Simon Denyer

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author. Former bureau chief with The Washington Post and Reuters.

Jul 23, 2021
Published on: Washington Post
2 min read

TOKYO — For a moment at the start of Friday’s Opening Ceremonies of the Tokyo Olympics, members of a crowd gathered outside National Stadium gasped as fireworks lit up the sky and reflected off the glass front of a nearby building.

But the gasps soon gave way to one of the main soundtracks of these troubled Games — a crowd of protesters chanting curses about the entire event. Friday night’s Olympic opener, anticipated so eagerly 18 months ago, went off with more of a whimper than a bang, in a lonely stadium filled with only a few hundred dignitaries and journalists.

What should have been a celebration of this nation’s many excellent qualities — and the uplifting spirit of Olympic competition — ended up feeling more like a forced smile, far from an expression of the joy that had gripped Japan after it won the right to hold the Games eight years ago.

There were beautiful dances and music to celebrate the athletes who have stayed in top form during the trying months of the coronavirus pandemic. There was a celebration of traditional Japanese carpenters and the firefighters who protected its wooden towns and cities from disaster in ancient times. There were nods to the video games, anime and manga for which modern Japan has become known and loved.

And then there was a moment of silence to commemorate those who have died during the pandemic and during past Olympics, including 11 members of the Israeli delegation murdered in Munich in 1972. In the distance, the sound of the protests wafted through the humid night air.

The evening closed with one of the highlights of the ceremonies: a nod to the diversity of today’s Japan, a land that is just beginning to grapple with immigration and the idea of people of different races and identities making up a single nation.

Two prominent half-Black and half-Japanese athletes were featured at the end of the ceremony. Washington Wizards forward Rui Hachimura was one of two flag bearers for Team Japan, which closed the Parade of Nations as the Olympics host. And tennis superstar Naomi Osaka was revealed as the final torch bearer, a coveted position at the ceremonies.

The decision to ban spectators, made two weeks ago when the Games became too politically toxic to the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, had left the Opening Ceremonies’ organizers facing a difficult task — one made even more challenging following the resignation of the musical composer for bullying disabled classmates as a schoolboy and the dismissal of the show director for making a joke about the Holocaust more than two decades ago.

Even the parade of athletes seemed slightly anti-climactic, with small, stripped-down delegations from the competing nations wearing masks and waving gamely at row upon row of empty seats.

Earlier, despite the pandemic and a state of emergency in the capital, as well as intense heat and humidity, crowds had gathered to watch the air force’s aerobatic squadron, Blue Impulse, draw the Olympic rings in multicolored smoke against the blue sky.

Hundreds of protesters marched through Harajuku, one of the busiest areas in Tokyo, in opposition to the Games. They walked toward the ceremonies during the hour before they began, calling for the cancellation of the Olympics and blaming organizers for facilitating what they feared would become a covid-19 superspreader event.

But just outside National Stadium, Tokyo residents packed the streets to listen to what they could of the audio seeping out from the ceremonies. As rain sprinkled, people in the crowd stood with umbrellas in hand. When there were fireworks, the crowd gasped, cheered and took photos and video.

“We saw the fireworks, and it was pretty impressive,” said Nari Masa, 16, who was out at dinner when he saw the protesters in Harajuku and followed them to the stadium.

“We just wanted to see what’s going on,” Masa said. “It’s probably the only time in our lifetimes the Olympics will be in Tokyo.”

None of the bystanders, of course, were allowed in the stadium, refurbished at a cost of $1.6 billion to resemble a forest — with seats in various woodland shades meant to represent dappled light and with wood sourced from all 47 of Japan’s prefectures.

But with no one here to sit in those seats and enjoy the spectacle, the cost of the stadium and these Opening Ceremonies was too much for many residents to bear.

Even many VIPs stayed away. First lady Jill Biden was in attendance, waving enthusiastically as the U.S. team strolled in. But the captains of Japanese industry and commerce, who had bankrolled these Games to the tune of a record $3.6 billion, largely stayed away, afraid of the negative optics that would come from attending when ordinary people couldn’t.

Absent, too, was former prime minister Shinzo Abe, at whose insistence the Games were postponed for just one year instead of two — a decision that was controversial at the time and even less popular now. Abe, who had hoped to preside over the Games this year, ended up stepping down last summer because of poor health.

The contrast with 1964, when Tokyo first staged the Olympics, was stark. Then, the Games had sparked the transformation of the capital from disease-ridden backwater to modern metropolis, and they more broadly symbolized Japan’s recovery from defeat in World War II and its emergence as a leading member of the Western world.

This time, in declaring the Games open, even Emperor Naruhito chose phrasing that omitted the word “celebrating.” Naruhito, through a senior adviser, already had made his discomfort and concern with holding the Games evident, and his choice of words underlined his ambivalence.

“I declare open the Tokyo Games, commemorating the 32nd Olympiad of the modern era,” he said before more fireworks lit up the sky.

Just before the Opening Ceremonies were set to start, a young Japanese woman working for the Olympics Broadcasting Services stood in the stadium and gazed down at the protesters below, struggling to hold back tears.