After last year’s cancellation due to COVID-19, the Olympic Games are due to kick off in Tokyo in five weeks’ time. But as the clock winds down on the opening ceremony, many in Japan continue to question the decision to hold the Games and risk unleashing another wave of infections that could derail the country’s fragile economic recovery.
Though foreign spectators have been barred from attending the Games, the event will still draw athletes and officials from around the world, increasing the risk of new variants of COVID-19 being introduced into Japan.
Some public health experts fear the Games could become a “superspreader” event. Last month, the head of the Japan Doctors Union warned the gathering could even spawn a new “Tokyo Olympic” strain of COVID-19.
Japan is on the downslope of its fourth wave of COVID-19 infections, and its third declared state of emergency is set to ease next week.
Though the government has ramped up its vaccination campaign, it is well behind other developed nations when it comes to administering jabs.
As of Wednesday, just over 6 percent of Japan’s population was fully vaccinated and less than 10 percent was partially inoculated, according to Our World in Data.
A growing chorus of voices encompassing nurses’ unions, medical associations, prominent business leaders including the heads of Rakuten and SoftBank – and even one of the government’s top medical advisers – have been calling for the Olympics to be postponed again, or outright cancelled to shield the country’s already stretched healthcare system and to keep its economic rebound on track.
Like other nations the world over, Japan saw its economy badly battered last year by COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions. But its crawl back to pre-pandemic health has lagged behind that of peers. Virus emergencies saw its rebound falter in the first three months of this year when the economy shrank 3.9 percent from the previous quarter, according to the latest government reading.
Though many economists see the country posting modest growth in the second quarter, some fear that recovery could be dealt a severe blow should the Olympics unleash more COVID-19 damage.
“The Olympic Games could be a catalyst of another round of expansion of that spread of the coronavirus. That negative impact to the economy could be very huge,” Takahide Kiuchi, an economist with the Nomura Research Institute, told Al Jazeera.
The former Bank of Japan economist estimates that three pandemic-related shutdowns have so far cost the country 6.4 trillion, 6.3 trillion and 3.2 trillion yen respectively ($58.1bn, $57.2bn and $29bn).
If the Games cause another wave of infections that leads to a state of emergency, Kiuchi said it could cause the economy to shrink again in the final three months of this year.
When weighed against how much revenue the Games could generate – $15.1bn to $16.4bn, depending on whether domestic fans fill venues to capacity – the potential financial cost of going ahead with the Games dwarfs the potential benefits, Kiuchi added.
One person who would like to see the Games cancelled is Etsuko Yamazaki. The owner of a Ramen shop in Tokyo’s Suginami ward, she told Al Jazeera she has resorted to selling her personal belongings to keep her business afloat through successive lockdowns.
The 35-year-old became a social media celebrity in May after a passer-by tweeted a picture of a handwritten placard she had posted outside of her shop that read: “I haven’t received any aid from Tokyo, and I’m embarrassed to say I have no more private stuff to sell. I’ve reached our limit … customers, please help me”.
The tweet became viral and customers now slurp noodles in solidarity. But she fears the relief will only prove temporary should the Olympics ignite yet another wave of COVID-19 and usher in more business-sapping restrictions.
— スペシャルウニーク✹ (@Manager_Uni) May 21, 2021
“I cannot say we’re going to be OK. If the Olympics make the situation worse, it would be more difficult for us to continue the business,” Yamazaki told Al Jazeera. “All the restaurants and bars are struggling right now.”
But not all small and medium-sized business owners are so keen to pull the plug. Motokuni Takaoka is president of Tokyo-based bedding supplier and Olympic sponsor Airweave. He estimates his firm lost between $5m to $10m when the Games were postponed last year, and is keen to see them go ahead this year as planned.
“If the Olympics are held, we need to support it,” he told Al Jazeera.
The role of the IOC
Some experts point out that it is not Japan but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that has the legal authority to cancel the Games.
While Japan could break its contract with the IOC, “the costs would be enormous”, said Paul O’Shea, a senior lecturer at Sweden’s Lund University, writing in the Conversation.
As O’Shea points out, though host cities typically lose money on the Olympics, the IOC makes its income from holding them.
Laura Misener, director of the School of Kinesiology at Western University in Canada, said that with billions of dollars in sponsorship at stake, the IOC is pressing ahead to ensure its brand isn’t tarnished.
“I think the irony of course is the fact that, if it doesn’t go well, and they do bring everybody there, the brand that they’re going to walk away with is going to be so much worse than it could be in terms of cancelling [the] Games at this point,” she told Al Jazeera.
But others believe there could be a hard-nosed political calculus at play amid media reports that Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is likely to call a snap election after the Olympics.
The IOC declined Al Jazeera’s request for an interview. The Tokyo 2020 press office, citing time restrictions, was unable to accommodate Al Jazeera’s request for an interview for this article.
Robert Baade, a professor of economics at Lake Forest College in the United States who has written about the economic impact of the Olympics, gives little credence to the theory that contractual obligations and the threat of massive financial penalties are dictating Japan’s seeming acquiescence to the IOC on whether to cancel.
”I think the Japanese government would like the IOC to make that decision, and they can always blame the IOC,” he told Al Jazeera. “I suppose if something goes wrong, but given the fact that the Games are unpopular among the citizenry, then maybe this is a logical thing for the Japanese government to do.”