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Purpose of Tokyo Games changes over time from disaster recovery to COVID triumph to peace

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga raises his hand to respond to a question from Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan Secretary-General Tetsuro Fukuyama during a meeting of the upper house audit committee on June 7, 2021. (Mainichi/Kan Takeuchi)

TOKYO -- "It is only natural not to hold the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics if we cannot protect the lives and health of the public," Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said in a meeting of the House of Councillors audit committee on June 7 -- the first time that Suga had addressed the possibility that the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics may be canceled.

    While the Suga administration has not changed its position of going ahead with the games, it appears to have determined that it would not be able to gain the support of the public if it went ahead with the premise, no matter what, that the games would be held even as the threat of the coronavirus continues.

    Still, during the committee meeting, the prime minister did not talk about any specific criteria that must be met for the games to be held, and has struggled to come up with a cause for which the games should be held during a pandemic.

    "People's lives are on the line. You can't forcefully hold the Olympics and Paralympics," opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP) Secretary-General Tetsuro Fukuyama said to Suga during the audit committee meeting, questioning the prime minister's position. To this, Suga responded, "First, I'd like to pour all my efforts into lifting the state of emergency declaration (which has been extended until June 20)," and emphasized that every possible measure against infection would be taken after the arrival of athletes and others coming to Japan in relation to the Tokyo Games.

    Suga repeatedly said, "A major premise for holding the games is that the lives and health of the public would be protected," and touched upon the possibility of a cancellation of the Tokyo Games.

    At the same time, however, Suga said, "I, myself, am not a host of the games," and did not present the committee with specific criteria for deciding whether or not the games would be held. There was a point when the prime minister kept saying that he would make the lives and health of the public "the criteria" for holding the games, forcing questioning to go in circles. This prompted CDP lawmaker Shunichi Mizuoka, who was asking the questions, to state that the government would not be able to gain the empathy of the public unless there are specific standards for holding the Tokyo Games, such as "in the case that the infection index goes down to stage 1 (zero or sporadic spread of infection) or lower."

    Japanese Communist Party secretariat head Akira Koike pursued the matter further, saying, "It is dangerous to hold the world's largest sporting event without assessing the risks." Meanwhile, Shigeru Omi, chairman of the government's coronavirus countermeasures subcommittee, said, "It is only natural to expect that the risk of infection will rise if the games take place now."

    The government and ruling parties are anxious that public sentiment surrounding the Olympics and Paralympics will directly impact the approval ratings of the Suga Cabinet and the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election scheduled for July. Senior officials from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) analyze that if it appears that the administration is moving forward on the premise that the games will be held no matter what, it will reflect poorly on approval ratings. The most recent public opinion polls carried out by media outlets show that those who think the games should take place and those who think they should not comprise about the same percentage of those surveyed, but the future is uncertain.

    Because of this, the administration is scrambling, alongside the implementation of its infection countermeasures, to speak to the legitimacy of holding the Tokyo Games during the coronavirus pandemic. Natsuo Yamaguchi, the head of the LDP's junior coalition partner Komeito, requested on June 2 that the prime minister explain the reasoning and significance of holding the games. In response, Suga told reporters, "The games are truly a festival of peace. First-rate athletes will gather in Tokyo, and communicate the power of sports to the world."

    There have been complaints, however, even within the government about Suga bringing up a catchphrase that existed from long before the pandemic, as being obsolete. Already, the purported "significance" of the Tokyo Games had gone from a "recovery games from the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami" of 2011 during the previous administration led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to "proof that humankind had triumphed over the coronavirus." A senior CDP official said of Suga's remark, "It rings hollow."

    (Japanese original by Yoshitaka Koyama, Political News Department)

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