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The Japanese Public Begins To Embrace The Tokyo Olympics

Aug 2, 2021
Originally published on August 2, 2021 7:31 am

TOKYO — In the year leading up to the delayed Summer Olympics, public opinion polls in Japan showed people overwhelmingly against holding the Games in the country. Some feared it would spread the coronavirus. Others complained about the high costs. There are still some small occasional protests. But now that Olympics are underway and Team Japan is doing well, people here seem excited.

You can find some people happy about the Olympics at the so-called "Shibuya scramble," billed as the busiest intersection in the world. Outside the Shibuya subway station, hundreds of people cross the street from different directions all at once. People watching here is a must–do for tourists and locals alike.

Hot temperatures and surging coronavirus numbers

It's been hot in Tokyo, and some people carry umbrellas to shield themselves from the blazing sun. Everyone wears a face mask.

"It's so dangerous because of corona," says Reggie Ohashi, a student who's here with friends, hanging out at Shibuya Crossing. There's been a surge of coronavirus cases since the Games began. Ohashi says from the safety of his apartment, he's been catching local broadcasts of the baseball games at the Tokyo Olympics.

University student Wakanda Ito says she's been tuning in to watch Olympic volleyball, soccer and a new sport at these Games, skateboarding.

"I heard he's really famous," Ito says, referring to 22-year-old Yuto Horigome, who won the first Olympic gold medal for street skateboarding. "He is very talented and he's really handsome."

Ito says she was also impressed by Horigome's compatriot, a cute 13-year-old girl named Momiji Nishiya. She also earned a gold medal in street skateboarding.

Japan's record gold medal haul buoys spirits

Many of the young Japanese people I meet at the Shibuya crossing say they're excited about all the Japanese athletes who are winning, even though the COVID-19 restrictions mean they're not allowed to watch the Games in-person.

University student Shuhe Horiyama says he enjoys watching the Games on TV with his family. But he does wish he could be in the stands to watch them in person. "Actually, I had Olympic Games tickets," he says. "I was very much looking forward to seeing in the stadium. You know, it's not just a normal ticket, it's the final of the football, the sport that I like the most. That's why I'm really sad and frustrated."

Horiyama blames the Japanese government for its delay in getting people vaccinated. Currently just 29% are fully vaccinated. He says many people changed their opinions of the Games because so many Japanese athletes are winning medals. "Yeah, actually, I think it was very big news for us Japanese people," he says.

So far, Japan has won more Olympic gold medals than ever before: 17 and counting. That includes gold medals in judo, for siblings Uta and Hifumi Abe and two-time champion Shohei Ono. Swimmer Yui Ohashi became the first Japanese woman to win two gold medals. Other gold medalists include the Japanese table tennis team and the men's fencing team.

Members of a JPOP idol group perform in Tokyo's famed Shibuya street crossing. They're excited about the Olympics.
Mandalit del Barco / NPR

On the streets of Tokyo streets, though, there are almost no signs or banners celebrating the Olympics. Highlight clips of the Games flash on one of the many big screens on the buildings at the Shibuya intersection. But nobody seems to bother looking up to watch. It seems they have other things to do.... such as singing and dancing.

Celebrating the Games wherever you are

On one corner of the Shibuya Crossing, I stumble upon the members of a JPOP idol group. They're giggling, taking selfies and getting filmed by a foreign TV news crew. One of them has pink eyeliner and bleach blonde hair, styled like an anime character.

Are they famous?

"So-so," laughs Runa Kanzaki, the most talkative of the group.

I ask what they think of the Olympics being held in Tokyo. At first they say something about COVID-19. Then they begin listing all the Olympic sports they've been following on TV: volleyball, basketball, swimming ... and basically all of the events.

So are the Olympics good for Japan?

"Good, good," nods Kanzaki. Her friend Nana Sagasake cheers "Yay."

Then they launch into a pop song that's very kawaii.

Regardless of Tokyo's state of emergency, life goes on in the Japanese capital. And so do the Olympics.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

In the year leading up to the delayed Summer Olympics, public opinion polls in Japan showed people overwhelmingly against holding the games in Tokyo. Some feared it would spread the coronavirus. Others complained about the high costs. There are still some small occasional protests. But now that the Olympics are underway and Team Japan is doing well, people there are excited. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports from Tokyo.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: I'm standing here at what's billed as the busiest intersection in the world, the Shibuya scramble, outside a subway station. When the lights turn green, hundreds of people cross the street from different directions.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking non-English language).

DEL BARCO: Way too hot.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Groaning).

DEL BARCO: Under the hot sun, some people carry umbrellas. Everyone wears a face mask.

REGGIE OHASHI: It's so dangerous because corona.

DEL BARCO: Coronavirus. Do you watch the Olympics?

OHASHI: Yes, baseball. My name is Reggie. Last name Ohashi.

WAKANDA ITO: I'm watching skateboard.

DEL BARCO: Skateboarding?

ITO: Yeah, skateboarding. I heard he is very famous and that (laughter) I was - oh, wow, he is very talented and, yeah, he's really handsome so (laughter)...

DEL BARCO: That handsome skateboarder university student Wakanda Ito was referring to is Yuto Horigome. The 22-year-old Japanese athlete won the first-ever gold medal for street skateboarding. His compatriot, a cute 13-year-old girl named Momiji Nishiya, also got a gold medal for skateboarding. The young people I meet here say they're excited about all the athletes from Japan who are winning, even though the COVID restrictions means they're not allowed to watch the games in person.

What do you think of the Olympics being here in Tokyo?

SHUHE HORIYAMA: We are enjoying watching the Olympic Games with TV.

DEL BARCO: Do you wish you could be in the stands watching in person?

HORIYAMA: Actually, yeah. I had Olympic Game tickets. I was really looking forward to seeing in the stadium. You know, it's not just a normal ticket. You know, it's the final of the football, the sport that I like the most. That's why I am really sad and frustrated. But, you know, the government decided not to put people in the stadium. I think it is because of the delay of the vaccination.

DEL BARCO: What's your name?

HORIYAMA: Shuhe Horiyama. I am a student, international politics.

DEL BARCO: Do you think that people have changed their opinions because so many Japanese are winning medals?

HORIYAMA: Yeah, actually. I think it was very big news for us Japanese people.

DEL BARCO: So far, Japan has won more Olympic gold medals than ever before - 17 and counting. Besides skateboarding, they're for judo, swimming, table tennis and fencing. The TV ratings for the games are high in Japan. But on the streets of Tokyo, no one seems to bother looking up at the highlights of games flashing on one of the many big screens here. People seem to have other things to do.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah, yeah, singing, dancing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah, singing, dancing and talking.

DEL BARCO: On one corner of the Shibuya crossing, I stumble upon the members of a J-pop idol girl group taking selfies. One of them resembles an anime character.

RUNA KANZAKI: Runa Kanzaki.

NANA SAGASAKE: Nana Sagasake.

RIKAKO ISSHIKI: Rikako Isshiki.

SHIMANA SHAKARASHIO: Shimana Shakarashio.

DEL BARCO: Are you famous?

KANZAKI: So-so, so-so.

DEL BARCO: What do you think about the Olympics being here in Tokyo?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I like judo. Judo, I like it.

DEL BARCO: You like judo.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Volleyball.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: And basketball.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Swim.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Swim.

DEL BARCO: Swimming. Olympics are good?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Good, good, good.

SAGASAKE: Yay.

DEL BARCO: Regardless of Japan's state of emergency, life goes on in these busy streets, and so do the Olympics.

Can you sing for me?

NANA SAGASAKE, RIKAKO ISSHIKI, RUNA KANZAKI & SHIMANA SHAKARASHIO: (Singing in non-English language).

DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Tokyo.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah. Thank you. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.