Nearly 70% of people do not expect the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games to be held as scheduled, according to a Kyodo News survey in early March.

The reason is the global impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

From Shanghai to Rome, from London to New York, we’re seeing the most populous cities in the world turn into ghost towns overnight.

So while the Japanese feel that holding the Olympics and Paralympics may be impossible this year, they are doing so in a country that is surprisingly sociable. While the same Kyodo News survey showed that 44.3% of the Japanese survey disapproved of the government measures, people are out and about in ways that would be shocking to people elsewhere in the world.

Gakugeidaigaku 15March and Shibuya 21March
People out and about on March 15 in my neighborhood in Meguro (left), and on March 21 in Shibuya (right).

Yes, Japan had the scare of the Diamond Princess, a story brought live by Twitter and TV into the phones and homes of every citizen here. And when the passengers were released in a seemingly slipshod and insecure manner, there were fears of a potential outbreak in Japan.

Surprisingly, the outbreak never happened in Japan. Other countries raced ahead of Japan in terms of number of infections or coronavirus-related deaths. While other Asian nations got praise for their swift response regarding policies and testing, Japan has been criticized for its relatively limited testing and perceived lack of transparency. Still Japan is quietly sharing numbers that reflect a relatively low number of infections, and perhaps more significantly, a much lower number of reported hospitalizations and deaths due to coronavirus.

movie theater_8March
At least Japanese are refraining from movie theaters_Futagotamagawa on Sunday afternoon, March 8.

Is Japan exceptional? We’ll have to wait for the research after the pandemic has run its course, but this article cites several reasons why Japan may be ahead of the curve when it comes to fighting off coronavirus:

  • the most vulnerable demographic – 65 and older – is a very healthy one in Japan
  • Japan’s national health system is accessible to all and inexpensive
  • Senior care services are abundant and inexpensive
  • Japanese hospitals are experienced in detecting early and treating respiratory ailments in the elderly, and
  • Japanese  are very hygiene conscious, and do not have customs like hand shaking and kissing

Two months after the horror show that was the Diamond Princess, the Japanese health system is handling the comparatively small number of cases coming its way.

Farmers Market 5
The Farmers Market in front of the United Nations University Building in Shibuya open for business on Saturday, March 21. No ghosts here.

So while corporations across Japan have cancelled large events and large meetings, implemented policies that restrict movement and encourage work from home, there are still many people commuting to work in buses and trains.

While people in Japan are discouraged not to gather for cherry blossom viewing parties as the sakura begin to bloom this weekend, the restaurants and shopping areas are still filled with people.

Public schools all over Japan closed down a couple of weeks before the beginning of Spring Break. And yet, only several weeks later, the government is now recommending that  schools re-open (assuming there are no new confirmed cases) as planned at the beginning of the new academic year in April.

To the outsider, Japan may be compared to Nero fiddling while his city burned. But so far, the numbers are not indicating a city on fire.

Yes, it is strange to live in Japan today. Surreal in fact.

I think I’ll go for a walk among the cherry trees.

lining up for masks and restaurant in Shibuya
In Shibuya, on March 21, people were lining up for masks (left), as well as for their favorite restaurants (right).

The Surreality of Tokyo2020 in the Era of Coronovirus Part 1: Are We Witnessing Effective Decision Making or the Rearranging of Deck Chairs on the Titanic?

Diamond Princess

We followed the story of the Diamond Princess as if we were binge watching a Stephen King adaptation on Netflix – with fascination and fear.

 

The two-week quarantine of the 3,711 passengers and crew on the British grand-class cruise ship docked at Yokohama harbor was a constant reminder to the Japanese of how close the coronavirus outbreak has come to Japanese shores. The death of two elderly passengers on board the Diamond Princess on February 20 at the end of the quarantine intensified the concern over the Japanese government’s decision to release hundreds of passengers who tested negative for the virus.

 

In fact, as the number of reported infections on the ship climbed, so too did the number of reported infections across Japan: Kanagawa, Wakayama, Hokkaido, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Okinawa, Kyushu, Aichi, Chiba….

 

Masks are the coinage of the land. Tokyo and Kyoto are no longer swarming with tourists as inbound cancellations climb. Announcements of meeting and conference cancellations in companies across the country are coming hard and fast. Organizers for the March 1 Tokyo Marathon and the March 8 Nagoya Women’s Marathon are dropping tens of thousands or participants from the race, and allowing only the elite runners to compete.

 

And then there’s the elephant in the room.

 

Will the Tokyo2020 Olympics be cancelled?

 

Yashiro Mori, former Japan prime minister and current president of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games pointed at the elephant in the room and said:

 

I would like to make it clear again that we are not considering a cancellation or postponement of the games. Let me make that clear.

 

That was February 13, just before the cases of coronavirus began to crisscross the country.

 

Dr. Hitoshi Oshitani, a Japanese virologist, said on February 19 that the Olympics could not take place today.

 

“I’m not sure [of] the situation in Japan at the end of July,” he said at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan on Wednesday, as per The Associated Press. “We need to find the best way to have a safe Olympics. Right now we don’t have an effective strategy, and I think it may be difficult to have the Olympics [now]. But by the end of July we may be in a different situation.”

 

Or we may not be.

 

We have no cure for coronavirus right now. We understand so little about the latest virus outbreak. And in the absence of clear facts, what often fills the void is doubt, speculation and fear.

 

Am I safe? Will a cure be found in time? Will the virus burn out as the temperature climbs?

 

Will the Olympics be cancelled, its sunk cost like an albatross around the necks of the country, the IOC and the massive number of organizations and businesses that have invested in these Games?

Or will the Olympics rise like a Phoenix, overcoming crisis, sending our spirits aloft?

 

Note: This article was written on February 22, in the midst of daily changes and updates regarding the coronavirus in Japan.