Olympics in 2021 spur frustration in Tokyo: 'People just want their lives back'

The Olympic Games have always marked points of entry and reentry for the Japanese people. A closed society until 1868, with martial arts the only activity resembling sports as we now define them, Japan looked to its participation in the 1912 Olympics Games in Stockholm as a way of introducing itself to the modern world. Later, by hosting the 1964 Summer Games, Japan reintroduced itself in its post-war form. And in 2020, the original, pre-COVID idea was for Japan to showcase its recovery from the 2011 earthquake/tsunami/Fukushima nuclear disaster with the Tokyo Games.

"The history of Japan and the Games, and how it has always been used to showcase the country to the world -- that's always been a driving force," says Ema Ryan Yamazaki, a documentary filmmaker who is working on the official Tokyo 2020 film. "The older generation of Japanese who are putting these Games together as volunteers and part-time workers, they have a deep sense of pride. They're going to show the world."

This admittedly term-papery introduction is presented as a means of depicting just how incredibly out of character it is for the Japanese people to exhibit such widespread disapproval -- even taking to the streets in protest -- of the Games that start today. Most of the public protests, to be fair, wouldn't draw much attention at the average Saturday morning American farmer's market. They're relatively small and mostly well-behaved, but even the slightest sign of insurrection is rare in Japan. To be unruly, to actually take a public stand against something as historically significant as the Olympics, the people have to be righteously pissed off -- which is exactly what they are.

"People just want their lives back, and not the Olympics," says Shiho Fukuda, a Tokyo-based photographer and film director. "Most people have had to sacrifice because of these Olympics, and this has been going on for a long time. Of course the athletes say, 'We should do it,' but the people in general are concerned."

Much of the country entered its fourth COVID-19 state of emergency earlier this month after a spike in cases, and the restrictions will last through the entirety of the Games. Restaurants must close by 8 p.m., alcohol sales are prohibited, and citizens are encouraged to stay home whenever possible. Spectators will not be allowed at any events in Tokyo and at many other venues. With a vaccination rate below 20% due to rollout delays and low supply, Japan's vaccine rollout has been one of the slowest among wealthy nations.

"We've been in some sort of state of emergency for many months now," Ryan Yamazaki says. "In the United States, things are getting better. We haven't really felt that."

And so last week I called my friend Kota Ishijima, a Tokyo actress and musician who has worked as a translator for ESPN. Before I could ask a question, she said, "Can you believe this? They're doing this, and everyone is against it. Why are they doing this?"

The answer starts, as it always does, with money. There are television contracts and guarantees and contractually obligated restitution if those guarantees are not met. The IOC depends on television contracts for 75% of its revenue. The Games were already delayed a year, and another delay would mean the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games would butt up against the 2022 Beijing Winter Games. It feels like now or never, which is why the Japanese people feel disposable, like pawns in a game they aren't even allowed to watch in person.

They see hypocrisy in their government's decision to align with the International Olympic Committee and allow more than 15,000 Olympic and Paralympic athletes from all over the world to enter their cities while a massive percentage of the local citizens are unprotected. Weeklong elementary school summer field trips have been canceled because of COVID risk. The restrictions will last through the August Bon Festival, a traditional Buddhist holiday for families to reunite in their ancestral homes, so the world's athletes will be in Tokyo while Japanese citizens are discouraged from vacationing.

"It's definitely a weird time," Ryan Yamazaki says, and "the Olympics are a clear thing to be opposed to. In April there was a famous public poll where 80% said they did not want the Olympics to happen. Now with the state of emergency, no crowds and another wave, people are wondering: What's the point of this?"

The precautions undertaken for the Games might qualify as satire if the underlying reasons for them weren't so dire. IOC President Thomas Bach announced that medalists, standing on podiums in empty venues, will have to place their own medals over their own necks after they are presented on sanitized trays held by gloved and sanitized volunteers. Hand-shaking and hugging is not allowed during medal ceremonies. Athletes and media will be sequestered, allowed to travel only between village and venue, meaning restaurants and other businesses won't even receive an economic bump from the Games.

The IOC has issued a COVID "playbook" to athletes and employees, but it has expressly absolved itself of any liability in the event of outbreaks -- which started even before the first event, with 67 cases recorded since July 1. The torch relay was pulled from the streets before its completion, and dozens of sponsoring companies -- including Toyota -- have pulled their commercials or opted out from the opening ceremony.

Despite polls indicating two-thirds of the people in Japan doubt the Games can be held safely, volunteers and part-time workers, nearly all of whom commute by train, are being asked to wear their full Tokyo 2020 regalia from home to their destinations. Ryan Yamazaki, who has interviewed workers and athletes as part of her work on the film, says the anger surrounding the Games has many of the volunteers feeling uneasy about displaying their uniforms to the general public.

"When these volunteers signed up, this is not what they were expecting," she says. "They expected to be respected -- that is the Japanese tradition -- but this is a different environment now. It takes courage to wear that uniform and let it be known you're part of the Olympics. Nobody could have predicted this."

On the day Bach arrived at the Olympic Village in Tokyo, Ryan Yamazaki had to walk past a crowd of protesters near the building that houses the IOC. As she approached, she covertly tucked her ID badge into her pocket.

"I've protested before, but I've never been on the receiving end," she says, laughing. "But they were rallied up, and it did feel a little bit scary."

Japan's relatively low COVID-19 numbers are a major factor driving the public backlash. There have been 15,000 total deaths in a country of roughly 125 million -- compared with 608,000 deaths and a population of 330 million in the United States -- and Japan's most recent state of emergency was triggered when nationwide daily cases reached just 920. The Japanese people have sacrificed for the greater good, and now they feel they've been left unprotected by a government that is being influenced by the financial interests of outside entities.

"The Japanese way is to keep your mouth shut and enjoy the pain," says Fukuda, whose 88-year-old father just received his second vaccine dose last week. "There is a belief in self-sacrifice for the masses. You enjoy the pain and do things for everybody else. That is being tested with these Games. I honestly don't think any other country would have put up with this."

Japanese media, according to those with whom I spoke, are driving skepticism. Daytime news-panel shows trot out an endless roster of guests criticizing the government's decision to allow the IOC to hold the Games. Footage of Bach arriving in Tokyo and waving from the window of his car plays on endless loop. In his first visit to the Olympic Village, Bach spoke to the volunteers and referred to the Japanese people as "the Chinese people" before correcting himself.

Ishijima says, "I've never seen this level of anger, and it's spreading. It's almost 100% in the people I encounter. They're to the point where they won't even watch."

It is a remarkable -- and stark -- contrast to the traditional Japanese view of sports as a means of exhibiting the country's best attributes. Baseball players who leave Japan to play in America are followed by big clumps of reporters, and every game is broadcast to a significant audience on a national outlet in Japan. Shohei Ohtani is the latest, and perhaps the biggest, but he's following in a long line of players who are required to take Japan with them wherever they go.

"All of our lives are completely affected by these Olympics that nobody wants," says Ishijima, who grew up in London, New Delhi, Tokyo and the U.S. and worked as an interpreter for several Japanese big league baseball players. "If this was going on in a different country, there'd be a revolution."

The Games will proceed, though, without spectators but with massive skepticism in a host country that would rather not. The goal has been whittled down to its base elements: a three-week event that begins and ends without incident. It's hardly the rallying cry a proud country envisioned.

As Ishijima says, half-jokingly, "The only hope we have right now is Ohtani."