February 19, 2020
Japan needs to rethink the Olympics. The most pressing reason to postpone or cancel the 2020 Tokyo summer games, which are due to start in late July, is a raging public health crisis of unknown dimensions.
The second most important reason to put the Olympics on hold is the Japanese government response to the public health crisis to date: it has shown itself to have feet of clay.
If the Diamond Princess cruise ship, docked in Yokohama Port under quarantine, is a litmus test of Japan’s ability to exercise compassion and competence in an emergency involving thousands of people from around the world, the Abe government has failed miserably.
Prime Minister Abe Shinzo continues to dither while a ship docked in a Japanese port is ravaged by a dangerous virus; nearly 500 infected at latest count. Mr Abe and his political associates continue to proclaim the Olympics will not be delayed, but that is just wishful thinking.
How can a country move forward with plans to “welcome” the world to the Tokyo games when it can’t even deal with a single cruise ship stranded in Tokyo Bay?
- Japan hits back at ‘chaotic’ cruise ship quarantine claims
- Two passengers from quarantined cruise ship in Japan die
- Two die on virus ship
Ever since right-wing firebrand Ishihara Shintaro was mayor of Tokyo, the 2020 Olympics have been a pet project of Japan nationalists seeking to burnish a flawed legacy. They hold the vain hope the 2020 games will be as transformative as the 1964 Tokyo Olympics famously were, again heralding an era of national pride.
Perhaps the turning point of the Beijing Olympics of 2008 is a more apt comparison, given the upsurge of social control, information control and the discordant noise of nationalism.
Among other things, Mr Abe also sees the Olympics as a way of proving to the world that the Fukushima nuclear mess — Japan’s answer to Chernobyl — is not a cause for concern. This is ironic because the messy aftermath of the triple disaster (earthquake, tsunami and meltdown) of March 2011 has been seized upon by Mr Abe and his allies to tighten their grip on power.
Fukushima is an environmental tragedy, but the fact is, it cannot be fully contained, so the struggle has shifted to containing information.
Former prime minister Koizumi Junichiro has called Mr Abe “a liar” for sugar-coating the disaster. Mr Abe had statistics about evacuees were reclassified and altered to make things look more positive. He reassured the Olympic Committee that things at Fukushima were “under control”, which is to say he had the flow of information under control, not the toxic, radioactive leaks. In 2019, Mr Abe’s cabinet shamelessly made a move to dump a million tonnes of “harmless” contaminated water into the open sea.
Mr Abe’s ability to control information is bolstered by an “official secrets act” that criminalises journalists and whistleblowers for reporting leaked information, including radiation leaks. He has exonerated those most responsible for the nuclear mishap — big players in the electric power industry — and put the burden on the taxpayer, reminiscent of the US bailout of Wall Street bailout in 2008.
Only instead of toxic default swaps, it’s a swapping of feel-good stories for news of toxic doom.
Japanese consumers are justifiably nervous about food sourced near the Daiichi Nuclear plant, but Mr Abe is willfully pushing to include food from Fukushima at the Tokyo Olympic Village to “prove” it isn’t tainted.
Nor is it mere coincidence that Mr Abe’s government wants the Olympic Torch Run to commence just 20 kilometres from the damaged Dai-Ichi reactor.
Fearing negative news, hundreds of Japan evacuees from Wuhan were quietly dumped at Haneda Airport without mandatory quarantine. Some took the train home. The Abe government also made a point of asking the World Health Organisation (WHO) not to include the feverish passengers on Diamond Princess in Japan’s national case toll, presumably in order not to dampen “Olympic fever”.
Mr Abe’s icy silence regarding the stricken ship was broken with a silly string of excuses for not being able to test everyone. Hong Kong tested and cleared an entire cruise ship in less time than it took Japan to test a tenth of the passengers.
Even as the coronavirus started to spread among Japanese who had not travelled to China in mid-February, a gala Olympic torch event was held in the streets of Tokyo. Even as public health experts warned of a crisis brewing, it was business as usual for tourist festivals, including the uniquely vulnerable “10,000 naked man festival” in Okayama, which brings to mind the ill-fated “feast for 10,000” held by officials in Wuhan.
The Japanese government’s failure to test all cruise passengers meant even those American passengers “lucky” enough for US evacuation on Monday travelled on planes chartered by the US government in tight spaces with infected passengers.
There are many well-equipped military bases in Japan, dozens under the flag of the Rising Sun, dozens more under the Stars and Stripes.
With so many bases nearby, why is land quarantine not an option?
To portray Mr Abe’s cavalier treatment of the imperilled humans trapped aboard the Diamond Princess as racial or national prejudice is not fair; half of the passengers are Japanese.
But it is not wrong to suggest that the stigmatised human beings aboard that ship are being subject to intense prejudice, despite the fact that many of them happen to hold Japanese passports.
When it comes to stigma and exclusion, Japan can be ruthless to natives and non-natives alike. The tradition of “village outcast” (mura hachibu) in rural Japan has been updated to “shunned to the window” (madogawazoku) in modern offices.
This seems to be the fate of those left on the Diamond Princess, though not all of them have windows to sit by.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus continues to infect human beings regardless of race, creed and myths of national origin. Timely intervention makes a difference, as does common sense and common decency.
Unfortunately, we live in a time of toxic nationalism, intolerance and failed leadership. Not just Japan, but China and the US too. Similar dynamics can be seen at play in smaller countries as well, whether it be Thailand and Cambodia, or England and France.
Any leader who insists that “the show must go on” while doing nothing to help people in real distress proves a fundamental unworthiness to run the show.