Japan’s PM Suga digs in as Olympics opposition grows

Tokyo Letter: Slow vaccination rollout has coincided with fresh rise in infections

epa09198666 Japanese skater Azumi Fujieda competes at a women's street skateboarding test event at the Ariake Urban Sports Park in Tokyo, Japan, 14 May 2021. The event was held without spectators amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Skateboarding will make its Olympic debut in Tokyo.  EPA/FRANCK ROBICHON

epa09198666 Japanese skater Azumi Fujieda competes at a women's street skateboarding test event at the Ariake Urban Sports Park in Tokyo, Japan, 14 May 2021. The event was held without spectators amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Skateboarding will make its Olympic debut in Tokyo. EPA/FRANCK ROBICHON

 

If the burden of hosting the world’s largest sporting event in the middle of a pandemic had a symbol it would be the increasingly haggard face of Yoshihide Suga. Week by week, the once impervious expression of Japan’s prime minister has seemed to give way to doubt and exhaustion – even a hint of panic when pinned down about plans for the Tokyo Olympics, less than two months away.

“I believe it is possible to realize a safe and secure games,” Suga said at a televised press conference on May 14th. How, one reporter quizzed, will it be safe to invite 90,000 foreigners (including 30,000 athletes, coaches, staff and officials) when not all may be vaccinated? What happens, wondered another, if Japan’s medical system is overwhelmed by Covid infections while the world watches?

Suga’s responses to these questions have taken on a mechanical quality, like a man muttering a sutra as the ground starts to crumble beneath his feet. The National Doctors Union recently joined growing demands that the government cancel the games, saying it was “irresponsible to ask medical professionals who are fighting at the forefront to volunteer” during the pandemic.

Local leaders in the prefectures around Tokyo say they will refuse to prioritise hospital beds for Olympians over their own citizens. Under its host-city contract with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Tokyo is obliged to provide free medical services to anyone with Olympic credentials. Hospitals in the capital have posted signs saying: “Stop the Olympics”.

No controversy in Japan is complete without a second World War analogy. Last week, a publisher took out ads in the nation’s biggest newspapers showing images of children with improvised spears – a reference to the desperate wartime bid to keep the American invaders out.

“No vaccine. No medicine”, said the ad. “Do you expect us to fight with bamboo spears? At this rate, politics will kill us.”

Just over three percent of Japan’s population has received a single jab, according to data compiled by the University of Oxford, far below the 30 per cent recorded in Ireland or 52 per cent in the UK. Vaccines are currently available only to medical workers and older people, meaning much of the Japanese population will be unprotected by the time the Olympic circus rolls into town on July 23rd.

Suga’s stubbornness is not hard to understand: Japan has ploughed over $20 billion into the games

The slow vaccination pace has coincided with a fresh rise in infections. Tokyo recorded an average of 926 daily cases of the virus in the second week in May, and though quasi-emergency measures have helped slow this fourth wave they not quashed it. Fewer than 12,000 people have died from the virus in Japan, still a remarkably low figure given that it has avoided harsh lockdowns, yet victory against the virus seems a long way off.

Losing battle

Suga has attempted to quell doubts by setting a daily target of one million vaccine doses but that looks optimistic. Medical experts at Japan’s top university have warned that daily infections could peak during the Olympics. The prime minister appears to be losing the battle for public opinion: some recent polls show two-thirds of people want the games postponed or scrapped altogether.

Meanwhile, the actions of local authorities – many of which are supposed to host venues or athletes – are taking on the quality of a mutiny. On Friday, Tamayo Marukawa, the Olympics minister admitted that dozens of towns around Japan that have registered to accept athletes for training camps and cultural exchanges have abandoned their plans.

Suga’s stubbornness is not hard to understand: Japan has ploughed over $20 billion into the games. When questioned, he has said the final say on their fate lies with the IOC, alluding to Tokyo’s contract with the sporting body, which indeed only allows the committee to pull the plug. Japan could face legal costs if it unilaterally cancels. But that defence has made him look politically weak, and highlighted for many Japanese the odd neo-colonialist grip of the IOC (which makes the bulk of its income from television rights) on host cities.

The government has been encouraged by the fact that infections are still, relatively speaking, small. Numbers in Tokyo could fall and the pace of the vaccination rollout quicken. But the games might end up being held during a state of emergency. It is already clear that whatever happens, they will occur under severe restrictions, with foreign spectators banned and athletes quarantined and bubbled.

Billionaire businessman Hiroshi Mikitani spoke for many last week when he called the Olympics a “suicide mission”. Suga could tough it out. But at what cost?

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