The distant echo of a rowdy match in Tokyo


CHOFU, Japan – Two years ago, on a warm autumn afternoon, thousands of rugby fans converged on the plaza outside Chofu Station on the outskirts of Tokyo.

Japan would face South Africa in the 2019 Rugby World Cup quarter-finals in a matter of hours. While the South Africans were big favorites, the mood was jubilant as Japanese fans mingled with supporters around the world. There was music, makeup, and a giant screen for a night out that night.

I was back in Japan for a report that included participating in the showdown that evening. Like many Japanese, my friend Katsuki was blown away by the enthusiasm for the tournament, which included several exhilarating victories for the home team. He couldn’t find a ticket to the game, so we met in Chofu Station plaza for some fun before I left for the stadium, a short train ride away.

“My family watched the games on TV and were enthusiastic not only about the games of the Japanese team but also the games of the foreign teams,” he told me recently. “I was very surprised that my hometown, Chofu, a common bed-city, was filled with foreign crowds and excitement, like a night in Roppongi,” one of Tokyo’s entertainment districts.

Through the miasma of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s hard to remember that the successful Rugby World Cup was once seen as a warm-up for the Tokyo Olympics. The crowds were electric, the hosts enthusiastic and proud. Many people expected the country to embrace the Olympics in the same way.

Yet when the Japanese and South African soccer teams met on Thursday night, a day before the opening ceremony, it was clear that most of that goodwill and bonhomie was gone.

The match took place in the same stadium in Chofu, but there were no loud cheering sections, waving flags or lively celebrations. Only a few hundred people filled the more than 40,000 seats, and most were journalists. The sound of pipes echoed on the rafters. The slogan “United by Emotion”, displayed on the backs of the teams’ benches, sounded more ironic than inspiring.

After the Japanese 1-0 victory, the winners did not go around the pitch to thank their supporters; There were none.

“In 2019, the Rugby World Cup was here, and I saw the opening game in this very stadium, and it was full of energy,” said Hajime Moriyasu, the team’s coach. of Japanese football, after the game. “It was the kind of environment I would have wanted our players to play in. I would also have wanted our supporters and the people excited about the Olympic Games to experience it.”

About an Olympics dominated by the coronavirus, the match was almost postponed. Organizers said on Monday that more than 20 members of the South African squad – players as well as staff – had close contact with three other people who tested positive for the coronavirus. All were staying in the athletes’ village. the the team was allowed to play six hours before kick-off.

“The quality of our team has been diluted,” said David Notoane, South Africa’s football coach, of several days of isolation. “We played survival football.”

The Olympics were troubled long before I returned to Tokyo this week. With the number of positive coronavirus cases increasing and the alarmingly slow rollout of vaccines, the government’s efforts to bring the Games to a successful conclusion have met widespread opposition from mainstream and powerful Japanese elites. Toyota, which helped fund the Games, said it would not run Olympics-themed ads in Japan.

Tellingly, the place where Katsuki and I had watched hundreds of rugby fans hoist beers is now dominated by a pop-up vaccination center where Katsuki received his first dose a few weeks ago. But any chance he could attend the Olympics in person was gone when organizers said no fans would attend.

“I really wanted to watch the Games live and tried to buy a ticket, but the outcome was disappointing,” he told me. “There are a lot of people who are against the Olympics in Tokyo. I hesitate to discuss Olympic issues with my colleagues.

It has been a sobering experience for Japan, and for me too.

I lived in Tokyo for a dozen years and know firsthand that the Japanese know how to throw a big party. I remember how the Nagano Games in 1998 captivated the country and how friends took the bullet train into the mountains just to watch the festivities. In 2002, the FIFA World Cup turned into a month-long celebration. These events have tempered the mistrust that some Japanese have of foreigners.

I believe that many Japanese will rally to the Olympics once they start. Twisting of hands and opposition before every Games – remember the Zika virus in Brazil before the Rio 2016 Olympics? – often fade after medals are awarded and national anthems are played.

The problem is, all enthusiasm this time will be muted. Athletes will compete in seas of empty seats. The government encouraged the Japanese to watch television from their homes. In many areas of Tokyo, there are few clear signs that the Olympics are taking place. In a store near my hotel, a display of Tokyo 2020 merchandise – organizers declined to move to 2021 after the postponement – was tucked away next to a stairwell, not in the front. Everything was for sale.

“It’s sad that the legacy of Chofu Station Square is Covid instead of the Olympics,” Katsuki said.

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