As the jets passed over Paris drawing the tri-colors of the French flag in a semi-circle around the Eiffel Tower, a joyous and packed crowd of thousands in the square shouted, waved and clapped in celebration…in anticipation of the 2024 Paris Olympics.

That live broadcast at the end of the Tokyo2020 closing ceremony stood in stunning contrast to the empty seats of the National Stadium in Tokyo, as the baton was passed from the organizing committee of Tokyo2020 to Paris2024.

To some, equally stunning is the fact that France’s daily COVID-19 infection rates (22,000) are about 70% higher than Japan’s daily infection rates (13,000 per day) – that despite Japan’s population being nearly double France’s.

Was Japan being overly cautious to ban spectators from the Olympic events? Was France being irresponsible in allowing its citizens to gather en masse, masked or not?

It’s hard to say as reasons for these different attitudes toward the current state of the pandemic are likely rooted in cultural traits.

Japan is often called a risk-averse culture.

Compared to, say America, savings rates in Japan are very high, and investments tend to be cash in the bank. As a result, Japan is not a hotbed for start ups and entrepreneurs (although that is slowly changing.)

And generally speaking, there is a tendency in Japanese organizations to plan, check, double check and triple check before moving ahead with execution, which can frustrate people who prefer to get things started ready or not, under the assumption that acting quickly gets you feedback you can iterate on.

Many around the world wondered why the vaccine roll out in Japan was perceived to start so late even though officials knew tens of thousands of overseas visitors would likely be crossing their borders in July for the Olympics. I am not clear on the decision making process, but the attitude was likely caution: Are the vaccinations safe enough for our people? My guess is that a lot of people in Japan supported that cautious approach.

I am American, but I have lived in Japan for over 20 years. While I sometimes wish things could be executed more quickly, or others would be more willing to go out of their comfort zone and try new things, I know I live in a country where systems and services work very well, and are operated with the highest levels of safety in mind, because of the behaviors embedded in a risk-averse culture.

The Tokyo2020 Olympics have ended. A COVID bubble of immense proportions – containing some  50,000 overseas visitors – held firm, keeping people both outside and inside the bubble healthy. When Japan won the bid for 2020 in 2013, they were called a “safe pair of hands” for a reason. The reputation for Japan’s operational excellence is unparalleled.

The Tokyo2020 Olympics were a promise made to the sporting world in 2013. There was tremendous effort and political capital spent in order to keep that promise. Time will tell whether keeping that promise was the right decision or not.

But in terms of whether the Japan’s cautious approach was the right one or not, I have to say it was.

Thank you Japan, for bringing the world together safely, so we could bear witness to, and draw inspiration from the artistry and humanity of the world’s best athletes.

Cholera Quarantine_Yomiuri_14oct1964

It was only 13 months ago when the World Health Organization declared zika a global health emergency, particularly in Latin America. With babies born with deformed heads, men and women alike were worried about going to Brazil for the Rio Olympics last August.

And while the zika virus has not exploded into a pandemic as some had warned last year, it is still an outbreak of urgency, one that still concerns mothers-to-be in the affected regions.

In 1964, a disease that struck fear in populations throughout the world was cholera. From 1961 into the 1979s, the world was facing the seventh known outbreak of a cholera strain called El Tor. While El Tor was rarely fatal, its symptoms of severe watery diarrhea over days were enough to cause considerable fear. El Tor emerged from Indonesia, to such countries as Bangladesh, India, the USSR, Italy, North Africa and the South Pacific.

On Tuesday, October 13, 1964, the third day of the Tokyo Olympics, the newspapers explained that El Tor had made it to Japan. The October 14 Yomiuri reported that Mr. Shoji Endo, a company employee of Dai-ichi Kinzoku Company, a trading company that specialized in importing metal. Apparently, Endo had returned to Japan on Saturday, October 10, after working in Kenya for three months, and then returned to Japan through Calcutta, India and Bangkok, Thailand. Immediately after arriving in Tokyo, he boarded a train to the resort town of Shimoda to join his company colleagues on a company trip. On Tuesday, October 11, Endo fell ill with diarrhea.

early japanese cholera prevention
Early 20th century cholera-prevention notice in Tokyo

Thus commenced a mini-panic. Once they realized that Endo had recently passed through Calcutta and Bangkok, where El Tor cholera had apparently been spreading rapidly, and his diarrhea, officials acted relatively quickly:

  • People who had been in contact with Endo, colleagues and resort staff, were immediately placed in an isolation ward at a Shimoda hospital.
  • The Shizuoka Prefecture government set up a cholera precaution headquarters at the resort, and set up facilities to inoculate the 15,000 residents of Shimoda and enforce quarantine measures.
  • In Tokyo, the Welfare Ministry ordered an extensive anti-cholera campaign, and sent an official to Shimoda to ensure enforcement of the inoculations as well as the disinfection of buildings (where foreigners have stayed) and ditches and the extermination of rats, flies and cockroaches.
  • The Japanese National Railways, as well the Keisei Electric Railway Company took measures to disinfect stations on Endo’s travel route.
  • The Izumi-so Inn was effectively closed, cordoned off from the public.

Of course, this was a disaster not only for the Izumi-so Inn, but for the tourism business in Shimoda. As The Yomiuri explained, “the outbreak of cholera was having a serious effect on the town which depends on tourism for its finances. By Tuesday evening, an estimated 1,500 bookings had been canceled and the figure was rising.

The inns are normally packed with 4,000 tourists daily. The town tourist association estimated losses at JPY6,000,000 for Tuesday alone.”

As it turns out, there was no cholera outbreak in Shimoda. Perhaps it was because the officials isolated Endo in time – cholera, officials said, is contagious only after symptoms have appeared, and apparently Endo had shown no symptoms before he left Tokyo for Shimoda. Endo eventually recovered and that was that.

As for the Izumi-so Inn, it is still a thriving resort hotel, which, according to this Booking.com summary, is “a 3-mintue drive from Gero Train Station…offers Japanese-style rooms, an indoor and an open-air natural hot spring bath and Japanese cuisine.” If you’re in Japan and want to enjoy hot springs by the seaside, then look no further. The Izumi-so Inn averages an impressive 8.7 points out of 10 on the site’s review section.

Izumi-so Inn
Izumi-so Inn