Tokyo’s Olympic Games: A Reporter Looks Back

This year's games will go ahead, though spectators will be barred from most events amid concerns over COVID-19.
A commentary by Dan Southerland
2021-07-23
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Tokyo’s Olympic Games: A Reporter Looks Back Tokyo's National Stadium, main venue for the Olympic Games, is shown in a July 7, 2021 photo.
AFP

As the Olympic Games open in Tokyo under stressful conditions, it’s hard to forget how upbeat its citizens were 57 years ago when the city first hosted the games.

I was a fledgling journalist working the night desk for the UPI news agency at the time, so I didn’t get to attend the games but I did witness the excitement over the Olympics that many Japanese felt at the time.

As three New York Times reporters explained it in the newspaper’s July 22 edition, “the 1964 Tokyo Olympics are often regarded as the point when Japan pivoted into prosperity.”

Within four years, Japan became the world’s second-largest economy, behind the United States, which had occupied the country at the end of the Second World War.

You could sense the excitement over the Olympics in the streets of Tokyo. The Japanese government initiated a building binge aimed at making the city more presentable.

For the first time in their lives, many Japanese bought television sets and other modern appliances like refrigerators.

“Back in 1964, there was “a sense of Japan in motion and a sense of a country with a future,’ Hiromu Nagahara, an associate professor of history at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told The Times.

Now, it’s “a country that has lost confidence and a country whose political elites feel very intensely that loss of confidence,” Nagahara said.

The dangers posed by the COVID-19 pandemic have caused many Japanese to oppose holding the Olympics In Tokyo.

When Tokyo bid for holding the games, the Japanese Prime Minister at the time, Shinzo Abe, described it as a symbol of triumph over a devastating earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear accident that occurred in 2011.

That message has been lost as the games are now being held amid a state of emergency as coronavirus cases have reached a six-month high in Tokyo.

Positive cases have been discovered in the Olympic Village, and spectators will be barred from all but a few events. So most Japanese will be watching on television.

A few scandals involving organizers of the Olympics have further clouded the picture.

Games will go on

But the decision has been made. The games will go on. And once they begin, attention and excitement will likely shift to the athletes themselves, some of whom have spoken enthusiastically to broadcasters about the well-organized accommodations they have been provided at the Olympic Village

In an interview on Tuesday with The Wall Street Journal, Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga defended his decision to hold the Tokyo Olympics during a pandemic, saying that Japan has a fraction of the COVID-19 cases that Western countries have experienced.

He also said that Japan has been more disciplined in preventing infections.

“If you compare our number of infections with countries abroad, we have fewer by a whole order of magnitude,” Suga said. “We’ve got vaccinations advancing, we’re taking tough steps to prevent infections, so my judgment is we’re in the right place and we’re ready to go.”

Mask-wearing remains nearly universal in Japan, which Suga said is crucial to protecting the nation.

According to The Journal, infections in Tokyo started rising in late June, leading Suga to declare a state of emergency in the capital starting July 12 and lasting through the end of the Olympics.

Japan’s daily infections—nearly 4,000 on July 20—are running at about one-fourth the U.S. level on a per-capita basis.

With three in five elderly people and 22 percent of the overall population now fully vaccinated, the death toll in Japan also has rapidly shrunk to about one-seventh the U.S. level per capita, according to Our World in Data, a website that tracks COVID-19 cases.

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