Outside the Olympic cocoon, a bustling Tokyo only with cicadas
TOKYO – Outside the Olympic bubble is a city that doesn’t want us.
Like many of the tens of thousands of people who visit Tokyo for the Games, I am in a permeable cocoon that is supposed to separate me from the city’s inhabitants. These people include my mother.
From table tennis to archery to taekwondo, from diving to boxing to weightlifting, I hear clips from the Tokyo summer soundtrack: the shrill cry of the cicadas, the clack of the children in crampons returning from football, the trill of a wind chime not quite stopped in the August heat.
What is missing are the normal sounds that animate an Olympic host city, a half-open window with the television showing a thrilling final or a bar crowded with revelers celebrating the final gold medal. There are few Olympic billboards in Tokyo. Toyota and other Japanese companies have read the mood and refrained from running any Games-related ads. Aside from the sporting venues dotted around the Japanese capital, there are few signs that the world’s biggest and most expensive sporting spectacle is taking place here.
It is strange to be in a host city that has so resolutely turned its back on the Games, especially given the Japanese sense of hospitality. But who can blame the people of Tokyo, including my family and friends?
The Games may have brought Japan 18 gold medals on Tuesday afternoon, including wins for nine judokas and a 13-year-old street skater. Yet the people of Tokyo were sequestered from the Olympics. With a state of emergency in place due to the coronavirus, they are banned as spectators. They cannot visit the premises. The only people who can witness every broken Olympic record are people from the outside, people like me.
With us, however, we have brought the threat of disease. The Olympics coincided with the highest number of daily cases in Tokyo since the start of the pandemic. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga insisted that the growing number had nothing to do with the influx of foreigners. Most of the cases inside the Olympic bubble involve residents, entrepreneurs or other people living in the capital, Japanese Olympic officials said. This means that national transmission is to blame, made worse by the slow rollout of vaccines in Japan. Less than a third of the country is fully vaccinated.
As thin crowds of spectators gather to glimpse a booming bike at a BMX event or to gaze through the fence of the Olympic stadium, many more in Tokyo have abandoned the Games altogether. On Sunday, a group of protesters gathered near the tennis arena and shouted anti-Olympic slogans that floated in the men’s singles final which takes place indoors. Another rally took place in front of the Prime Minister’s residence.
Japanese news media have resorted to gotcha journalism, trying to catch foreigners who have broken quarantine protocols, traveling on public transport, or lingering in restaurants while they are supposed to eat in their hotels. On Monday, broadcaster NHK denounced the lack of social distancing on crowded Olympic buses. Although those of us here for the Games had undergone numerous rounds of Covid tests, there was no requirement that we be vaccinated to enter the country.
Inside the bubble, the legion of volunteers, some of whom have not received their injections, are doing their best. Elderly men swing their arms with the vigor of cricketers – not yet an Olympic sport – leading a lost journalist to a crosswalk. Young women offer jets of mosquito spray and paper fans, as well as neck towels with instructions in English on what to do in case of heatstroke: “Move to a place. cool, loosen clothes and cool the body. “
Much like a Covid bubble that is supposed to keep Tokyo safe from us, the gatekeepers of the Olympics claim the Games are floating above politics. No protest should soil the Olympic podium, they warned. Yet the Olympics are a fundamentally political act of a city or a nation, for better or for worse. Berlin 1936 exposed the racism and malevolence of the Nazi ideology. Tokyo 1964 was Japan’s announcement that it had transcended war defeat and aimed for economic glory. Seoul 1988 presented a similar arrival declaration, as did Beijing 2008.
What will Tokyo 2020 mean, to be held in 2021? The organizers have made “peace” one of their watchwords. It is an ideal that is difficult to dispute. And given Imperial Japan’s brutal sweep across Asia over the past century, peaceful ambitions are laudable. At the Olympic Opening Ceremony, in a nearly empty stadium struggling with cost overruns, paper doves flew from the sky.
On Friday at 8:15 am, Japan will mark the 76th anniversary of the US atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which is said to have left more than 150,000 dead. At the 1964 Games, a runner born on that day was chosen to light the Olympic flame.
This time around, the International Olympic Committee refused to remember the atomic bomb explosion, which was followed by another in Nagasaki three days later, with a minute of silence, despite a petition led by a former mayor of Hiroshima.
Much of Tokyo also burned down in the final months of the war from American firebombs. My grandmother, soon to be a war widow, remembered the crackling of wooden houses burning like kindling, the dancing of flames when shoji paper screens caught fire.
Years earlier, in Shanghai, Japanese air raids had ravaged a city. Then the Imperial Japanese troops turned to Manchuria, the Philippines, Indonesia and left a trail of blood.
Most of what those in the Olympic bubble will see from Tokyo is post-war. Skyscrapers have sprouted from the ashes of war. Many sports venues can be found on reclaimed land, such as the archery field known as Yumenoshima or the Island of Dreams.
This Tokyo is impressive, all steel and glass and its large atriums, ingeniously designed to withstand earthquakes and landscaped with many trees. But it’s an inflexible place, limited by endless regulations and fine print warnings, and during a state of emergency it feels especially lonely.
The Tokyo that is lacking in these Olympics, the one sheltered from the buses that shuttle from the stadiums to the hotels, is a city built on a more intimate scale. The buildings here have wooden ornaments and entrances so low that the head has to be tilted to enter. It’s the kind of friendly place where taxi drivers take off their white gloves at the end of the day and sit next to booted workers for a beer or a bowl of Tokyo’s hearty offal fondue.
At the end of last week, I went to see badminton at the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza in western Tokyo. Towards the end of World War II, the neighborhood was bombed because it housed a military aircraft factory. (A few incarnations later, the company that owned it became the maker of Subaru planes and cars.)
When the Japanese mixed doubles badminton pair beat their Hong Kong rivals to take bronze, a group of volunteers jumped up and down in excitement. It was a display of patriotism that certainly broke Olympic protocol. But it had been a long day and there were no spectators for the victory.
Later, I stepped out of the sports arena into the simmering heat. The body of badminton journalists, as it existed, had dispersed. There was no one around, just a row of white tents and empty hallways, more like a field hospital than a gym. The air sang with the sound of summer insects. The intensity of their roar is perhaps the highest before they die.
Sweat was building up on my upper lip inside my face mask. In front of me on the path lay a single cicada wing, glistening in the sun.