SIM Report: Northeast Asia, Issue 11

Japan: Tokyo Olympics faces increasing public resistance amid mounting COVID-19 concerns, anger over president’s comments

The Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games organising committee on 8 February in an online meeting for around 80 sponsors apologised for comments made by its president Mori Yoshiro that have been criticised as sexist. Although Mori retracted his remarks made on 3 February on 4 February and resigned on 12 February, the resulting backlash has seen the withdrawal of 390 volunteers for the Games. Public anger towards Mori’s comments culminated in the submission on Tuesday (16 February) to the organising committee of a petition garnering 157,425 signatures seeking measures against sexist behaviour. The fallout surrounding Mori’s comments compounds concerns around the commercial appeal of the Games, which are facing mounting public resistance amid renewed COVID-19 outbreaks.

More than half of Japanese companies believe that Tokyo Olympic Games, which are scheduled to be held from 23 July to 8 August, with the Paralympics from 24 August to 5 September, should be cancelled or postponed, according to a survey by think tank Tokyo Shoko Research on Monday (15 February). Additionally, a January poll by Japanese news outlet Kyodo News revealed that about 80 per cent of respondents want the event, which had already been postponed in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, to be cancelled or postponed. Anxieties around the viability of the event have extended to many sponsors, which are reducing ad campaigns and postponing marketing events, according to a report by Reuters news agency. Despite high hopes that vaccinations would inspire public and commercial confidence in the event, Japan is lagging far behind other nations in its inoculation programme. The country is on track to achieve herd immunity through its immunisation programme by about October 2021, according to a Reuters report citing UK scientific information and analytics firm Airfinity, months after the event will have been completed. There are also concerns that shortages of specialist syringes will slow the vaccine roll-out.

Despite these factors, it seems increasingly possible that the Tokyo Olympic Games will be held in a scaled-down way. The Games will probably go forward to mitigate otherwise sunken costs, and PM Suga will want to use a successful hosting of them to bolster his support ahead of the October 2021 Japanese general election. Games may be held with digitised or cardboard spectators, much like other sports events over the pandemic. Unlike rigorous quarantining measure adopted by the Australian Open tennis tournament, the 32-page playbook for the Games released in early February stipulates that athletes will have to adhere to strict hygiene and testing measures. Athletes will be exempt from quarantine and vaccination will be left voluntary. Spectators will be banned from singing and chanting, and face masks will be mandatory. Perhaps like the Australian Open, though, positive COVID-19 tests may cause intermittent disruption to the Games. International travel for the Games and potential quarantine leaks could also import concerning variants of the virus causing COVID-19, which would further hamper Japan’s immunisation programme.

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