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The Olympics Are In 10 Weeks, But Many In Japan Don't Want Them


The rescheduled Tokyo Summer Olympics start just 10 weeks from today. They're still called the 2020 Olympics, by the way. And with them comes a lot of controversy. COVID-19 infections in Japan are soaring, some of the highest number since the pandemic began. And vaccination numbers are low. Just 1% of the population in Japan is fully vaccinated so far. Many major cities, Tokyo included, are under states of emergency. But still, the government and the International Olympic Committee insist that the games will go on. The Japanese public, on the other hand, largely disapproves.

Here to walk us through all of this is Motoko Rich. She's The New York Times Tokyo bureau chief, and she joins us now. Welcome.

MOTOKO RICH: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: So let's just start with how it feels in Tokyo right now. What are you hearing from people about the games, about the pandemic right now?

RICH: Well, as you noted, the public is largely opposed right now. The most recent polling is showing around 60% just want the thing canceled. I think part of it is a sense of fatigue with the pandemic. They want it to go away, and they're fearful that the Olympics may exacerbate the problem in Japan. Because the vaccine rates are so low, people are worried about literally tens of thousands of people coming into the country. This is a country whose borders...

CHANG: Yeah.

RICH: ...Have been largely closed for the past year. And so I think there's sort of this general sort of a sense of worry and wondering, why now? Why are we still pushing forward with this?

CHANG: Yeah. Well, let's talk about the volume of people who are expected to be there. I mean, international spectators are banned. And even without the hordes of tourists normally there, this is going to be a logistical nightmare, to say the least - tens of thousands of athletes from 200 countries, roughly 78,000 local volunteers, plus thousands of medical personnel, all arriving in Tokyo in just a couple of months. I mean, what kind of plans are even in place to keep people safe right now?

RICH: The IOC...

CHANG: IOC - that's the International Olympic Committee.

RICH: ...Has negotiated with Pfizer and BioNTech to donate vaccine doses for any athlete that wants them. So there's a sense that in the Olympic village among the athletes, that probably a majority of those folks will be vaccinated. But then, as you say, those 78,000 volunteers are mostly local people, and if they're not over 65, they will not be vaccinated. So they're really worried. The protection that they're being offered is one or two cloth masks and some hand sanitizer.

And then the - in terms of the preparations, the organizers of the Tokyo Olympics have talked a lot about how, you know, safety and security is really a priority for us. And the way we're going to achieve it is by all these sort of measures that have been implemented in Japan all voluntarily, right? But I think a lot of the residents in Japan are just worried, is that going to be enough? There's also this question of cultural differences, that in Asia, largely, wearing masks is not a big deal. There's never been a political fight...

CHANG: Yeah.

RICH: ...About it. But there are people coming from over 200 countries where they may not have thought that wearing masks was all that important. So they get here, and they may not do it in the same way or comply with the rules in the same way. And so there's a worry that with all these people coming in, that that will exacerbate infections.

CHANG: I mean, what is the big reason that's driving this huge push for the games to go ahead? Is it simply money?

RICH: Well, that's certainly a large part of it, both on the part of the Tokyo organizers and the IOC. I mean, the way the IOC makes money is by broadcast rights. On the Tokyo organizers' side, they've sunk about $15 billion into...


RICH: ...Both building infrastructure and preparing for these Olympics. And so there's this kind of dogged determination to go forward with it. I mean, a lot of the media commentators here and analysts have been talking in kind of World War II metaphors, that, you know, Japan's government and organizers are behaving as the pre-World War II government, you know, pushing ahead despite all warnings otherwise that this is not a good idea and that they're going to go, you know, take the country down with them sort of sense of it.

CHANG: That's remarkable. Well, if anyone in the government is having second thoughts - I mean, the games are in 10 weeks, as we said, which really is not that far away. Does it seem like anything will or really can change between now and then?

RICH: I think there's always a chance. And, I mean, we ask at every press conference, have you even considered the possibility of cancellation? And the answer is always no, we're not even considering that possibility. We are going ahead. But that doesn't mean that there aren't some doubts privately. But as you say, we're getting closer and closer, and all preparations seem to be all systems go. This has the feel of a runaway train.

CHANG: Motoko Rich is The New York Times bureau chief in Tokyo. Thank you very much for your reporting.

RICH: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF FELBM'S "FUNICULAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.

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