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As the Clock Ticks, Japanese Wonder If the Olympics Are Worth the Risk

Opponents are calling foul, but the data suggests the event can be pulled off.

Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto
Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto speaks during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games executive board meeting in Tokyo on June 8. Behrouz Mehri/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

With fewer than 50 days until the opening ceremony, doubts are spreading in Japan about whether the once-delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics should proceed as planned. Critics have dubbed it an unnecessary COVID-19 superspreader event or even a pandemic detonator. Organizers say that barring a new emergency, the games will go on with special measures to protect the health of everyone involved.

There have been a number of high-profile demands to call the whole thing off. Hiroshi Mikitani, chief executive of online retailer Rakuten Group and one of Japan’s most prominent business leaders, recently called the Tokyo Olympics a “suicide mission,” while the Asahi Shimbun newspaper said in an editorial that it was “simply beyond reason” to hold the games, a particularly embarrassing rebuke for organizers given that the newspaper company is one of the official sponsors.

The Japan Doctors Union, which represents hospital physicians, also joined in the demands. “Holding the Olympics in the current situation would be irresponsible to the athletes and would also be a threat to the people of Japan,” Naoto Ueyama, chairman of the organization, said in a late May news conference.

Even the government’s most senior medical advisor, Shigeru Omi, has expressed his concerns, telling a parliamentary committee last week that “it’s not normal to hold the Olympic Games in a situation like this.” He said if the games go ahead, organizers must be ready to isolate the visitors and be ready to deal with a potential outbreak within the Olympic village. So much for nights on the town.

For detractors, Japan has been too slow in rolling out a vaccine program for COVID-19. It is among the last of the industrialized nations to get a full-scale program up and running, with no prospect for a meaningful degree of vaccinated locals by the time the games begin. The national and local governments have been busy blaming each other for the delays, although in standard Japanese fashion, once the various centers kicked off operations, the number of daily doses administered quickly soared. The rate is currently around 650,000 a day, with a target of 1 million a day by late June.

Public opinion also seems clear. A mid-May survey by Japan’s Kyodo News found that 60 percent of respondents said the games should be cancelled. Other surveys show that around 80 percent support a cancellation or delay, even though the latter option appears impossible given the costs and myriad of issues for athletes’ planning and television schedules. Of the 80,000 Olympic volunteers, 10,000 have quit. Those that stayed on are expected to get fast-tracked for a vaccination, helping them to jump the queue.

Given the rancor, even if the games proceed, they will lack much of the feeling of international friendship and camaraderie that usually comes with the event. “The games have already lost meaning and are being held just for the sake of them,” Kaori Yamaguchi, a board member of the Japanese Olympic Committee, said in a commentary last week that added fuel to the fire. “The ‘power of sports’ is of little comfort to people worried about the medical situation and their future lives,” she wrote.

Organizers say they understand the concerns but are plowing ahead nevertheless. “I’m confident in holding the event,” Tokyo Organizing Committee President Seiko Hashimoto said in a BBC interview. “We are preparing to create a complete bubble to provide a safe and secure space for everyone from overseas, and be able to welcome everyone in Japan as well,” she said.

There is also some hope that the public mood will improve as the games come closer and Japan continues to make vaccination progress. A June 7 survey by Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun found that 50 percent would support the games going ahead if spectators were either limited or eliminated completely. A similar survey a month before found just 39 percent favored the idea.

The organizers have also been positioning the event to focus on the actual competition, instead of the pomp and ceremony, in what they see as a lower-key event. Back in December, when calls to cancel or again postpone the games started to gather steam, Organizing Committee Sports Director Mikako Kotani said that they were working toward a “simplified games.” The focus, she said, was that “as long as the stage and environment for the sports competitions can be secured, the quality will not change, and the games will shine.”

One veteran Olympic official said that some of the calls to cancel are the equivalent of opening-night jitters as the games approach.

“People get spooked around Olympic time,” former International Olympic Committee (IOC) Vice President Dick Pound said in an interview with Reuters, citing concerns about smog in Los Angeles during the 1984 games and the Zika virus outbreak around the time of the Rio de Janeiro games in 2016. “The government and public health authorities are in constant contact, as are we at the IOC, and the science-based conclusions are all of this can happen without any significant risk,” he said.

Much of the data appears to bear out this rosier view. International media reports often note that Tokyo and nine other prefectures in Japan are currently under a state of emergency. They don’t usually explain what this means, which in reality is relatively little. The main feature is a curfew for restaurants of 8 p.m. and a ban on serving alcohol (liquor stores are still open, of course). Among other measures, large-scale venues were told to restrict crowds.

These limited measures have been enough to bring down new cases from their recent high in most parts of the country. For Tokyo, after peaking in the latest wave at 1,121 new cases on May 8, the rate has fallen to around 400 on a daily basis. Japan has avoided the worst-case outcomes throughout most of the pandemic—for somewhat unclear reasons. The all-time high in daily cases for the capital city was 2,520 on Jan. 7, a time when New York had more than 16,000 new cases daily.

Data compiled by The Economist meanwhile shows that Japan has been healthier overall during the pandemic. From January 2020 through February 2021, there were 7,880 COVID-19 deaths, but within this the overall number of deaths actually fell by 11,280. The working assumption is that other sources of mortality, such as those due to conventional influenza, declined as people wore masks and took other health precautions. This represents a reduction of 9 deaths per 100,000 people in the period from the standard rate of recent years. For the United States, the comparable figure is plus 182.

The overall impact of the Olympics is also more limited than for smaller urban areas. Organizers estimated that around 15,000 athletes and another 90,000 other people are expected to come for the games. The Tokyo metropolitan area is home to around 37 million people, with an estimated 5.5 million still using public transport every day to get to work, despite the wider introduction of teleworking. The Olympians and various officials on the move during the two weeks of the games will hardly make a dent in the bigger picture.

A study by economists from the University of Tokyo ran a simulation of the potential health risks. Using data on the number of Olympic-related visitors from overseas, Japan’s current vaccination rate of around 600,000 daily and the current rates of infection, they predicted that holding the games would mean just 15 additional cases each day. But the researchers noted that this did not take into account a fresh assault from a new highly infectious strain of the virus, which is exactly the fear of critics such as Ueyama of the Japan Doctors Union. He said that the mingling of people from around the world could lead to a new version of the virus that would be known as the “Tokyo Olympic Strain.” That, he said “would be a tragedy for a hundred years.”

At this stage, however, even some critics say that the games are probably unstoppable, due in no small part to the sizable financial commitments in place, including television rights to the event. The Nomura Research Institute estimated that cancelling both the Olympics and Paralympics would mean a total financial cost of around $17 billion for Japan.

But what will they look like? Foreign spectators have already been banned, while a decision is due soon on whether there will be limits or a total ban on local spectators. This would mean an Olympics that would be bereft of most of the spectacle but otherwise, for the millions who watch on TV, things may look about the same as the usual Olympics. Tokyo and the IOC probably see that as a gold medal performance.

Kathleen Benoza contributed reporting to this story.

William Sposato is a Tokyo-based writer who has been following Japan’s politics and economics for more than 20 years. He previously worked at Reuters and The Wall Street Journal.