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Opinion

History will not be kind to Tokyo's 'zombie Olympics'

It is time for a serious intervention

| Japan
The national government's lackadaisical COVID-19 response is colliding with the Tokyo Games.   © AP

William Pesek is an award-winning Tokyo-based journalist and author of "Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan's Lost Decades."

Japan Inc. invented the modern zombie company. Does Tokyo really want to add a "zombie Olympics" to the lexicon, too?

A year ago, gaffe-prone Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso called the 2020 Games "cursed," like Tokyo losing the 1940 Olympics amid World War II and Moscow being heavily boycotted for its games in 1980. Tokyo 2020 has since become the event that simply will not die even as COVID-19 races forward.

Like a lifeless company staggering on by the grace of institutional support from on high, Tokyo 2020 is the living dead of global traditions. And it is time for a serious intervention, before Japan squanders all its soft power in the eyes of history.

My call for Japan to scrap this superspreader own goal is hardly original. As Nancy Snow wrote in her column "Swift Olympic cancellation will boost Japan's soft power" in Nikkei Asia published on Mar. 20, 2020, long before the fourth COVID-19 wave now hitting Japan, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party "needs to get ahead of the situation by announcing the cancellation."

Instead, the LDP has been behind at every turn, as if some metaphor for its economic legacy. Case in point: former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe adopting the Donald Trump playbook of prioritizing the stock market over containing the coronavirus. Abe sparred early and often with Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who advocated a more assertive response to the coronavirus via widespread testing and shelter-in-place orders.

Yet now, the national government's lackadaisical COVID-19 response is colliding with the Tokyo Games. Even as Tokyo officialdom races to keep the Olympics alive, so to speak, it is locked in the starting position on vaccinations.

Here is the question posterity is sure to ask: How, oh how, did a government think it wise to welcome, say, 80,000 athletes, coaches, team staff, media and other related officials from more than 200 countries when its vaccination program had barely begun? Further, why did the LDP think it was OK not to require those jetting in to be inoculated or very strictly quarantined?

I am not suggesting that Japan's COVID numbers are contingent on foreigners. Just that bringing tens of thousands of people together from all corners of the globe -- each with different transmission rates, access to vaccines and viral variants -- deserves a gold medal for petri dish experimentation.

Whataboutism abounds. If the National Basketball Association can create COVID bubbles, so can Tokyo. The Australian Open in Melbourne came out reasonably well in the end. Ditto for America's UFC mixed martial arts events decamping to Abu Dhabi. But the scale of the Olympics is a galaxy away from these more containable events. So is the context.

France is locking down anew. Belgium, Germany and Spain are recording new upswings. The World Health Organization called Europe's vaccine rollout "unacceptably slow." U.S. states like Texas and Florida seem to be having their own COVID Olympics to see who can rival Brazil's exploding case count.

Japan, meantime, appears to be traveling the California path. California initially flattened the COVID infection curve and then got sloppy, opening too fast. Likewise, Japan is veering from one state of emergency to another, learning little each time. This stop-go-stop regimen explains last week's humiliating cancellation of the Osaka leg of the Olympic torch relay.

A large screen shows Yoshihide Suga declaring a state of emergency on Jan. 7: Japan is veering from one state of emergency to another, learning little each time.   © Reuters

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's government deserves its own medal for denial. And for the massive levels of reputational risk it is courting.

Imagine what, 20 years from now, students learning about the 2020-2021 human experience will think of a developed nation holding an Olympics amid a pandemic that, as of now, has killed 2.83 million people and counting. In 2020, Monocle magazine ranked Japan No. 1 in global soft power. Tokyo now risks being the No. 1 transmission point as variants we have yet to detect commingle, compare notes and burst toward 2022 with new potency.

At the moment, it is the little things chipping away at Tokyo's reputation for safety and efficiency -- confusion over who can enter Japan, PCR testing capabilities, refunds for overseas guests who spent big on tickets and travel expenses. Down the road, though, questions will focus on why the LDP put its own political interests ahead of the global good.

Longtime students of Japan Inc. recognize the play. When a new CEO takes over, they safeguard the corporate brand at all costs. If that means covering for predecessors who hid losses or safety infractions, then so be it. Olympus, Kobe Steel, Tokyo Electric Power Co. Holdings' nuclear facilities -- pick your analogy.

Suga now finds himself assuming the position. The inclination in Tokyo officialdom is to keep heads down and just march mindlessly to a July 23 opening ceremony better off scrapped.

Look, this is a very difficult issue, one with many diverging interests. Corporate giants from Alibaba Group Holding to Coca-Cola to Toyota Motor to television networks spent massively on sponsorships. The International Olympic Committee wants a feel-good event ahead of a Beijing Winter Olympics facing boycott threats.

Japan, which may have spent upward of $25 billion, wants its big, splashy moment in the global spotlight. No leader wants to be the one to pull the plug -- and certainly not risk-averse Suga. And so, the zombie games lumber on.

A cursed Olympics is one thing. Hosting a potentially deadly one is quite another. The cost to Japan's soft power, in the long run, could dwarf today's financial hit.

Suga and the Tokyo Olympic officials should heed the collective wisdom of the people for whom they purport to represent. Some polls show that as many as 80% of Japanese think now is not the time to hold a superspreader event that history is sure to judge harshly.

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