Dr. Nancy Snow is Pax Mundi (World Peace) Professor of Public Diplomacy at Kyoto University of Foreign Studies.
Cognitive dissonance and strained smiles descended upon a gloomy Apr. 14 as the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government marked the 100-day countdown to July 23 atop a fogged-in Mt. Takao, where the Olympic rings were unveiled like relics from a museum.
In Tokyo, statues of Miraitowa and Someity, the official mascots for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, were unveiled at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government building surrounded by smiling government officials, including Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who has promised the "safest games possible" -- not exactly comfort words.
Both events were private gatherings with no public in attendance. On that same day, Tokyo recorded its highest number of infections since Mar. 21, when the last state of emergency ended. And now Tokyo is dealing with the highly infectious N501Y coronavirus variant, which has spread from Osaka and is disproportionally infecting younger people.
Instead of unveiling rings and mascots, a wiser option would have been to wave a white flag of surrender out of respect to the Japanese people who cannot muster even a whimper of Olympic spirit. Call it goodwill or coronavirus fatigue. A Kyodo News survey released just two days before the countdown showed that only 24.5% of people in Japan supported staging the games. Despite government efforts to woo the public to show its enthusiasm, an overwhelming majority do not want the Olympics ever, or at least not this July.
Meanwhile, the world looks on with disbelief that Japan has only just begun its public vaccination program against the coronavirus. As of Apr. 14, Japan has administered just 0.91 first shot doses per 100 people in the population. A country with such a positive reputation in science and technology and the ability to handle a national crisis is being viewed now with its back to the wall.
It is not a question of if the Olympic Games should be held, but why.
The go-slow vaccine rollout was tied to several causes, including the public's historical aversion to vaccinations, the government's need for additional testing to placate public concern and global supply chain backlogs. But these challenges have been largely overcome. A Tokyo Medical University online poll in January showed that 62% of the Japanese people were willing to get vaccinated against coronavirus, in keeping with global surveys that show a range of 60-80% who are vaccine willing.
All eyes now turn to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, whose makeup or breakup with the Japanese people will hinge on managing COVID-19 going forward. He is no longer Uncle Reiwa, whose September 2020 favorability stood at 74%. He is now the failed Go To travel campaign and failing Go Slow vaccine rollout Suga who needs to stage a dramatic comeback for his own sake -- and that of the country.
After Suga's meeting in Washington with Biden failed to produce a big reveal such as an announcement of an accelerated Marshall Plan-style vaccine rollout during the countdown period, global public pressure is likely to burst the protective bubble of confidence to hold the Summer Olympics.
The signs are tilting now in favor of cancellation or a second postponement. Rapidly rising cases from the fourth wave of infections have forced the Olympics torch rally to be all but hidden from public view.
The governor of Ehime Prefecture announced that there would be no torch rally for Matsuyama, the capital city and hometown of 2021 Masters golf tournament winner Hideki Matsuyama. Gov. Nakamura said, "We will hold the celebration for the arrival of the flame in a way that will not involve ordinary spectators," since emergency medical services in the region were already under "extreme pressure." Likewise, the Osaka and Okinawa governors have announced rerouting the torch rally to private roads away from spectators.
The candid grim talk by outlying governors is not in line with the happy smiles of national government figures who persist on counting down as infections go up.
An ongoing pandemic should prioritize science over the spectacle of holding the Olympics. Medical professionals around the country have been consistently skeptical about going forward as planned, but their worries are only now gaining momentum as the countdown to the opening ceremony looms. There is a trickle of resignation at play, with ruling Liberal Democratic Party second-in-command Toshihiro Nikai openly acknowledging that as virus numbers continue to rise, canceling the games will have to be an option.
But for now, politicians and invested stakeholders continue to stubbornly cling to an image of these games that just does not jibe with facts on the ground.
The gathering of international athletes will not be cheered on by any fans from home. Domestic volunteers and fans will be severely limited. The athletes themselves will not have the Olympic Village comraderies of the past. And there is no evidence that the pandemic games will offer anything promised from the tropes being circulated: hope, resilience, solidarity or shared humanity. Once the competitions end, the pandemic will go on.
Those tropes, if genuinely applied, belong to collectively combating a global public health crisis so that we can once again cheer en masse in stadiums.