Opinion | The Olympics Are On! But Why?

TOKYO — The torch relay run that has opened the Olympics since 1936 started on Thursday from Fukushima, Japan, delayed by a year because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Games will be held this summer, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said on Sunday, “as a proof of humanity’s victory over the novel coronavirus” — even though there is no sign that Japan, let alone humanity, will defeat the coronavirus any time soon.

Japan has fared better than the United States and many European countries — with about 450,000 cases of infection and about 8,900 deaths, for a population of about 125 million. But infection rates are creeping up, and the vaccine rollout has been painfully slow.

As of March 21, Japan ranked last for inoculations per capita among the 37 countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development; just 0.3 percent of the population has received a shot, according to Bloomberg. There is virtually no chance that Japanese people will be vaccinated in large enough numbers by the time the Olympics are supposed start in late July.

Last week, Japan announced that spectators from overseas would be barred from attending the Games. The decision appears to have been partly a concession to public opinion: In one survey early this month, 77 percent of respondents opposed allowing foreign fans. According to another poll, only 9 percent of respondents said the Games should proceed as scheduled; 32 percent said they should be canceled.

So why is Japan going ahead with the Olympics, against the public’s objections, while the pandemic is still a major public health concern? The answer is familiar: collusion among the elites.

Mr. Suga’s term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party ends in September and legislative elections must be called by late October. He seems to be counting on a media blitz with feel-good effects around the Games to improve his sagging popularity. He inherited from Shinzo Abe this summer a prime ministership tainted by numerous scandals — and has added some of his own.

Mr. Suga was Mr. Abe’s enforcer-in-chief, thanks partly to his firm grip on the media. He was the minister of internal affairs and communications during the first Abe government (2006-07) and the chief cabinet secretary and chief spokesman during the second (2012-20). During that latter stint, Japan’s ranking in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index fell from 22 to 66.

Mr. Suga is a dominant figure in this iron triangle of Japanese politics: the L.D.P., the ministry of internal affairs and communications (known as MIC) and the media industry. And that network’s view today is that the Olympics show must go on at all cost, with or without overseas spectators.

Take Dentsu, the largest advertising and public relations company in Japan and the Tokyo 2020 Games’ exclusive marketing agency. Shun Sakurai, a former vice minister at MIC, is now the company’s executive vice president and representative director. That transition — from a senior post in a ministry to a post-retirement position in a company regulated by that ministry — is called “amakudari,” descent from heaven.

Dentsu has intimate ties with the L.D.P. According to an analysis of the party’s mandatory funding filings by the Japanese Communist Party, the L.D.P. paid $100 million to Dentsu between 2000 and 2018. Dentsu, in turn, has made lavish donations to the L.D.P.’s election campaign. The company has also been embroiled in a scandal over an opaque contract to manage the distribution of a $20 billion government Covid-relief package.

Dentsu’s involvement with Japan’s Olympics are deep and deeply problematic. French prosecutors say that the Tokyo bid committee paid a former Dentsu executive more than $8 million to bribe members of the International Olympic Committee. Dentsu is also a marketing partner of the I.O.C., a possible breach of the committee’s rules about conflicts of interest.

Tokyo 2020 is the most heavily sponsored event in the Games’ history, with $3.1 billion raised from Japanese companies — thanks to Dentsu. Among the domestic sponsors are Japan’s five national newspapers: Asahi, Yomiuri, Mainichi, Nikkei and Sankei. Each has its own affiliated broadcasting networks, directly or through subsidiaries. Those networks are regulated by MIC and rely on Dentsu to sell prime-time advertising slots.

The pandemic might still derail the Tokyo Olympics. Athletes and celebrities alike have pulled out of the torch relay run over infection concerns, and some national teams could withdraw from the competition altogether. If the Games are held, however, that will be a feat of entrenched collusion among Japan’s political and media elites, and a victory for their efforts to shift public opinion in time for the next election.

Koichi Nakano is a professor of political science at Sophia University, in Tokyo.

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