Less than six months to the start of the postponed Summer Olympics, Tokyo finds itself in its second state of emergency in the past 10 months.
Life, though, remains remarkably normal for most residents.
Businesses and schools are open, athletic clubs are operating, trains are running and restaurants are conducting business daily (though they are requested to close at 8 p.m.). This emergency is far less strict than the first, which ran from April 7 to May 25 last year. The current emergency is slated to end on Feb. 7, though it might be extended until the end of the month.
The contradiction between appearance and reality were visible recently on an afternoon in Yokohama, where diners at a restaurant could look out the window and see the roller-coaster and carousel at a local amusement park operating on a sunny afternoon.
Since the second emergency, which included the prefectures of Tokyo, Kanagawa Saitama and Chiba, began on Jan. 8, the number of new COVID-19 cases in the greater metropolitan Tokyo area has dipped below 1,000 per day. They were twice that at the beginning of the year.
Japan Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who has been on the job for just a few months, is trying to balance criticism from those who say his administration is not doing enough to prevent new infections during the pandemic, while also trying to keep the Tokyo Olympics on track for their scheduled opening on July 23.
This week, the International Olympic Committee released its “playbooks” for how the Tokyo Olympics might operate, with guidelines on testing and vaccinations.
WATCH | Olympic Playbooks explained:
Pandemic fatigue is increasing with each passing month. Suicides among young women increased in Japan in 2020, with experts saying that being cut off from spending time with their friends was a big contributor to the rise.
At the outset of this second state of emergency, national broadcaster NHK was running continuous graphics about it in an attempt to influence people from leaving home unnecessarily. Terrestrial television still retains significant influence in Japan, but after so many months of dealing with the pandemic, it is unclear how many are actually heeding the suggestion.
The story about the possible cancellation of the Olympics by the Times of London in January rattled the nerves of athletes and officials outside of Japan, but had little impact within the country. Suga’s cabinet and Tokyo Olympics organizers both quickly dismissed the possibility and said plans were moving full steam ahead for the Games, despite public opinion polls showing a large majority want them postponed or cancelled.
But it seems there is just too much money on the line for that to happen. The Japanese government is estimated to have spent $23 billion US of taxpayer money preparing for the Games, and the International Olympic Committee, the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee and TV rights holders have huge financial stakes in the Games going forward.
That being said, as the big extravaganza draws nearer, the likelihood that full venues will be the norm is hard to envision. The reality is that reduced capacity at stadiums and arenas is more likely. In a worst-case scenario, the Olympics could be staged with no spectators, essentially becoming a TV-only event.
The Japanese government is not expected to begin vaccinating the general public for COVID-19 until May, which is just two months before the Olympic flame is set to be lit. It also seems likely that many of the athletes, coaches, trainers and technical people associated with the Games will be vaccinated prior to arriving in Japan, though the IOC has said it will not make it mandatory. But with variants of the virus now appearing, the question of foreign spectators wanting to come and/or being allowed to remains up in the air. As with everything else, it is wait and see.
Veteran sports writer and Toronto native Jim Armstrong, who has worked in Japan for more than 30 years, believes the prospects of fans attending the Games is pretty grim.
“I would say it is almost zero,” Armstrong said. “If they have the Olympics, I would say it’s almost certain it will be without fans. At least from overseas.”
Organizers admit everything is on the table at this point regarding fans.
“Naturally, we are looking into many different scenarios, so no spectators is one of the options,” Tokyo 2020 organizing committee president Yoshiro Mori said last week following a video call with IOC president Thomas Bach. “We don’t want to hold the Games without spectators, but in terms of simulations we are covering all the options.”
Of greater concern in the short term is the effect the second emergency is having on training for the Games. The Tokyo Olympics is scheduled to host 11,000 athletes competing in 33 different sports. Foreign athletes are not being allowed into the country now and when they will be again is unclear.
Training for those outside Japan has become a psychological battle as the rumours swirl about the fate of the Olympics. Trying to stay motivated and in condition in what has to be the toughest situation possible, short of war, must be a monumental task.
“All these speculations are hurting the athletes in their preparations,” Bach was quoted as saying by AP after an IOC executive board meeting last week. “We want not to destroy any Olympic dream of any athlete. For all these reasons we are not losing our time and energy on speculations.”
Meanwhile, Francesco Ricci Bitti, the president of the Association of Summer Olympic International Federations, reiterated that all of the bodies representing the 33 different sports are firm in their desire to hold the Tokyo Games following a meeting last week.
“All of them,” Ricci Bitti said. “It’s unanimous. They all want the Games.”