‘Fuck the Olympics’: Inside Japan’s War to Dodge a COVID Disaster
From desperate doctors to famous film directors and former Japanese mafia members—the outrage against this summer’s “COVID Olympics” is uniting Japan.
TOKYO—As COVID infections and deaths continue to surge in Japan, so does the fiery opposition to the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics.
Japan is now deep in a fourth wave of COVID-19, and Tokyo is in a state of emergency that will last at least until the end of the month—and probably even longer. The nation averages over 5,000 new cases a day, and last week, Tokyo averaged more than 750 new daily cases. Testing is limited, hospitals in major cities are over capacity, and people are dying at home waiting for medical care. Adding to that, the country’s vaccine rollout is abysmally slow, with less than 3 percent of the population vaccinated and a world ranking of around 110th place.
But despite all that, the Japanese government and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have decided that the Olympics games will go ahead, prompting fury from public figures ranging from prominent politicians, legendary film directors—and even former members of the yakuza, the Japanese mafia.
“We are currently under a state of emergency in four prefectures and we are already unable to save the lives that we should be able to save,” Kenji Utsunomiya, a civil rights lawyer and three-time candidate for the office of Governor of Tokyo, told The Daily Beast. Utsunomiya is the organizer of an online petition calling for the halting of the Olympics, which has garnered a quarter of a million signatures in its first 48 hours online.
“If we go ahead with the Olympics, we need to provide over 10,000 medical staff from an already overwhelmed medical system. The virus is continuing to spread and we won’t be able to protect the lives of our own people, and it could turn into a superspreader event,” he said.
As the pandemic rages on, a poll published in the Japanese newspaper Asahi this month found that 83 percent of Japan’s population opposes holding the Olympics this year. Amongst the opposers are a range of local celebrities, including former yakuza boss turned philanthropist Satoru Takegaki.
“Maybe not everyone says it, but most people with common sense here are against holding the Olympics in the middle of what amounts to a war. The only people gunning for it are those who have a vested interest in the games or money at stake,” Takegaki told The Daily Beast.
Takeshi Kitano, known as “Beat Takeshi”—a world-renowned film director who rarely speaks seriously on sensitive political issues—also made his position on the issue clear.
“Tokyo has requested five hundred doctors be on site for the games. There won't be enough in the city for ordinary patients,” he said. “I feel sorry for the athletes and understand they've been working hard, but the Tokyo Olympics are supposedly about friendship and equality. The lives of everyone else matter too.”
He isn't surprised that local governments are refusing to set aside beds for Olympic participants.
“The fact that Tokyo is asking local municipalities to secure beds means they are anticipating they will have sick patients to put in them. They might as well be saying: ‘Hey, we have plenty of morgues in Tokyo! In fact, we've got American-sized coffins, European-sized coffins… we've got all the coffins you need. A great selection! Come to Tokyo for the Olympics!’ Of course, then no one would come.”
He added wrily: “Let's give [the Olympics] back to Greece… giving the Olympics back to the founders of the Games is the best thing to do.”
Far-fetched solutions aside, some have pointed out that Japan’s obsession with the Olympics may have already cost lives.
“The Japanese government only decided to postpone the Games last year on March 24. Up until then, neither the government nor Tokyo were particularly focused on tackling the virus. They were hesitant to test people, lest many people show up positive for the COVID-19. Border measures were taken too late and there were no substantial quarantine measures in place either,” said Utsunomiya.
He also pointed out that it wasn’t until the day after the postponement, March 25, that governor Yuriko Koike held a press conference acknowledging the ‘critical situation’ and ‘the explosion of infections’ sweeping the country.
As the BBC pointed out recently, with over 11,000 COVID deaths, Japan is hands-down the worst performing country in East Asia as far as coronavirus fatality rates go. Vietnam has had 36 deaths. Taiwan has only had 12.
The prefecture of Osaka last week acknowledged that at least 17 people had died at home waiting for a hospital bed, and that there are thousands more still waiting to get medical attention. Japan’s Fire and Disaster Management Agency has noted that in a one-week period this month, there were 2,064 cases where patients could not be taken to a medical facility because there were no beds available. Ambulances have taken several hours to find a hospital with the capacity to take in new patents, and some doctors are racking up over a hundred hours of overtime a month.
Even so, the Japan Olympic Committee has tried to secure 30 hospitals in Tokyo and neighboring prefectures to handle medical care for Olympic athletes or participants who become infected with the coronavirus—but they are getting the door slammed in their face.
The governors of Chiba, Kanagawa, and Ibaraki prefectures have publicly refused to allocate beds for the Olympics, or give preferential treatment to those involved with the Games. The governor of Ibaraki, Kazuhiko Oigawa, was particularly blunt, saying: “I can't put priority on athletes over our citizens,” adding, “[The Games] aren't something that we absolutely must have. Depending on the situation, it should be possible to decide to call them off.”
Japan’s medical establishment has been one of the most vocal sectors rallying against holding the Olympics. When the Tokyo Olympic organizers sent out a request for 500 nurses to ‘volunteer’ for the Olympic Games, the backlash was tremendous. A protest tweet saying that nurses were against holding the Olympics went viral on Twitter, retweeted thousands of times.
The Japan Federation of Medical Workers’ Unions expressed outrage over the request, reminding the public that the priority should be on the pandemic, not the modern-day Hunger Games. Their spokesperson told the press: “I am extremely aggrieved by the insistence of pursuing the Olympics despite the risk to the lives and health of both patients and nurses.”
The National Union Of Staff Doctors in Japan released a statement strongly demanding the Olympics be called off earlier this month, pointing out that the new COVID-19 variants are more infectious and lethal, and that the Olympics could spread them all over Japan—and possibly the world—as over 80,000 people gather in Tokyo. “It is not possible to hold a safe and secure Olympics during the pandemic,” the statement read.
At the end of April, the head of Tokyo’s Tachikawa Sogo Hospital put giant protest posters in the second and third floor windows of the building. Photos of the posters went viral. The signs read: “Medical Treatment Is At Its Limit! Call Off The Olympic Games! Spare Us! The Olympics Are Unreasonable!”
Even athletes are concerned about the Japanese government’s apparent refusal to heed the demands of the people.
Hitomi Niiya, a noted long-distance runner, told NHK News in January: “As an athlete, I want to compete in the Games. As a person, I don’t. Honestly, human life is more important than the Olympics.” Japanese tennis star Ken Nishikori expressed similar sentiments: “If you think about how many deaths there have already been, it's not something that should be carried out if [more] deaths will result from it,” he said.
Many have also questioned whether holding the Olympics this year would be fair to athletes.
“Under normal circumstances, [athletes] should all have the opportunity to train and compete under fair conditions,” said Utsunomiya. “The pandemic has magnified the wealth disparities between the countries, including access to medical care and vaccines. Indian athletes for example could not even participate in the preliminary Games. The world cannot welcome such an unjust and unfair event as they do the regular Olympics.”
Meanwhile, Japan’s mainstream media has been under pressure to downplay the risks that come with hosting the Olympics. Many newspapers have resorted to stealth techniques to criticize the games, including translating articles from foreign newspapers to shift the blame. A recent editorial in the Washington Post, which called IOC President Thomas Bach a fraudster and nicknamed him Baron Von Ripper-off, went viral in Japan. The Japanese translation of his nickname, “Bottakuri Danshaku,” promises to be one of Japan's top trending words this year.
Another trending anti-Olympics slogan was launched in the form of a T-shirt printed with the words "Cancel The 2020 Olympics!, sold at an apparel store in the hip neighborhood of Kichijoji in Tokyo, run by Susumu Kikutake. A thousand of them were bought in the last two weeks. The shirt borrows from a 1988 sci-fi Japanese anime film Akira, which takes place in a dystopian Tokyo where the 2020 Olympics are supposed to be held despite public outcry.
Even during a state of emergency, protests against the Olympics are growing. This month, hundreds gathered in front of the Japan Olympic Committee headquarters to voice their dissent. And there are some who are going it alone. Atsushi Asada, a 63-year-old resident of Tokyo, went on a 48-hour hunger strike near the Olympic Stadium and Hibiya Park with nothing but his cardboard signs and a chair. He wrote his own press release in English.
“People in the world, except for the IOC, are protesting against having the Games. Many more lives of the Japanese people would be lost at this rate, during and after the Games, under the global expansion of COVID-19 pandemic. People [in agreement] with my idea, please come together,” he said in the statement.
The discontent is spreading outside Japan and across the world. At a recent press conference, in which the IOC spokesman told the assembled press that despite Japanese protests, things were “moving fully ahead, as planned,” a lone protester holding up a sign interrupted him. “No Olympics in Tokyo 2020,” it read. His finals words before getting escorted out: “Fuck the Olympics!”