Previous posts in this discussion:
PostBaseball in Japanese Film; Sumo Today (from Edward Mears) (John Eipper, USA, 01/22/21 3:12 am)
Edward Mears writes:
Unfortunately, there have not been many depictions of Japanese baseball players in Western media, as evidenced in my father Patrick Mears's post of 5 January. There are several Japanese films that have featured Japanese baseball players, most notably Mr. Rookie, a 2002 film starring the Yomiuri Giants legend Kazushige Nagashima who assists the rival Hanshin Tigers on their quest for a pennant. The film also featured several baseball players who were still playing in the NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) at that time, including American first baseman Randy Bass, who came on as a pinch hitter in the film (in real life Bass is a Hanshin legend, having played with the team from 1983-1988).
Mr. Rookie is the most "famous" Japanese film which is about baseball and stars actual Japanese baseball players and there is a large catalogue of mostly B-rate movies in Japan about baseball as well as Japanese manga (comic books) about the sport: the wildly successful manga franchise Rookies is known by every schoolboy in Japan. This series follows the on- and off-field heroics of the heartthrob stars of a high-school baseball team and has spawned an anime (animated comic) television series as well as a live-action film. Beyond these baseball-themed movies there are many other films that feature Japan's favorite pastime, including several by one of my all-time favorite directors, Yasujiro Ozu.
Ozu's films are known for their minimalism (there is hardly any camera movement), prominent use of the "tatami shot" (where the camera is placed at a very low height as if it is kneeling on a tatami mat) and unorthodox transitions between scenes (typically consisting of shots of seemingly unrelated atmospherics and music). The majority of his films belonged to the shoshimin-geki genre, which loosely translates to "lower-middle-class salaryman films." These realist films explore the everyday lives of ordinary people in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Ozu's shoshimin-geki films primarily focus on family relations, most prominently around marriage and caring for elderly parents. The most famous film of his, Tokyo Story (1953), follows two elderly retirees who visit their adult children in Tokyo only to find themselves unwanted as the children are busy with their own lives and their own children, save for a widowed daughter-in-law (played by Ozu favorite Setsuko Hara), who is the only family member to show them warmth. The film is considered a masterpiece and has received considerable praise by critics in Japan and around the world.
His other films follow many of these same themes, with Japan's culture of arranged marriages a common focus. Because Ozu's films follow the daily lives of Japan's salarymen and their families, pastimes such as pachinko and baseball make frequent appearances. In An Autumn Afternoon (1962), one of Ozu's many films about Japan's marriage culture, several of the salarymen protagonists take off for Tokyo's Kourakuen Stadium (former home of the Yomiuri Giants) after work while other of their colleagues watch the same Giants game at a bar. Ozu's 1952 film The Flavor of Green Tea over Rice which follows a crumbling middle-class marriage, also includes a scene where several of the protagonists escape from work to attend a baseball game (also at Kourakuen Stadium). None of Ozu's films are "about" baseball, but Ozu makes it clear through repeated cutaway scenes to baseball stadiums and baseball games that the sport is ingrained in the fabric of Japanese culture and society, especially during the post-war period.
So how did Japan become so enamored with baseball? A Hollywood film provides further clues: the 2018 box office flop The Catcher Was a Spy gives us a glimpse into the early history of baseball in Japan. The film, which was widely panned by critics, tells the true story of fifteen-year MLB veteran Moe Berg who joined a MLB barnstorming tour of Japan in 1934 along with some fading baseball titans including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Charlie Gehringer. These barnstorming tours were common in baseball's heyday, and often included international stops such as Japan in addition to cities and places in the United States that did not have professional teams. Before the advent of televised baseball, these barnstorming tours were some of the few times out-of-towners could catch these stars in the flesh.
Baseball was first brought to Japan in 1872 by an American English teacher named Horace Wilson. The sport continued to grow as Japan's Meiji government continued to encourage the adoption of Western customs, which included America's favorite pastime. Baseball continued to spread through Japan in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and its popularity increased as these roving MLB barnstorming teams began to visit Japan starting in 1908. The game first caught on at the high-school and collegiate level, before the first professional teams emerged in the 1920s.
This 1934 tour, however, was the primary catalyst for formalizing Japan's professional teams and is widely seen as the event that caused the creation of the NPB. During this and prior tours, the MLB players would primarily play split-squad games against themselves, though at times they agreed to play against woefully overmatched Japanese collegiate "all-star" teams. These exhibitions with the Japanese teams were often played without any sense of urgency on the part of the Americans, who were known to show up drunk or hungover. Even with the Americans in an altered state, the results were never in doubt as the powerful American bats lambasted the awestruck Japanese college pitchers. The games were not pretty, and most fans watched them primarily to see a barrage of home runs from the Sultan of Swat and other big league stars.
The start of the 1934 tour was no different, as the MLB team throttled their Japanese opponents by scores of 17-1 and 15-6. A subsequent game on Nov. 20th seemed poised for a repeat blowout, as the MLB stars faced off against a scrappy team of Japanese collegiate players at a municipal stadium in Shizuoka Prefecture, which is just outside of Tokyo. After a dull, scoreless start to the game, Japanese pitcher Eiji Sawamura, who was only seventeen years old at the time, was called in to face the heart of the American lineup in the 4th inning. He ended up pitching the remainder of the game, stymieing the all-stars and giving up only a solo home run to Lou Gehrig, which was the deciding score (the MLB all-stars won 1-0). At one point during his outing, Sawamura managed to strike out Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Charlie Gehringer in order. This sort of feat for a Japanese pitcher was unheard of at the time, and the American players were just as stunned at the performance as Sawamura and his teammates must have been.
Connie Mack, who was managing the MLB all-stars, was so impressed that he immediately offered Sawamura an MLB contract on the spot. Sawamura demurred, likely conscious of the growing split between the Japanese and American governments in the run-up to World War II. Although Connie Mack was disappointed, he quickly realized that Japan now had the baseball talent to put together a proper professional league, and following this tour he assisted his Japanese hosts in christening the NPB, which opened for its first season in 1936. Sawamura joined Tokyo's premiere team that season--the Yomiuri Giants--and went on to post a 63-22 record over five seasons and a 1.74 career ERA. His career was cut short in 1943 when he was drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army. Unlike American baseball stars who joined the war effort but were given relatively "safe" assignments, Sawamura was at the war's front lines and was killed in a battle near Yakushima (off the coast of the southern Japanese island of Kyushu) in 1944 at the age of 27. His legacy is honored to this day, as the NPB equivalent of the Cy Young award is called the Eiji Sawamura Award and is given to the top performing pitcher in the NPB each season. While Hollywood's depiction of this 1934 tour focused on Moe Berg and his dual role as a spy for the US government, I hope that someday Sawamura himself will be given the treatment he deserves on the silver screen.
While discussing Japanese sport, I would be remiss if not to mention the popularity of sumo wrestling, as discussed in Edward Jajko's post of 6 January. I have had the good fortune to visit Ryogoku Kokugikan once for a sumo match while I was studying abroad at Waseda University as an undergrad. The most striking memory for me of that experience (I unfortunately cannot recall which specific match or tournament I attended) was how much downtime there was during the tournament and how quickly the matches themselves were decided. Much of the match is spent on ritual, which is borrowed from the Shinto religion: the canopy over the ring resembles a Shinto shrine and an officiant who is dressed in garb resembling that of a Shinto priest performs a ring-blessing ceremony before each match. I believe even the days on which sumo tournaments occur are tied to important dates or holidays in the Shinto religion. There are currently six "Grand Sumo" tournaments which are held each year and the tournaments themselves run for fifteen days, and feature numerous matches among several divisions. I do not have a great grasp on the ranking or classification system (perhaps Ed can chime in!), however the highest ranked sumo wrestlers are given the yokozuna designation.
Professional sumo has been plagued with controversy in recent years, as an outgrowth of the sport's close ties to the Japanese yakuza (mafia) and gambling. As viewership and sponsorship has declined in recent years, the professional federation has likely turned to the yakuza's financial underworld for support--in 2010 there was a famous incident where Yamaguchi-gumi yakuza members bought up fifty of the most exclusive seats in the Ryogoku Kokugikan and stood out on the television broadcast. This incident came on the heels of an announcement from the Japan Sumo Association that eighteen wrestlers had been banned from the July tournament for betting on baseball and booking their bets with known yakuza rings. In addition, there have been numerous hazing scandals in the sport, the most notorious of which involved the death of a young sumo wrestler in 2007 after he was hit on the head with a beer bottle by his stablemaster.
All of these controversies have continued to suppress the public's appetite for the sport, however the new year's tournament remains a popular fixture in most Japanese living rooms, as Japanese families typically spend the long new year's holidays huddled around their kotatsu and television and the sumo tournament enjoys prime-time billing during this period. The 2021 edition of the January tournament was not without controversy, however, as a star lower-division wrestler announced his retirement from sumo just ahead of the tournament out of fears of catching COVID-19. The wrestler, Kotokantetsu, had complained that stablemasters were ignoring the seriousness of the disease and pressing ahead with the tournament in spite of the health risks. This has been a trend in Japan, as the government has been zealously focused on demonstrating that sporting events can go on "as usual" in the middle of a pandemic, in order to preserve the Olympics for later this year. In light of this, the shock retirement announcement from a relatively famous wrestler undermined the image that Japan's sports leagues and the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee have been trying to project, even as COVID-19 numbers have begun to climb rapidly during the winter months and have cast new doubts on Japan's ability to hold the Olympics later this year.
Nevertheless, the sumo tournament continued (and is still ongoing) and sumo remains just as ingrained in the Japanese collective cultural conscience as baseball: one of Yasujiro Ozu's most famous films, Good Morning (1959) follows two young brothers who decide to go on a "strike of silence" until their parents agree to purchase them a television set so they can watch their favorite sumo matches.
PS: Like my father, I am a massive film aficionado and have recently spent considerable time writing on film and television. A link to my most recent post on the meta-cinema veneer of Chris Nolan's Inception is linked here for anyone interested: https://black-harpoon.medium.com/meta-cinema-retrospective-part-1-nolans-inception-the-filmmaker-s-relationship-with-his-a77c6c767c4f
JE comments: Eddie, this one is destined to become a WAIS classic. How many of you knew about Sawamura's fanning of Ruth, Gehrig (Yankees, meh), and Gehringer (go Tigers!) in order? And at the tender age of 17? The gears of historical causality are working in my brain, and I wonder: did this 1934 exhibition game give the Japanese an impression of invincibility? If they could humiliate the Americans at their national game, how difficult could a simple war be?
Eddies included these images. Enjoy.
Statue of pitching legend Sawamura, Kusanagi Stadium, Shizuoka
Babe Ruth, Kusunagi Stadium
Field of Kusunagi Stadium
Outside Kusunagi Stadium
The January Basho: Notes from a Sumo Fan
(Edward Jajko, USA
01/23/21 4:53 AM)
As I began to write this, the January basho of Grand Sumo was in its
8th day, the show being telecast live from Tokyo very early on Sunday
morning of January 17th. Disconcertingly and shades of Phileas Fogg, as I
watched the bouts here in California very early Sunday morning, it was
Monday evening the next day in Tokyo. (Or so I think; back in 1967,
returning via a week’s stay in Tokyo after almost two years in Cairo
and two months in Europe, I carefully planned my return home via Pan
Am flight 002 from Tokyo to San Francisco, then continuing on United
to Philadelphia, so that I would arrive in Philly on a Sunday, but got
there on Saturday. A pity that I did not have a large wager with the
members of my club.) (Or that I in fact did not belong to any club.)
The disappointment of this tournament is that Takakeisho, who won in
November and was looking to advance to the highly honored top level of
yokozuna, is actually in danger of losing his ozeki ranking and
finding himself dropped to sekiwake, the lower rank. Having lost
almost all his bouts, Takakeisho finally withdrew from the tournament,
officially because of an ankle injury. While injuries in such a
violent activity, in which there is no physical protection, are
frequent, one can't help but think that this withdrawal has other
motives. In any event, Takakeisho will have to have at least eight
wins in the next tournament, just to maintain his ozeki rank. Rikishi,
wrestlers, strive for at least a majority of wins over the 14 days of
the tournament. Winning more can mean promotion to the next higher
rank. Losing more can mean demotion.
Sumo is unforgiving. Bouts can be over in mere seconds. I tried to
time one of Sunday's bouts and could manage at best to guess that it
was over in less than two seconds. There is a whole vocabulary of sumo
terms, largely dealing with the variety of ways wrestlers can be
eliminated. The wrestlers begin with only their bare feet touching the
floor of the dohyo, the elevated platform on which they contend. The
object of the bout is to force the opponent from the ring or to make
him touch the dohyo with any part of his body other than the soles of
The other surprise is that the leaders so far, in first and second
place, are middle-ranked “journeyman” wrestlers. But there are still
two days to go and things will sort themselves out.
Takakeisho is something of a cautionary case for Westerners. He went
into sumo in elementary school and, I think, when in third grade, his
father told him he needed to add weight, so by the time he was in the
sixth grade he had added some 30 kilos to his body. The cautionary
part of this is that his father had him do this by having him eat
hamburgers and french fries. Takakeisho is what used to be called a
Mr. Five by Five. He is a pusher-thruster, and such are vulnerable
because they are dependent on a furious, more or less direct
onslaught. A rikishi with a different style can beat them, as happened
to Takakeisho, by stepping to the side and allowing the
pusher-thruster's momentum to carry him out of the ring or by helping
him with a push to the head or back.
Edward Mears mentioned the copious downtime in the matches. The bouts
themselves can take mere seconds or at most a few minutes, but before
the bout the rikishi go through a ritual of showing that they are
unarmed, and then, when they crouch down before each other to fight,
often do a sort of time-out routine of standing up, forcing the
opponent to stand; sometimes retreating to a corner to get a towel to
wipe down; sometimes getting salt (although the salt routine comes at
the beginning of the match, and seems to be optional, with some of the
wrestlers ignoring it and others, like Tetsuyoshi, making a grand and
crowd-pleasing gesture of taking a whopping big handful of salt and
tossing it 12 feet high above the dohyo. The pre-bout niceties of
crouching and rising, etc., are probably done by the rikishi to psyche
themselves up and also to judge when the opponent may be ready to
There is a third person in the ring, the gyoji or referee, who at the
level of the top sumo shown on NHK is beautifully attired in a costume
that is said to date from 14th or 15th century Japan's samurai era.
There seem to be three gyoji per evening's bouts, each in a
different-colored and printed kimono. The gyoji urges the rikishi on,
using standard expressions. With a wooden fan, he points to the side
of the winner. But sometimes his decision is changed by the four
judges dressed in black who sit around the dohyo (and are sometimes
hit by 300 lb. wrestlers as they fall off the clay platform). If the
judges see something wrong, they rise to confer on the dohyo. This is
called a mono-ii, a judges' objection (and one evening I finally
worked out that the "ii" or objection is the first syllable of "iyeh,"
There are other ritualistic types attendant on the bouts, whose
function I do not understand. One is a man who holds what looks to be
either a stringless longbow or a staff bent in that shape. Another is
a kimono'd man who holds a white fan and seems to interrogate
wrestlers after bouts.
Edward Mears mentions the rather complicated organization of sumo, its
various ranks and levels, etc. I'll get into that another time.
I do want to mention a movie about Japanese baseball that I have
enjoyed, Mr. Baseball, a 1992 show featuring Tom Selleck. He plays an
American ballplayer who is on the downward slope of his career and can
find employment only with the Chunichi Dragons of the Central League
of NPB (a real team, not fictional). Selleck's character resents his
position in Japan, has difficulty adjusting, etc. There is a bit about
Japanese culture but games and especially the way Japanese baseball
fans act are things on display.
JE comments: Ed, I've learned a lot. Except for the long waits between bouts, sumo appeals to the foreigner because it is so darn exotic--and also, the point of the match is profoundly simple: throw the other immense fellow out of the dohyo. Contrast this with cricket for us Americans or baseball for Europeans: the rules are difficult to understand, and most of the time the players seem to be just standing around.
Sumo Update: The "New Year's" Tournament
(Edward Jajko, USA
02/01/21 3:30 AM)
I have been remiss in not reporting that the January Grand Sumo "New Year's" tournament ended on January 24th. WAISers have had to content themselves with discussions of Navalny, Putin, etc., while waiting to hear about the world of Sumo.
Very early last Sunday morning I caught the end of the live telecast of the concluding three bouts. What was important to me was not so much the bouts, but the ceremony. I am fascinated by ceremonious events that include historical ritual and etiquette and personnel historically attired--the Roman Catholic and Anglican Mass and other rites; British courts; Sumo; etc. Before their final three bouts, the six rikishi mounted the clay platform dohyo and performed a simultaneous massive stomping of the feet. Evil spirits were driven out.
The day's bouts were opened with a recorded performance of the starkly beautiful national anthem of Japan. All in the Kokugikan rose for the anthem, which would ordinarily be sung by all present, but not in time of Covid. I missed this but know it was done and have it recorded on our DVR.
One of the rituals of sumo is bowing. After a bout, victor and loser return to their places on the dohyo and bow to each other. The degree of the bow can say a lot. In leaving the area, rikishi bow to the dohyo. If the gyoji, the referee, declares a poor start, before it is done again the wrestlers bow and apologize to the judges (five, not four as I mistakenly said in a previous posting).
Sumo is a Japanese tradition but its participants have come from other countries. Mongolia, Georgia, and Bulgaria have provided participants in the recent tournaments, but other European nations, and even the US, have provided sumo wrestlers, who have reached the highest rank. All are given Japanese names and some, at least, take Japanese citizenship.
The winner of the January tournament was Daieisho, a middle-ranked Maegashira #1. Maegashira is the fourth level down in sumo's pyramidal structure, and itself has 17 levels, #1 being the top. Still, he overpowered and beat by technique wrestlers who were in the higher ranks above him. His strength and technique were impressive.
Watching the end of the live telecast of the conclusion of the tournament gave me the opportunity to see the purpose of the unstrung longbow that is carried as part of each day's bouts.
Originally, centuries ago, the yumi or bamboo long bow was s prize given to the victor. Over the years, it lost its string and became a ritual object. At the end of the day's matches, one of the wrestlers mounts the dohyo and, with the bow, performs the yumitorishiki, the bow gaining ceremony, a ritual that is always done in the same way. The wrestler whips the bow through the air, to drive away unclean spirits, and mimes digging with the bow to remove them from the dohyo.
The winner of the tournament wins far more than the memory of a bow given long ago. The top prize is the Emperor's Cup, some 60 lb. of silver. There are many other prizes: cups, trophies, cash, even a ton of produce that can go into the wrestlers' chanko-nabe stew and a steer or heifer's weight of beef. The UAE even contributes a large trophy that, of course, looks like an Arab coffee pot--and a year's free gasoline.
NHK will telecast the tournament, March 14-28. Will Daieisho be able to maintain his glory, and perhaps move up to komusube? Will Takakeisho be demoted from ozeki?
Will, in fact, Covid allow the tournament to go on? Or for the Tokyo Olympics to be held?
JE comments: Ed, you've enlightened us! Only a skilled philologist can gloss such rich meaning from a spectacle that appears absurdly minimalist to the outsider. The biggie/ichiban Japanese sports event is not that far off: July 23rd and the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics. We're down to under six months. A lot can happen before then, such as vaccines for the entire world, but who would have thought in March 2020 that the pandemic would still be raging a year later?
So...will the show go on? I hope Edward Mears in Tokyo will keep us updated.
Tokyo Olympics: July...or Never? From Edward Mears
(John Eipper, USA
02/03/21 3:07 AM)
Edward Mears writes:
My thanks to Ed Jajko (February 1st) for his most informative update on Japan's New Year's sumo tournament.
Despite living in Japan for some time now and being a sports fanatic, my knowledge on sumo was lacking and Ed's post helped me better understand the tournament and rituals. I'll be sure to pay closer attention next time it is on TV or next time I can make a trip to the Kokugikan.
As for the Tokyo Olympics, I have been following this very closely over the past several months and it has been a topic of hot debate with my friends and colleagues here in Japan. As most may be aware, the Tokyo Olympics were originally scheduled to be held in July of 2020 but were postponed one year due to COVID-19 and are now due to commence on July 23rd, 2021. Since the decision to postpone last March, Japan's LDP under the leadership of Prime Minister Suga along with other stakeholders have been adamant that the games will be held "as planned." Stressing that no further postponements or cancellations are possible, the government has taken great pains to present a unified front on holding the Olympic games. It has been striking to see the government's level of certainty that the games will go forward in light of surging COVID-19 case numbers and dangerous new variants of the disease, not only in Japan but throughout the rest of the world. Talk of a contingency plan has been entirely non-existent despite recent general opinion polls stating that a large majority (80%) of the Japanese public would like to see the Games either postponed again or canceled.
The main forces at play behind the government's commitment to hold the games are the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG), the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (TOCOG), and the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Supporting these organizing partners are a bevy of corporate sponsors and other stakeholders such as media outlets and the prolific Japanese advertising agency, Dentsu, which plays a critical role behind the scenes coordinating broadcast rights and sponsorships. These organizations, companies and media outlets have spent millions if not billions on preparations for the games and need to show shareholders a return on their investment, which would ideally be realized through sponsorship activation around the games (ads on TV and throughout Tokyo), ticket sales and increased consumer spending by the Japanese populous and foreign visitors during the nearly month-long event. The established logic for hosting the games has been that despite steep price tags, host countries stand to profit handsomely from a surge of foreign visitors and international good will that the games provide. Infrastructure projects will generate jobs and foreign investment. The games are also a significant force for soft power projection, as the best of the host country's culture and people are on display to the world.
Cracks in this orthodoxy have begun to appear in recent iterations of the Games. Rio de Janeiro spent upwards of USD $13 billion while only netting approximately USD $300 million from the economic activity of overseas visitors. Many of the brand new venues constructed for Rio 2016 now sit abandoned in various states of disrepair. The price tag also continues to balloon: the Tokyo Olympics will be the most expensive Games on record, with an official estimated price tag of USD $15.4 billion as of December 2020 and the costs are still increasing. There have been several audits by the Japanese government which have shown that the actual cost of holding the games is at least USD $25 billion, in stark contrast to the original estimate of USD $7.5 billion in 2013.
Further complicating these changing dynamics for Tokyo is COVID-19 and the unprecedented travel restrictions and quarantines that have ground global air travel to a halt. The prospect of a Tokyo Games packed with foreign fans is looking increasingly dim despite the vaccine rollout: Japanese flagship airline ANA has just announced that it will reduce its international flight capacity by a further 50% through the end of October, while New Zealand has said it does not expect to reopen its borders until 2022 at the earliest. Other countries are implementing stronger border controls (including Japan) in response to outbreaks of more highly contagious forms of COVID-19. If the Games are held at all, it is likely that only a limited number of Japanese fans will be allowed into venues and even domestic attendance only remains in question.
The slow vaccine rollout further threatens the ability for the Japanese public to attend the games (if allowed) and raises serious ethical questions about vaccinating elite athletes ahead of some of the world's most needy and vulnerable. Japan is far behind the rest of the world in vaccine rollout, with only the first 10,000 medical workers scheduled to be vaccinated by the end of this month. Vaccination of the general population will not even begin until June or July at the absolute earliest. However a shortage of suitable freezers threatens to delay this timeline even further. On top of this, Japan expects nearly 15,000 Olympians and Paralympians to come to Japan for the Games, along with an equally sizeable press corps, officials and support staff. The complexities of vaccinating and/or ensuring social distancing and other mitigation efforts (in lieu of vaccination) for such a large contingent are seemingly unmanageable. Although American sports leagues have been able to compete in "bubbles" and/or with limited fans, the numbers and timeframe (a little more than two weeks) involved for the Olympics make this mission impossible. Further still, many countries who may otherwise want to participate in the Games may not be able to do so due to conditions at home, especially in the developing world where vaccine rollout may be years away. There is also clear competitive advantage for athletes from the most advanced countries who have found ways to keep up their training during the pandemic, while those from less fortunate countries have had to forego training and lead-in events. In an age of rising populist anger, these are risky optics.
All of this is to say, if the Olympics are going to be held without in-venue fans, without a full contingent of participating countries and without foreign visitors, what is the point? For many Olympic athletes, participation in the athletic events is of course the primary goal, but a close second is time spent exploring the host country, interacting with fellow athletes and the local population via events and appearances and participating in other Olympic festivities such as the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. Tokyo has already said that athletes will likely be placed in a bubble during competition and asked to leave shortly after completing their athletic events. The number of participants at the Opening and Closing Ceremonies has been significantly curtailed. Images of empty seats and a muted host city atmosphere do not resonate well with the inclusive and communal vision of the Olympic movement. While the Japanese government has tried to recharacterize the games as a moment to celebrate global victory over the pandemic, the television broadcast and scenes from Tokyo will likely send a very different message of corporate greed, privilege and disconnected priorities.
One convincing argument for holding the games even in a reduced form, however, is that fans of the Olympics will still tune in to the broadcasts and it could serve as a much-needed distraction and cathartic release after more than a year and a half of life under lockdown. In fact some have argued that lockdowns may result in even higher viewership as people all over the world continue to spend more time at home. Ratings results from American sports leagues have shown quite the opposite, however: all of the major sports (baseball, football, hockey and basketball) that resumed play during the pandemic while the lockdown was at its height suffered considerable ratings drops despite good story lines and ideal large-market matchups: viewership for the NBA Finals (LAL-MIA) was down 51%, the NHL Stanley Cup Finals (DAL-TB) down 61%, the College Football National Championship (ALA-OSU) down 27% and the World Series (LAD-TB) was the lowest rated in history (9.72 million viewers across six games), down 30% from last year. This does not bode well for the broadcast success of the Tokyo games, which has the added disadvantage of significant time-zone differences with US and European markets.
In light of all of this, another postponement here appears to make the most sense. Many of these concerns around COVID-19 and travel restrictions will likely have receded by next July and the Olympics could look and feel like an actual Olympics instead of an asterisk-laden exhibition for the most wealthy participants played out in sterile arenas. Despite this obvious resolution, the Japanese government and the organizing committees have remained firm that the only option is to proceed as planned. The ballooning costs are probably the primary reason a delay is not on the table, as billions more would be required in the event of a postponement and a young Japanese government under the faltering leadership of first-time Prime Minister Suga is unlikely to commit to that. Suga's approval ratings are already abysmal due to his administration's floundering and non-sensical COVID-19 response: while urging Japanese citizens to stay home the government was also offering sizeable travel subsidies to domestic travelers. Overall infection rate has remained very low compared to the rest of the world, however the reliability of the official numbers has been questioned. The government has made it extremely difficult to get tested as only those with multiple demonstrable symptoms can be tested at hospitals, and private testing is almost prohibitively expensive at approximately USD $300 per test. Some death statistics apparently do not count a death as COVID-19 related if other co-morbidities are present. Further, results from private testing facilities are not included in the overall infection statistics making it very difficult to gauge the true extent of the infection in Japan.
To be clear, even if underreported, the scale of the outbreak here in Japan is nowhere near the scale as seen in the United States and other parts of the world, and I do believe that this is one of the safest places to wait out the COVID-19 storm. Nevertheless, to proceed with a global event like the Olympics while the majority of the world is still reeling from the virus and where the Games themselves will only proceed in limited fashion seems shortsighted and potentially dangerous. With the costs of another one-year postponement likely prohibitive, the best "face-saving" way forward here would be to cancel the Tokyo games and award either the 2024 games (pushing Paris to 2028 and LA to 2032) or the 2032 games to Tokyo, if they want it. There may in fact be significant behind-the-scenes momentum towards this solution: late last week an unidentified "ruling coalition member" of the Japanese government (likely a Diet member from the Komeito political party) told The Times of London that this was the likely end-game and this sourcing was corroborated by Reuters. Leaks to foreign press are a rarity in Japan, but both The Times and Reuters were confident in their reporting and stuck by their story, despite outrage from Japanese politicians and the domestic press.
In any event, I expect that we will get an answer sometime in the coming weeks. There are several meetings scheduled between TMG/TOCOG and the IOC this week and next, and the torch relay is scheduled to begin in March. I believe the start of the torch relay is the latest that a decision will be made, given the enormous preparatory work that will be needed ahead of July. My money is on a cancellation and Suga will have to fall on that sword as he is brushed out of office (Kono Taro is the most likely to take his place), but there seems to be a tiny glimmer of hope that the Games can be held in recent press reports. So I guess its just wait and see. While a cancellation would be awful for Japan, the athletes and Olympic fans worldwide, it seems more and more inevitable. If the Games are ultimately canceled, I do hope that the IOC moves heaven and earth to give Tokyo the next crack at the Summer games in 2024 if they want it. I am also worried that if the Tokyo Games are canceled, Beijing (2022) will have the potential privilege of hosting the world's first "post-Corona" Olympics (though I suspect this may be cancelled as well and/or boycotted).
PS: In light of the recent discussion on C-rations and MREs, a few months back I became engrossed with a YouTube channel that is dedicated to sourcing and eating MREs from all over the world. The host of the channel prepares and eats the MREs on camera, including many "vintage" MREs from the Vietnam War, WWII, and what has to be the oldest MRE ever eaten//a British Emergency Ration from 1899-1902. Here is a link to his channel:
And here are some links to videos of some of the rations (I think) mentioned on the site recently:
1964 Vietnam MCI C Ration Ham & Lima Beans: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wIn5AYR1t-s
Pre-1972 C-Ration Accessory Pack: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yhL01J_cRRk
1899-1902 British Emergency Ration: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jZoHuMwZwTk&t=22s
1863 American Civil War Hardtack: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ga5JrN9DrVI
JE comments: Eddie, you've shown us another WAIS Effect moment: We both independently discovered Steve the "Rations Guy." Although Steve's videos lack the smells, he describes them most colorfully. We've already discussed Ham and Limas, but they are a delicacy compared to the Boer War-era "concentrated beef." No wonder the British had such a hard go of it in South Africa.
And you give us a splendid analysis of the political situation and "hard decisions" leading up to Tokyo '21. At this point, I see no possibility for the Olympics to open in five months' time. Games or not, Japan's government will probably be faulted either way--especially for that nation's glacial rollout of the vaccine.
- Tokyo Olympics: July...or Never? From Edward Mears (John Eipper, USA 02/03/21 3:07 AM)
- Sumo Update: The "New Year's" Tournament (Edward Jajko, USA 02/01/21 3:30 AM)