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My 12-year-old daughter’s public school in Tokyo had planned to see the Paralympians compete in person. But since organizers announced just days ago that the events would have no audience due to the latest Covid lockdown, all she’s now left with are a synthetic towel and an entry card printed with the “Tokyo 2020” logo. My news-junkie husband informed us that the logo profits the IOC each time it is printed.
I have to admit that I’ve never been an Olympics enthusiast, and that didn’t change even when Tokyo’s winning bid was announced back in 2013. The circumstances surrounding this year’s disastrous Coronalympics have only added a dampener to my already dampened spirit. And I’ve hardly been alone in wishing that Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, the officials at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Tokyo Games 2020 would cancel the whole thing at the last minute. The opening ceremony today, however, seemed to prove that it is definitely going ahead.
I grew up in Tokyo but who spent decades in the United States, first at a Pennsylvania boarding school, then earning degrees at the University of Chicago and Columbia University. Afterwards, I worked for several years as a corporate strategy professional on Wall Street, which has given me a unique perspective on the event now happening in my home city. The Tokyo Olympic Games 2020 is a textbook example of organizational mismanagement and misaligned incentives, and proof of the dangers of insular, non-diverse leadership.
First, a little context about Japan. The Liberal Democratic Party — usually referred to as the LDP — is, despite its name, the ruling conservative political party of Japan. The LDP has been the sole dominant party in charge of Japan for the majority of the post-Second World War era. This year’s Olympics has become the LDP’s Olympics.
Decisions and mitigation strategies surrounding Tokyo 2020 during the pandemic were not open for a public discussion, it seemed, despite clear global public health concerns. In many ways, it’s been like watching a runaway train. Prime Minister Suga emphasized the Games would be “safe and secure”. But how? According to recent polls, nearly 80 percent of surveyed Japanese residents wanted to see the Games either delayed or cancelled. In recent days, their concerns have been validated, with dozens of Olympic athletes getting positive Covid tests, at least 110 Covid cases of everyday citizens tied directly to the Olympics, and a sharp uptick in daily cases in Japan, which currently stand at 2,000.
There was widespread concern about the Olympics budget piling up, but everyday Japanese people were initially discouraged from voicing their views. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe went on as far as calling people who expressed concerns about the planned Games “un-Japanese.” Yet in the last few days leading up to the opening, as sponsors like Toyota and representatives pulled out and public opinion shifted so dramatically against the continuation of the Games, Abe announced he would miss the Olympics’ opening ceremony in a shocking switcheroo. Can the athletes back out now? Can taxpayers back out now? Can people who contract Covid as a result of this event back out? Why exactly should politicians be able to do what few of us have the privilege to do ourselves?
Over the past few days, I have been speaking to a Japanese-born US Olympic coach, Yoichi Tomita. He told me that athletes at the Olympic Village are doing their best to keep their spirits up, despite not being able to leave their rooms except for practices. International journalists get 15 minutes of outdoor time, but that’s not a privilege afforded to his team. It took arriving Olympians up to 10 hours at the airport to clear the various protocols and procedures put in place. And after a number of positive Covid tests among those who traveled to compete, it’s no surprise that some Olympian teams have decided to find other places to stay since they’re worried about the Olympic Village itself becoming a super-spreader situation.
When it comes to Japanese staff, volunteers, and other members of the general public, only around 20 percent are vaccinated. The vaccination rollout in Japan still prioritizes senior citizens, and vaccines among the young remain relatively rare as they wait their turn. That makes these rising Covid rates particularly dangerous.
The political intrigue around the Olympics disaster is fascinating and horrifying in equal measure. Many feel that recently appointed Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee President, Seiko Hashimoto, will be scapegoated by bosses higher up if anything goes wrong. As recently as yesterday, some have suggested she resign. Hashimoto took over after former prime minister of Japan and then-Olympics Committee President Yoshiro Mori famously resigned due to sexist comments he had made in the past, including how women should remain silent in business meetings. The 83-year-old Mori initially wanted to appoint Saburo Kawabuchi, an 84-year-old man, to succeed him. That’s typical Japanese insular power politics, and something I’ve frequently seen from my experience working as a corporate consultant.
Mori’s was hardly the only scandal. The opening ceremony director was also fired just one day before the ceremony was to take place when it came to light that he had made a joke about the Holocaust in earlier years. The opening ceremony artist, Keigo Oyamada, quit the creative team after it came to light that he had bullied disabled students while at school and subsequently boasted about doing so in a magazine interview. The head of that team, Hiroshi Sasaki, also resigned after proposing that a plus-size female artist play an “Olympig” at the ceremony.
How could all of this be allowed to happen? I spoke with Toshio Ochi, Professor of Political Science at Niigata University of Information Studies. In his telling, “it’s the lack of opposition in politics and society that lasted for so long [in Japan] and the bullying culture and lack of respect for human rights that’s been tolerated without being questioned. It’s somehow considered ‘cool’ to play a ‘realist’ and ‘tell it like it is’ to win popularity and votes when it’s simply a disregard for human rights.”
Aforementioned US Coach Tomita added, “This time, Japan’s conservatism didn’t work well. I like Japan’s conservatism, but it takes too long for change to go up the chain. This time it was too late. Nobody wanted to take the heat. We [the Olympians and coaches] make the best of the challenges now.”
To correct course of the political runaway train, we must teach ourselves to think critically in our everyday lives, and demand more diversity and inclusion among political and corporate leadership in Japan.
Naoto Ueyama, head of the Japan Doctors’ Union, said in a May news conference, “All of the different mutant strains of the virus which exist in different places will be concentrated and gathering here in Tokyo. We cannot deny the possibility of even a new strain of the virus potentially emerging.” Japanese citizens can only cross their fingers and hope.
Aya Shimada was born and raised in Tokyo, Japan. She is a visiting University of Tokyo scholar and founder of Culturelabs.co, an innovation strategy company. She previously worked as a COO in the global financial services industry in New York