Japan: Tokyo Olympics Risk Assessment
Up to 11,500 athletes and 80,000 officials, journalists, and support staff are expected to arrive in Tokyo for the 2021 Olympics Games from 23 July to 8 August and Paralympic Games from 24 August to 5 September. The Games come at a turbulent time for Japan, which faces a resurgence in COVID-19 cases, a sluggish vaccine rollout, and widespread public antipathy towards the event.
Japanese heath administrators have repeatedly warned about the potential for the Games to lead to a spike in COVID-19 infections, taxing an already stressed medical system. So far, only nine percent of the population has received at least one dose of a vaccine. This slow rollout appears to be due to limited regulatory approval of COVID-19 vaccines, delays to imports of doses, and shortages in medical personnel to administer the injections. With significant improvement to the vaccine rollout unlikely in the next three weeks, PGI assesses that the government’s ability to drastically lower infection rates over the next three months is limited.
Despite these constraints, Japanese officials rescinded the state of emergency imposed on the capital on 20 June and announced that local fans could attend Olympic events with venue capacity limited to 50 percent, up to a maximum of 100,000 people. According to officials, spectators must wear masks but will not be required to show proof of vaccination nor a negative COVID-19 test result.
Numerous public health officials have publicly criticised the government’s plans. Many have called for the barring of spectators from the stadiums, arguing that the events encourage the public to socialise in crowded spaces and increase unnecessary travel in cities. Others argue that the influx of athletes and their management teams will raise the risk of a new variant entering Japan and point out that doctors and nurses, already in short supply in hospitals, will be pulled away to tend to competitors and spectators.
Potential for civil unrest
Alongside the outcry from the scientific community, the Japanese public remains overwhelming opposed to holding the Games as the pandemic continues. Polling by local news outlets in June indicate that between 65 and 80 percent of people believe the event should be postponed or cancelled. These figures have remained largely consistent since January.
While protests are infrequent in Japan, the strong opposition to the Olympics and frustrations with the government’s perceived obstinacy indicate that small-scale demonstrations are likely. PGI expects these will be largely concentrated in major cities, particularly the capital and will escalate in the weeks leading up to the opening ceremony on 23 July.
Demonstrations against the Games in the previous quarter have remained low in turnout, attracting tens of participants. Nevertheless, Japanese media reports indicate they have been taking place with increasing frequency. They have been overwhelmingly peaceful and security forces have done little to prevent protesters from assembling or displaying anti-Olympic banners on roads and buildings.
With an increased media and security presence around stadiums and key event sites as the Games begin, PGI expects the police to become more forceful in dispersing demonstrators. This increases the risk of sporadic, small-scale skirmishes between protesters and police, but overall, the threat of widespread unrest is limited.
Although demonstrations have largely focused their ire on the International Olympic Committee and Japanese organisers, PGI expects anti-government sentiment to become more overt in the weeks ahead. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s approval ratings have fallen to their lowest point since the start of his premiership in September 2020, hovering at about 30 percent.
With elections scheduled for 22 October at the latest, the potential for these demonstrations to be co-opted by opposition parties and anti-government activists is high. Should the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan or another party successfully co-opt the anti-Olympic movement, PGI believes demonstrations would continue throughout the third quarter of 2021.
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