'Damned if they do, damned if they don't': Japanese living in Canada feel for Japan

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VANCOUVER — An English translator for the Japanese team at the 2010 Winter Paralympics says he doesn't know what to do with the tickets he bought to watch the Olympics in Japan this summer.

Mark Townsend was all set to go to Japan with his family, who are Canadian and Japanese citizens, this summer before COVID-19 waylaid his plans. Like millions of others, Townsend now plans on watching the games on television, but he said he "feels" for Japan.

"I think the Olympics should be postponed another year," Townsend said in an interview. "I think it's crazy."

The Olympics are to begin on July 23 and close Aug. 8, and will be largely a made-for-television affair. Prime Minister Yoshihde Suga declared Thursday that fans will not be permitted to attend events. That decision came after Japanese government put the capital under a COVID-19 state of emergency because of rising new infections and the highly contagious delta variant.

The state of emergency begins July 12 and runs through Aug. 22. The Olympics, which open July 23 and run through Aug. 8, fall entirely under the emergency period, while the Paralympics open Aug. 24.

Fans from abroad were months ago banned from attending the Olympics.

On Thursday, Tokyo reported 896 new cases, up from 673 a week earlier. It’s the 19th straight day that cases have topped the mark set seven days prior. New cases on Wednesday hit 920, the highest total since 1,010 were reported on May 13.

Townsend said he blames the International Olympic Committee and not the Japanese who are "trying to make the best of a bad situation."

"And in all honesty, I believe they're damned if they do, damned if they don't."

The Olympics are pushing ahead against most medical advice, partially because the postponement stalled the International Olympic Committee's income flow. It gets almost 75 per cent of its income from selling broadcast rights, and estimates suggest it would lose between $3 billion and $4 billion if the Olympics were cancelled.

About 11,000 Olympians and 4,400 Paralympians are expected to enter Japan, with tens of thousands of officials, judges, administrators, sponsors, broadcasters, and media also entering. The International Olympic Committee said more than 80 per cent of resident of the Olympic Village will be vaccinated.

The 2010 Winter Olympics was a positive experience for the city and people of Vancouver, Townsend said, and the Japanese were hoping for something similar.

"But I think because of COVID it's turned a lot of people against the Olympics, right?"

Shogo Kinoshita, a second year undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia, said he thinks Japan should go ahead with the games. The Olympics are a chance for Japan to express its culture, Kinoshita said.

"I think that it's a very, very good opportunity and honour for Tokyo to hold the Olympics this year," he said.

"It is just unfortunate this year. But they made a lot of sacrifices of their money and the economy and everything."

The International Olympic Committee and local organizers are attempting to hold the games during a pandemic despite opposition from the Japanese public and medical community.

At a meeting with medical experts on Thursday, government officials proposed a plan to issue a state of emergency in Tokyo from next Monday through Aug. 22.

The main focus of the emergency is a request for bars, restaurants and karaoke parlours serving alcohol to close. A ban on serving alcohol is a key step to tone down Olympic-related festivities and keep people from drinking and partying. Tokyo residents are expected to face stay-home requests and watch the games on TV from home.

Risako Ninomiya, another University of British Columbia student who is in her home country of Japan this summer completing internships, said the 2021 games are the "least celebrated Olympics ever."

She is in Okinawa, which is at the southern end of Japan, and now has similar COVID-19 restrictions as Canada did in terms of limiting number of social gatherings, and shortened restaurant and store timings.

Ninomiya said holding the games might be risky, especially with Japan having a low vaccination rate.

She would have liked to see the games postponed at least until the fall when more Japanese could be vaccinated, she said.

Nationwide, Japan has had about 810,000 cases and nearly 14,900 deaths. Only 15 per cent of Japanese are fully vaccinated, still low compared with 47.4 per cent in the United States and almost 50 per cent in Britain.

When it was announced that Japan would host the Olympics, Ninomiya said she was "really, really excited and hyped."

"Which was like a long time ago," she said with a laugh.

"But, I don't know. I'm like, kind of disappointed. I don't have much excitement anymore. I just hope that it will be held safely."

Like most other Japanese, Chie Nakayama also thought it was risky for the Olympics to go ahead this year.

The soon-to-be fourth year undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia said the games this year could have been shelved and hosted by Japan in four years.

"I feel like most of the argument is surrounding the revenue and how much Japan has prepared for it and things like that, but yeah, I think we should reconsider," she said.

The official cost of the Olympics is $15.4 billion, although government audits suggest it is much higher. All but $6.7 billion is public money. The International Olympic Committee contributes a total of about $1.5 billion.

"The purpose of the Olympics is like for world peace and stuff like that right?" Nakayama said.

"So, I was thinking if people can't cheer from the bottom of their heart right now because of this pandemic, then I don't think they should do it right now."

Nakayama is also concerned about the increase in racism toward Japanese should the games turn into a super-spreader event.

"I hope for the safety of athletes and everyone and volunteers, the staff, I hope the Olympics won't be a disaster for Japan."

— With files from The Associated Press

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 10, 2021.

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press

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