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The Olympics are coming. COVID infections are rising. Was Japan’s strategy the right one?

A large sculpture of the five interlocked Olympic rings on a platform in a harbor in Tokyo
The large Olympic rings are displayed in the Odaiba section of Tokyo ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympics.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

In a week’s time, the now-anachronistically named 2020 Olympic Games will finally get underway.

It’s a moment Japan has long been preparing for — since March of last year, when the Tokyo Games were pushed back because of the pandemic; since 2016, when Japan’s then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took the baton from Rio de Janeiro in a Super Mario get-up; since 2013, when the country first clinched its hard-fought bid.

Even so, the country heads into the Olympics with a sense of resignation and a reckoning over how its leaders handled a pandemic that is marring what should be a marquee moment for national pride. Many Japanese are thinking less about races and gold medals than the fact that Tokyo is in a fourth state of emergency. Coronavirus infections are again on the rise, and supply problems have stalled a vaccination program.

Much has changed since May 2020, when Abe touted as a success the “Japan model” of battling COVID-19. Despite the long-standing due date of the Olympics — with a literal clock counting down the days in central Tokyo — the country finds itself struggling to defend its decisions, making eleventh-hour revisions and pushing ahead with a subdued, spectator-less Games with heavy restrictions on visiting athletes and its own citizens.

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The reasons behind Japan’s less-than-ideal readiness to host these pandemic Games may lie in the nation’s early success in curbing the virus and its citizens’ voluntary adherence to the government’s recommended precautions.

“Japan started the COVID experience with complacency, there’s no doubt about that,” said Koichi Nakano, professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo. “People were forced to bear the responsibility of protecting themselves and containing the virus. Now, people are thinking, enough is enough.”

Masked men walk past a brightly lit restaurant on a Tokyo street
People walking on a Tokyo street wear masks during the state of emergency on Monday.
(Koji Sasahara / Associated Press)

Japan baffled observers early in the pandemic by keeping infections and deaths low despite conducting far fewer tests than other countries, imposing only mild restrictions and doing little to add hospital beds.

Japanese leaders justified the limited testing and moderate measures as a “cluster-based” approach focused on stemming superspreader events rather than trying to contain community spread. It was a strategy one government insider later described as “makeshift measures … [that] turned out to be all right in the end,” according to an independent commission’s report assessing Japan’s COVID-19 response.

Abe was quick to declare the triumph of the Japan model. He said the virus was controlled “in a characteristically Japanese way” that allowed life to go on without an economic shutdown. By the summer, the government was even promoting a domestic tourism campaign to boost the ailing travel industry.

“The early containment of the pandemic in its first wave … in a way dampened the sense of urgency to introduce stronger measures and stronger policy tools in preparation for a more severe spread,” said Akihisa Shiozaki, a Tokyo-based attorney who worked on the independent commission’s investigation.

In the British Medical Journal this year, public health researchers wrote that Japan failed to reflect on the shortcomings of its early response, “sticking instead to notions of exceptionalism.”

A huge oval stadium with a Tokyo 2020 banner is seen in the distance from a skyscraper observation deck
A person on an observation deck takes a picture of the National Stadium, where the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics will be held next week.
(Kiichiro Sato / Associated Press)

That left Japan ill-prepared when a third wave of cases overwhelmed the country and its medical institutions at the beginning of this year, followed by a fourth wave in May with the Olympics fast approaching. Thousands of COVID-19 patients in need of hospital beds were left without any. More than three-quarters of Japan’s 15,000 deaths from COVID-19 have occurred in 2021. The country’s daily infections are at about 2,300 and trending up, far below the January peak of nearly 8,000, but with cases in Tokyo logging a six-month high.

At the same time, vaccine rollout got off to a painstakingly slow start. Japan required additional clinical trials and relied on local municipalities, many of which lacked capacity to quickly dole out doses. This week, parts of Tokyo and other regions have had to suspend vaccination appointments because of a bottleneck.

With a week to go until the opening ceremony, and fears the highly infectious Delta variant will bring more danger, less than a third of Japan’s 125 million people have received one dose of vaccine, and less than 20% are fully inoculated.

“The absent and erratic political leadership is to blame for a major failure for the Japanese government, which had so much to lose by the failure to vaccinate before the Olympics,” Nakano said.

He said that Japan’s early performance in the fight against COVID-19 was largely thanks to the efforts of individual citizens being vigilant and cautious, and that the government took undue credit. Now, that patience is wearing dangerously thin and breeding resentment among those with the perception that they are once again being asked to restrain themselves for the sake of the Olympics, Nakano said.

“Majority of Japanese feel they are being exploited, and their patience and perseverance was not for the Olympics. They would rather have the school trip or meet their grandparents, and all of that is being put at risk because of the Olympics,” he said.

The Japanese government also has a history of erring on the side of caution when it comes to pharmaceutical or vaccine approvals because of past scandals, Shiozaki said. For instance, the government suspended its recommendation for the widely used human papillomavirus vaccine after reports of adverse effects in 2013, and it still has yet to reverse that decision.

View from above of people in crosswalks
People at a pedestrian crossing in Tokyo. The fourth state of emergency lasts through Aug. 22, covering the duration of the Olympic Games.
(Kiichiro Sato / Associated Press)

The International Olympic Committee has not been particularly helpful in winning over the Japanese public. Just this week, IOC President Thomas Bach promised to make the Games safe for the “Chinese people” before quickly correcting himself at his first public appearance in Tokyo. The day of his arrival, the hashtag “Bach go home” was trending on Twitter.

Bach sidestepped questions from Japanese media about what would happen in the event of a dramatic surge of infection during the Olympics, saying only that cancellation was “not really an option.”

As athletes and their support staff began arriving in larger numbers this week, teams began experiencing brushes with infections that could be an indication of what’s to come. The Russian women’s rugby team and the South African men’s rugby team were being required to isolate after coming into contact with those who tested positive for the virus.

Kazuto Suzuki, professor of international politics at the University of Tokyo, said Abe’s Super Mario stunt had encapsulated Japan’s hope that the Olympics would be an unabashed celebration of all the country had to offer on the world stage. “This time, Japan will be the most Japanese in these Olympics, trying to be the best of Japan,” he said. Now, with anxiety over what happens predominating, “That sort of thing is all gone.”

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears as Super Mario
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears as Super Mario during the closing ceremony of the 2016 Olympic Games, drumming up excitement for Tokyo 2020.
(David Ramos / Getty Images)

The best-case scenario the Japanese public can hope for would be uneventful Games that end with the country — and the world — not much worse off, Suzuki said. Hardly an Olympian aspiration.

“Very functional, simplistic form. No more commercialism, no more nationalism,” he said. “You watch on TV like any other Olympics happening in any other country.”


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