Japan supporters at a public viewing site in Tokyo celebrate after Kenki Fukuoka scored a try. Photo: Kyodo

Remember those maskless days of yesteryear?

 

Remember 2019?

 

Japan was an electric place to be in 2019. The 20-nation Rugby World Cup kicked off on September 20, as Japan defeated Russia handily.

 

But when Japan’s Brave Blossoms triumphed over Scotland a few weeks later, Japan exploded in celebration. Japan made it to the top 8 for the first time. Television ratings were huge at 53.7%. And the public viewing sites were very loud displays of unabashed joy.

 

We all thought – what a party Tokyo2020 is going to be!

 

When a rugby team can carry the nation on its broad shoulders, what would it be like in Japan during the Olympics, when Japanese stars go for gold in track, tennis, gymnastics, badminton, wrestling, baseball, swimming and many other sports?

 

In 2019, we were months away from witnessing the greatest Olympics in history.

 

Tokyo2020 tickets were the hottest in the world. The ticket lottery in Japan was way oversubscribed. As I wrote in December, 2019, “in the latest round of the lottery for Tokyo 2020 Olympic tickets for residents in Japan, there were 23 million requests for tickets….chasing 1 million tickets.”

 

Volunteer registrations too were oversubscribed. More than 200,000 people applied to be volunteers for Tokyo2020, well over the target of 80,000.

 

In January of 2020, the Japan Tourism Agency announced that Japan had 31.9 million visitors from overseas in 2019, establishing new record for the 7th year in a row. The government was seeing such explosive growth in foreign tourists that they doubled their 2020 target from 20 million to 40 million in 2016.

 

The 2019 Rugby World Cup showed the world how impactful sports tourism can be in Japan. This EY Report on the economic impact of RWC2019 explained that 242,000 inbound tourists purchased 28% (approx 490,000) of all tickets in a tournament of 48 matches, all of which were essentially sold out. And they loved their experience in Japan – 75% of visiting foreigners who came to watch rugby replied they “absolutely want to come again.”

 

In 2019, we were anticipating that Tokyo2020 was going to be the cherry on top, the opportunity for Japan to subtly and outlandishly boast how wonderful a destination Japan is. The organizers were going to have an opportunity to hold up Tokyo2020 as an example of a Games in the mould of 1964 Tokyo or 1992 Barcelona – an Olympics that served the economy, not an economy that served the Olympics.

 

But then, the Diamond Princess entered the port of Yokohama on February 3, 2020, a daily reality program that introduced Japan to the fear of the unknown virus. On March 11, the NBA season ended suddenly, and Tom Hanks announced he and his wife had COVID-19. And finally, a day after Team Canada and Team Australia announced on March 23 they would not go to Tokyo that July, the Games were postponed for a year.

 

COVID-19 has upended the lives of billions of people around the world. The angst of whether to hold, postpone or cancel the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics should never be put on level of the horrible loss so many have experienced during the pandemic.

 

And yet, I do at moments, quietly lament the current state of the Games.

 

Oh what could have been.

The email I got on the state of my tickets

 

The debut of Karate in the Budokan!  The 4X100 men’s relay finals at the new National Stadium! Men’s and Women’s gold medal round at Saitama Super Arena! I bought those tickets!

 

Alas and alack, my tickets to those events and many more, disappeared like sand castles in the rain.

 

On March 9, the Japanese government decided to exclude overseas spectators from attending the Games, but still holding out hope that the infection rates would drop low enough to allow for spectators already in Japan.

 

Those hopes were dashed on Thursday, July 8. The organizers of Tokyo2020 announced that spectators will not be allowed at Olympic events in Tokyo, after Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announced a fourth State of Emergency (SOE) from Jul 12 to August 22.

 

With the number of daily infections trending upwards, Suga said that “we must take stronger steps to prevent another nationwide outbreak.”

 

There will continue to be debate over the COVID impact of tens of thousands of athletes, support staff and administrators visiting from overseas for the Olympics, to be held from July 23 to August 8. But the Games will go on in empty stadiums and arenas.

 

Not what we imagined during the euphoria of the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Twelve stadiums across Japan, from Sapporo to Shizuoka, from Osaka to Oita, were packed with enthusiastic fans from Japan and over 240,000 overseas visitors, who spent multiple days and weeks enjoying the 6-week party. Television ratings for the Japan-Scotland match that sent the Brave Blossoms into the Top 8 was an incredible 53.7%. And the news showed video of hundreds of screaming fans in public viewing sites across the country every day.

 

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will not be the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

 

But there is a new hope.

 

The State of Emergency ends on Sunday, August 22. The opening ceremony of the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics is Tuesday, August 24.

 

No announcements have been made regarding spectators for the Paralympics. Before the pandemic began, demand for tickets to the 2020 Paralympics were unprecedented, with numbers far exceeding those of the successful 2012 London Paralympics.

 

As of today, about 29% of people in Japan have had at least one vaccination dose. That’s 57 million shots. If Japan continues an average of a million per day for another month, the numbers of fully vaccinated will shoot up from its current 19% of the population now.

 

The growing ratio of the vaccinated, combined with the state of emergency discouraging opportunities for super-spreader events, it’s possible the infection rates drop enough to ease the collective anxiety of Japanese society. it’s possible the mood in August will be different from July. It’s possible, that at the end of the current state of emergency, citizens, corporations and government alike will look for opportunities to take steps toward normalcy.

 

Who knows? The 2020 Tokyo Paralympics may be kicking off at just the right time. The Paralympics may be the opportunity that fans, both domestic and international, are allowed into the stadiums and arenas. Full capacity at venues may be a stretch, but seeing fans in the new National Stadium will be a welcome sight.

 

And I have tickets to the opening and closing ceremonies of the Tokyo Paralympics.

 

I have hope.

Toshiya Kakiuchi, president of Mirairo

These are comments from Toshiya Kakiuchi, the president of Mirairo, a universal design consultancy based in Tokyo, who gave a talk on June 28, 2021 at Mirairo House. Relegated to a wheelchair since elementary school, Kakiuchi started Mirairo at  the age of 21 in 2010.

Today, Mirairo provides consulting services to some of the biggest names in the Japanese corporate world, with a strong focus on marketing research relevant to disabled consumers.

 

When Tokyo won the bid for the 2020 Olympics, a lot changed.

The Tokyo Metro and Toei Subway systems had wheelchair accessible elevators in 70% of all stations in 2014. It is now up to 95.3%. There are now maps available online that provide a lot of details about locations in Tokyo that are or are not barrier free. I can see a lot of TV commercials and programs that feature disabled people.

In 2013, companies didn’t know how to cater to the disabled. We have taught them about universal design. We helped them understand by experiencing what it is like to be disabled. The awareness of the need to be barrier free has grown, and many now realize we need to design products and services without creating barriers.

In some ways, the pandemic has helped improve understanding of the disabled. Because COVID has changed the way we work, I no longer have to apologize for teleworking. But there is a bigger issue. The need for social distance has meant the number of people visible on the streets has decreased significantly, including the disabled. The problem is, the less frequently society sees the disabled out and about, the less society may care about the disabled.

There still a lot to do, but Japan has changed since 2013. People’s attitude towards me has changed. I think that is because of Tokyo’s drive to become barrier free before the start of Tokyo2020.

 

Mirairo House

Kakiuchi gave these comments on Monday, June 28, 2021 at Mirairo House, an area on the 5th floor of Marui Department Store in Kinshicho, Tokyo managed by Mirairo.

Mirairo House is dedicated to providing space for providers to market products and services to the disabled, and hopefully sparking greater innovation among their business partners.

1964 Olympic gymnast, Shuji Tsurumi, gets ready for his torch lighting. (photos by Roy Tomizawa)

Like so much about this year’s Tokyo2020 run up, the Tokyo2020 torch relay is not a joyous event.

 

The crowds are small, as required.

The cheering is muted, as required.

But the show goes on, as required.

 

Compliance is running the show. It’s safe. It’s just not…..fun.

Having said that, it was wonderful to see two-time Olympian, six-time medalist, Shuji Tsurumi, who won 1 gold medal and 3 silver medals in men’s gymnastics for Team Japan at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics!

 

As has been the case in other prefectures, the running displays on the public roads were cancelled, replaced by “torch kiss” ceremonies, where torch bearers are brought together to have their torch lit by the flame of another. By removing this act from the roads, the organizers can control the number and behavior of the spectators.

 

On the afternoon of Saturday, July 3, ceremonies were held for torch bearers from Chiba prefecture in Matsudo Central Park, very near Matsudo Station in Chiba . At the 4pm ceremony, Tsurumi was the first person on stage, befitting his legendary Olympic record.

Tsurumi’s torch was lit by a staff member on stage.

 

Another resident of Chiba, Asako Yanase arrived, and Tsurumi tilted his torch towards the tip of Yanase’s torch in an igniting “kiss.” This was followed by “kisses” to nine other torchbearers, a group photo, and then an exit to ready the stage for another 11 torchbearers.

 


Spectators were by invitation only, and the overall numbers were limited, so guests could stay as socially distant as they preferred. But the atmosphere was low key, a sign of things to come for the actual Games.

 

With limited to no spectators expected in a few weeks, the athletes will have to psyche themselves up.

 

Welcome to Tokyo2020.

 

The Quiet Games.

 

Shuji Tsurumi, fittingly with torches from both 2020 and 1964.

The closer we get to the start, the farther we grow apart. Will Tokyo2020 be the Inclusion Games, or the Exclusion Games? Here’s an article I wrote for “Tokyo Updates.”

 

She was five years old, and she watched the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics with amazement.

Jackie Joyner Kersee! Carl Lewis!

And so Megumi Ikeda thought one day, this little girl from Nanyo, Yamagata in northern Japan would be as fast and as cool as Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

As it turned out, Ikeda (née Harada) simply didn’t have the athletic gifts to excel in track and field. And yet, the flame of high performance can be sparked in unexpected ways. Ikeda would go on to represent Japan at the 2004 Athens Olympics and the Beijing Olympics in individual épée fencing.

Fencing is an old sport, but it is not a money-making sport. People don’t fill arenas around the world to watch fencing, wrestling, weightlifting, curling, hammer throwing, cross-country skiing, or the luge.

But every four years, billions of people watch the Summer and Winter Olympic Games.

Art inspires

Why do so many people watch the Olympics?

So many people watch the Olympics because they become witness to the very best athletes in the world. Human senses are lifted to their keenest. Human physicality is stretched to its limits. Human desire swells up from the deepest recesses of one’s will.

Sport, like painting, singing, dancing, acting and writing is an act of human expression. Like a sculptor in an attic, a rock band in a basement, or actors in a park, kids on the street playing football are expressing themselves.

At the Olympics, sport is art. The Olympics provide highly skilled, highly trained athletes an…   (to read more, click on this link.)

Bill Barry and the rower he is coaching, Husein Alireza, the first rower to represent Saudi Arabia in the Olympics, at the 2020 Games.

Bill Barry was back in Tokyo. A silver-medalist for Great Britain in the coxless four rowing competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Barry flew into Japan as the coach of one of the rowers competing to qualify for Tokyo2020.

Amidst a State of Emergency in Tokyo, around 100 athletes, coaches and staff from 25 countries converged on Tokyo Bay for the Asia and Oceania Olympic and Paralympic Rowing Qualifier, which took place at the Sea Forest Waterway from May 5 to 7, 2021.

Barry was grateful to be here. Chungju, Korea was originally scheduled to host this qualifier in 2020, but they cancelled it with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Shanghai was a possible venue before China declined to host. That’s when the Japanese government stepped in and made the qualifier possible.

“It’s a miracle it took place,” said Barry, was the national rowing coach for Great Britain at the Athens, Beijing and London  Olympics. “It was turned down in Korea and China and the Japanese government came to the rescue. That’s fantastic, considering the feelings of concern of the Japanese people.”

Except for a windy Wednesday of “white horse” waves, which forced organizers to postpone the competition one day, the event’s conditions and organization were perfect. “It’s been great,” said Barry, who was coaching Husein Alireza, a rower from Saudi Arabia. “The people have bent over backwards. It’s been incredibly well organized, to the last detail.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was one reported case of a staff person from Sri Lanka who tested positive for COVID on May 5. According to World Rowing, safety protocol kicked in, and other members of the Sri Lanka team were immediately tested.

Members of the Japan Rowing Association medical team treating Husein.

The competitors and related coaches and staff are all a part of an extended bubble that envelops the visitors from airport to hotel to venue to hotel to airport, a smaller scale example of the more complex bubble that will protect the 15,000 plus athletes and para-athletes and support personnel this summer for Tokyo2020.

Barry said that the visiting teams spent three hours at Haneda Airport, going from station to station, answering questions, getting a covid test and filling in forms.

“I gave my address, telephone and email information many times,” said Barry. “They checked everything. Security was super tight. But it’s got to be done and done properly. And it was.”

Barry said they had to download three applications onto their phones, one that was to indicate where you were, and two others where one had to self-report on one’s health, and in Barry’s case, also one to report on the health of one’s team.

From Haneda Airport, the teams were transported in individual buses to the Hearton Hotel on the edge of Tokyo Bay. They were not allowed to leave the hotel except for travel to the rowing venue. Protocol required the wearing of masks and social distance (of course), travel only within teams, one person per hotel room, meals taken alone, and repeated testing.

The only two places these rowers saw: the Hearton Hotel and the rowing venue.

“We were tested when we arrived, the day before a racing event, and when we left,” said Barry. “Since the day my rower was competing was postponed, I had to get tested twice for competitions.”

The morning after the competition ended on May 7, Barry was headed to the airport and home. He was grateful to be back in Japan, and optimistic about Japan’s ability to host the Olympics.

“You wouldn’t think there was a problem,” he said. “Everyone enjoyed it. Everybody praised the organization, the volunteers, the Japanese Government, Japan Rowing Association, they all put on a great show.”

Since Barry could not leave the hotel except for the rowing venue, this is all he saw in his time in Tokyo.

Akiko Kuno at Komazawa Olympic Park – click on image to watch a video.

Soft Power

Wherever they went, they drew huge, enthusiastic crowds.

It was the summer of 1964. Young men and women wearing white tops with the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Emblem, looking something akin to the Japanese flag, ran through the streets, calling to the crowds that the Olympics were coming to Asia.

This was only 19 years after a time when Japanese troops carried their nation’s flag in battlefields of Asia.

Akiko Kuno was a 24-year old Japanese woman working in the Olympic Organizing Committee’s public relations department, and was selected as a member of the Overseas Olympic Torch Relay Mission.  This relay wended its way through Okinawa and then Japan, before ending at the Opening Ceremonies of the Tokyo Olympics in the National Stadium.

Kuno, who joined the mission from India, was concerned about the reception the Japanese would get in South East Asia.

Kuno with Torch Runners in Bangkok – with permission of Akiko Kuno.

The young runners, in cities like Yangon (then Rangoon) and Bangkok ran with a uniform that had the hinomaru on it. At the airport, when we parted I can’t forget what they said. They told me proudly that this was going to be Asia’s first Olympics. They said their hope was that Japan, which lost a war but recovered, can be a model of success, so that one day their own country could one day host an Olympics. “That is the dream that this torch relay gives us,” they told me.

Kuno was one of the few Japanese present to witness a near perfect execution of geopolitical “soft power” in a time when the phrase didn’t exist. She was part of a team of roughly 40, members of the Olympic Organizing Committee (OOC), a JAL crew of pilots, engineers and a stewardess, as well as the Japanese media. They journeyed together for 40 days during the international torch relay that started in Greece on August 21, and passed through Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, India, Myanmar (then Burma), Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Okinawa.

A Dream Job

It was March, 1964 and Kuno had graduated from Keio University. While most of her friends got married after graduation, Kuno wanted to be part of the Olympics. She had good English skills, having studied at Stanford University in California as well as Hope College in Michigan. Equally important, her father was a good friend of Kazushige Hirasawa, a diplomat and an influential senior journalist with NHK, who helped Japan land the 1959 bid for the 1964 Olympics with an inspiring speech.

OOC credentials, with permission of Akiko Kuno.

With Hirasawa’s help, Kuno became a staff member of the Olympic Organizing Committee, which was located in the Akasaka Rikyu Palace, the residence of the Crown Prince before the war. She was assigned to the public relations department, which was located in the study of the Crown Prince.

Kuno had several duties. She took visiting International Olympic Committee (IOC) and National Olympic Committee officials on tours of the various venues that workers were rushing to complete in time for the Games. She coordinated with the international news agencies. For nations that were sending athletes but did not have diplomatic relations with or embassies in Japan, she sourced English-speaking Japanese men who belonged to the Junior Chamber International Japan, people who had the time and means to assist the people from those countries.

And she was asked to take care of the most senior person in the Olympic movement – Avery Brundage, the president of the International Olympic Committee. Kuno said she was routinely asked to take dictation and type up documents for him, not an easy task for a famous taskmaster.

He said type this and that, and there were a lot of mistakes. I was so scared. I never worked as a secretary. Brundage had a warm heart but he did not smile and he had a short temper.

Of course, when Brundage flawlessly delivered his speech, in Japanese, soliciting the Emperor of Japan to open the Tokyo Olympics, he thanked Kuno for her support in making sure his pronunciation was well practiced.

Olympic torch route (Eurasia)

The Sacred Mission

One day in July, 1964, her role suddenly expanded. Kuno’s supervisor came up to give her an order – that she would be assigned to the overseas torch relay mission. Her only thought? “YAY!”

The Japanese mission that oversaw the operations of the international torch relay traveled together with the sacred Olympic flame, their journey spanning 12 countries and about 16,000 kilometers. This meant that they had to journey by plane. They flew on a DC-6B, a prop plane called “City of Tokyo,” which was outfitted with special safety measures to carry two specially designed containers filled with kerosene and modeled on the design of a coal-mine safety lamp.

Kuno was one of two English interpreters on the team. The first one traveled with the team from Greece to India. Kuno relieved her in Calcutta, India and took responsibility for the second half of the international torch relay. She explained the daily plan.

  • The City of Tokyo arrives in the destination’s airport.
  • Fumio Takashima, the OOC chairman of the Olympic Torch Relay Committee, lights a torch from the flame of the safety lamp.
  • A local dignitary or the NOC Head waits with an unlit torch and Takashima lights his torch.
  • Then he passes the flame to the first actual local runner.
  • The runners follow a route to the national stadium of that country, or a city hall or a large public space with a big stand.
  • The evening included a reception where members of the torch relay mission dined and mingled with the local dignitaries. (Kuno translated for Takashima during these events.)

The next day was the process in reverse, where runners followed the same route back to the airport. According to Kuno, on average, there were about 15 runners one way, and another 15 on the return, although there were also official runners who accompanied the torch bearer.

All the runners were young men and women, their uniforms and the torches donated to them by the Tokyo OOC.

During the course of the relay, the roads were filled with spectators hoping to get a glimpse of the Olympic flame. The organizers escorted the runners with cars preceding and following the torch bearer. Kuno, who was always in the car behind, was particularly anxious during those times.

The fuel within the torch, a mixture of red phosphorus, manganese dioxide and magnesium burned a flare-like red for only 6 minutes. Kuno’s mission was to make sure that the runner got to the next runner within 6 minutes. Having the sacred flame fizzle out in front of thousands would have been humiliating. It wasn’t going to happen on her watch.

The crowd came out onto the road. My job was open the window say in English, “GET AWAY!” And when that didn’t work, I shouted in Japanese, “DOITE!” That got their attention. And the flame never died out.

Kuno remarked that every member of the mission felt it was imperative that the flame never go out during the relay. She said that the President of the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee, Yasukawa Daigoro, took exceptional risk management measures. After the flame was ignited by the sun in a ceremony in Olympia, Greece, he made sure that he got a part of that flame, which he kept on his person.

In those days, Japanese would keep warm on cold evenings with metal mini-heaters the size of a lighter called kairo, which contained a piece of heated charcoal. According to Kuno, Yasukawa, who did not accompany the international tour, ignited a flame for his kairo, and put it in his pocket…just in case the DC-6 City of Tokyo crashed.

Kuno said she was saddened to see the flame go out twice in Fukushima during the start of the Tokyo2020 Torch Relay. For her, the flame represents a powerful symbol for humanity that should never go out.

While working as a part of the torch relay mission, I was so occupied with my responsibility to not let the flame die out. I remember I was so moved to see all these excited people on the streets. I think they saw the flame as a symbol of eternal peace and hope. Throughout the relay, I felt that Asian people were united with the same hope and dream – that war will never happen again. 

Akiko Kuno, with permission of Akiko Kuno.
Picture cut outs fill seats between spectators in the front seat boxes_TV Asahi

On a day when Osaka had 1,161 infections, it’s fifth day in a row over 1,000, skaters from six nations competed in that city at the Maruzen Intec Arena.

 

On April 15, 2021, the first day of the four-day ISU World Team Trophy in Figure Skating, 48 skaters from six nations, along with coaches, team staff, referees and tournament staff all tested negative for coronavirus, allowing them to enter the competition bubble and perform in front of a live audience.

 

On Saturday night April 17, Team Russia won the competition, with Team USA and Team Japan finishing second and third. As the International Skating Union (ISU) determined that this event would have Beijing Olympic implications, some of the world’s best figure skaters came to Osaka, including potential 2022 individual gold medalists, Nathan Chen of the USA and Anna Shcherbakova of Russia.

Sold out, but still a sparse crowd_TV Asahi

In November 2020, Skate Canada expressed concern about competing in Japan as they wondered if COVID-19 protocols were sufficient enough. In the end, teams from Canada, Italy and France joined Russia, America and Japan in the ISU bubble.

 

The Maruzen Intec Arena seats about 10,000 people. Watching the event on TV Asahi one could estimate that attendance was probably less than a thousand, with spectators sitting every other seat, with no one in front or behind.

 

With fewer than 100 days to go, this is the first major example of an international sporting event taking place this year in Japan with spectators, more evidence that Tokyo2020 will likely happen this summer.

Tokyo2020 taketh, and Tokyo2020 giveth. My prayers were answered.

 

On March 20, the Japanese government announced that it would strictly limit overseas spectators to Tokyo2020. The authorized ticket reseller, CoSport USA, immediately informed paid customers that they would refund all tickets.

 

All my Tokyo2020 Olympic tickets were purchased through CoSport. Even though I live in Japan, my tickets were suddenly gone, as I wrote earlier.

 

But then, on April 6, I woke up to this surprising email message from Co-Sport: “We have recently received confirmation from the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee that we can allow you to keep your tickets if you so choose.”

 

I chose.

 

“Please note that we cannot be responsible for your travel to/from Japan as a result of the foreign spectator ban but we would also like to help accommodate your needs/plans based on your previous purchase(s).”

 

Well, I’m already in Tokyo. And I suppose there was feedback to Tokyo2020 of many others who were already in Japan, or who would be able to transfer them to people they know in Japan.

 

Then on April 9, I was informed by Tokyo2020 that the tickets I had won in the Paralympic ticket lottery would be delivered in late June.

 

Anything can happen. The 4th wave of the pandemic hitting the world, including Japan, could turn into a tsunami that alarms the most tunnel-visioned Olympians, and the Games could still end up cancelled.

 

But as of today, the political will to stage the Olympics and Paralympics is strong.

 

And I don’t mind.

 

I’ve got tickets. And if all is reasonably safe and sound, I will be there cheering (silently), smiling (behind a mask), and high fiving (the air).