence on conducting its own trials for vaccines like Pfizer’s, even after they had already proved effective elsewhere, doomed a timely vaccination schedule. 2020’s coronavirus waves—which were mild compared to those in many Western countries—may have also had the unintended consequences of normalizing half-hearted measures. Political leaders’ strategy, primarily, was to recommend earlier closing hours for businesses rather than shutting things down wholesale; it was not sufficient. An estimated 30-plus percent of COVID infections in Tokyo are caused by the highly contagious Delta variant, and overall infection rates are on the rise again in the city, a week out from the Opening Ceremonies. But I can’t say it’s surprising the Olympics are a go amid a state of emergency. The majority of people I know here have continued to work at the office.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

It’s not just COVID that’s darkened vibes around the Games. My reporting has also taught me too much about Olympic destruction to be appreciative of the imminent athletic-prowess extravaganza. Anti-Olympics activists continue to point to charges of bribery, overly expensive construction sites, and the degradation of the environment. The Games are planned during the hottest part of the Japanese summer, which due to climate change, has been deadly in several recent years. Unreasonably fast construction schedules in brutal heatwaves already resulted in the death of a construction worker. It’s almost too painful to think that all this costly construction, created to host crowds, will now sit nearly empty for the duration of the Games.

On top of that, hundreds of families were evicted from their homes for Olympic building projects, and homeless people were expelled from Meiji Park. One man, Kohei Jinno, who was evicted from public housing for Olympic construction had previously been evicted for construction ahead of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, too. Jinno, like all the other evicted residents, was not consulted before being forced out; he received about $1,500 for the move.

As a resident here, my heart sinks at imagining what nearly $30 billion—the estimated cost of the Olympics, which has fallen largely on Tokyo taxpayers—could have done to invest in a more sustainable, welcoming, vaccinated city for all residents. Instead, Tokyoites experienced a decade of broken promises, corporate profit-grabbing, and a virus that will prevent even local residents from experiencing the magic of the Games in their city. It’s tough to be hospitable when so much of the entire population is simmering with dread and resentment about everything that led to this point.

Advertisement