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As Olympics Open, Tokyo Residents Yearn for Crowds, Cheering and Celebrations Nixed by Pandemic

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - The Tokyo 2020 Olympics Opening Ceremony - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - July 23, 2021.
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - The Tokyo 2020 Olympics Opening Ceremony - Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan - July 23, 2021.

No free-spending foreign spectators. Lots of COVID-19 worries. And as the delayed Olympics begin on Friday, some Tokyo residents are finding it hard to find their game spirit.

“There’s no feeling of lively celebration in the city,” Hiroyuki Nakayama, a member of the Tokyo Citizens First Party, told VOA Mandarin before the Games opened.

“All in all, it’s not very satisfying,” said the member of Tokyo’s governing metropolitan assembly. “There’re no tourists, so there’s no real hope of the Games revitalizing the economy. Although many people opposed the event,” once the government gave the go-ahead, “people knew it was useless to object, so now they hope the Olympics can proceed smoothly and end safely.”

Nakayama is not a rare naysayer. According to a poll released July 13 by Ipsos, a global market research firm, 78% of respondents in Japan believe Tokyo should not host the Olympics during the pandemic. Since then, Tokyo added 1,832 confirmed cases of the coronavirus on July 21, and that was after adding nearly a thousand new cases a day for seven consecutive days in the past week. Only 29% of Japan’s residents have been vaccinated.

Athletes from the United States of America walk during the opening ceremony in the Olympic Stadium at the 2020 Summer Olympics, July 23, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan.
Athletes from the United States of America walk during the opening ceremony in the Olympic Stadium at the 2020 Summer Olympics, July 23, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan.

As of July 21, there were confirmed cases among the athletes including a Czech table tennis player, a U.S. beach volleyball player, a Dutch skateboarder, a Chilean taekwondo team member, an alternate U.S. women’s gymnast and a U.S. women’s tennis player. Although a full vaccination is not required for the athletes, testing is constant and began before they left their home countries, where many tested positive. Some never made it to Japan, which cancelled the Games last year due to the pandemic.

Ryoko Fujita, a member of the Japanese Communist Party and a local Tokyo lawmaker told VOA Mandarin that according to recent expert simulations, “even if the Olympics are not held, the diagnosis rate in Tokyo will exceed 2,000 a day in August.”

On July 16, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said the government was taking measures to control the pandemic and ensure the "safety and peace of mind" of the Tokyo Olympics.

“The government insists on hosting the Olympics and continuously promotes the slogan of ‘safe and secure Olympics’ on various platforms but ignores the surge in public gatherings and has no actual countermeasures or actions,” said Fujita, who was a nurse for two decades.

On July 20, Shigeru Omi, an infectious disease expert who heads a subcommittee on the coronavirus in the Tokyo government said on television that by the first week of August, new confirmed cases in Tokyo could reach a new peak of about 3,000 a day, most likely straining medical resources.

Takashi Sato, an office worker, told VOA Mandarin before the Games began, that with Tokyo under its fourth emergency declaration, residents are so numb to the warnings, they “actually do not abide by the regulations.”

Seiichi Murakami, who owns a patisserie in Tokyo, told VOA Mandarin that he at one time thought the Olympic Games would boost business, which has been in a slump. But as the pandemic worsens, and tourists aren’t coming to town for the Games, he’s now wondering if he should close the patisserie.

“Even if the vaccination rate increases substantially, there is still a long way to go before the economy really recovers,” Murakami told VOA Mandarin.

Takayuki Kojima, who runs a Tokyo cram school, told VOA Mandarin that his students aren’t interested in the Games and he rarely hears anyone discuss them. Mostly he’s concerned with surviving financially now that classes are online. “I hope this will be the last emergency declaration. The government must implement the vaccination coverage rate and control the epidemic, otherwise everyone's lives will reach a critical point.”

Ikue Furukawa lives near the National Stadium, which was the main stadium for the 1964 Olympic Games and was rebuilt for the 2020 Games. She told VOA Mandarin there are so many restrictions she can’t even get near her neighborhood’s fixture.

“Because of the pandemic, … it really doesn’t feel like we’re the host country. This is completely an online competition, so it’s like it’s all happening in a foreign country,” she said. “People just can't get excited.”

Takako Koyama, a Tokyo housewife, told VOA, “The Japanese are actually more concerned about foreign players coming from afar and not having spectators to cheer for them. But due to the restrictions, foreign players cannot … feel the enthusiasm of the audience. I’m so sorry for the players.”

Kojima agreed, adding “Major leagues in the United States and European football matches can allow spectators. The Olympics should open up some popular events to at least let the Japanese cheer for all the players.”

Koyama pointed out that after repeated emergency declarations, people had been looking forward to the Games before the declaration of yet another pandemic emergency.

“School activities and trips have been cancelled, but the Olympics are still going to be held,” she said. “The Olympic torch relay has been cancelled and there will be no spectators in the competition. What is the meaning of such an Olympics? What kind of message is conveyed to the future? I can't explain it to the children either.”

Some information in this report came from Reuters.