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Opinion

Opposing the Olympics has helped the Japanese people find their voice

Complications aside, public opinion is winning against a government slow to listen

| Japan
IOC president Thomas Bach, on a screen, and Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee president Seiko Hashimoto wave to each other on April 28: too much political pandering and happy talk about holding the Summer Olympics is infantilizing to a public.   © Reuters

Dr. Nancy Snow is Pax Mundi (World Peace) Professor of Public Diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies.

I cannot stop thinking about the 1965 song "Stop! In the Name of Love" by The Supremes. "Think it over," goes the pleading refrain as the singer, with a cheating partner, contemplates the end of their relationship.

It is a lot like how the Japanese people may be feeling these days about their government's relationship with the International Olympic Committee. Like a cheated-on lover, they do not wish to be taken for granted or disrespected.

The people of Japan have been in a committed relationship with their government since long before COVID-19 played havoc with this year's party plans for the postponed Summer Olympics. They have stuck to the rules of the sempai-kohai relationship between senior politicians and junior citizens. Ganbare! -- Hang in there! Like the token women appointed to the all-male board meetings of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, they are seen but not heard.

The people of Japan have held up their end of the bargain in the government-citizen relationship. They barely complained when government leaders broke protocols during repeated states of emergency that the public was supposed to dutifully follow. They accommodated the endless recitation of the three C's -- closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings. They patiently acquiesced to an abysmally slow national vaccine rollout. They wore their masks while masking growing angst and disdain over double standards.

A truck carrying a signs showing how to avoid spreading the COVID-19 makes a turn on a street in Tokyo in September 2020: the people of Japan have held up their end of the bargain in the government-citizen relationship.   © AP

And then the people had an epiphany. After thinking it over, they would be silent no more.

Japan's awakened public has realized that their idea of a relationship did not mesh with a government that inconsistently sees eye to eye with its own constituency. The people found their collective voice and made it heard.

Over 400,000 people added their names to a petition to halt the Olympics. Signs popped up in hospital windows to plead for public health before politics. One particularly influential citizen billionaire, Hiroshi Mikitani, called the games a "suicide mission."

Takarajimasha, a Tokyo-based publisher with a long history of taking on government powers that be, ran ads in newspapers pleading on behalf of the people: "We have no vaccine. We have no medicine. Are we supposed to fight with bamboo spears? At this rate, we will be killed by the government." Fighting words.

Up to 8 in 10 citizens now say: "Stop! In the name of life." The majority will not support the Olympics during an ongoing public health crisis. These acts of conscientious objection cannot be ignored.

Throughout this oppositional spring, the government has been showing undue attention to another powerful clique, the International Olympic Committee. The public has looked on as Suga and company locked steps with the IOC leadership, flaunting the relationship.

The unfaithful liaison spurred on one hubristic IOC spokesman who dismissed the vox populi with a wave of the hand. "We listen but won't be guided by public opinion," said IOC spokesman Mark Adams. "Everything is telling us... that the games can go ahead and will go ahead."

The Summer Games may go ahead or they may not, but in the meantime, this overheated Japanese government-IOC relationship will break up, as all temporary liaisons must. The IOC will move on to its next host city. In its rearview mirror, the enduring citizen partnership with the Japanese government will remain. But it is now very fragile. The broken-down relations between the people and the government will need putting back together and much healing.

We will look back on the ups and downs of the discussion of Tokyo 2020 during COVID-19 as a watershed moment in Japan's perception of democracy.

The people -- from the Tokyo Medical Association authorities at the top to every man or woman at street level -- have found the value of their voice and opinion. They are no longer satisfied with being seen and not heard, talked down to, and not with. They are finding a sense of liberation with choice, to agree or disagree with how things are going. That is the hallmark of a long-term commitment to democracy.

It is time for the Suga administration and Gov. Yuriko Koike's Tokyo Metropolitan Government to openly acknowledge this strength-through-dissent value of their constituents. They need to thank the public for taking a stand, even when it goes against the authorities. They should thank the people for their patience through difficult times.

Going about business as usual would weaken the democratic foundation needed to rebuild the political economy going forward. Already there are ominous signs of a long recovery ahead, with the economy and productivity contracting at levels not seen since the aftermath of World War II.

Japan's future as a healthy First World country relies on maintaining social cohesion between the people and the government. Too much political pandering and happy talk about holding the Summer Olympics is infantilizing to a public that has legitimate worries about the possibility of things getting worse.

Dissent and disagreement with political authorities are not a sign of erosion in society. These are strengths. And that is a win for both.

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