Commentary: Cutting down of trees in Yoyogi raises new frustrations over Tokyo Olympics
The Japanese public has a darkening sense of the unstoppable arrival of tens of thousands of athletes and their teams, says the Financial Times’ Leo Lewis.
TOKYO: At any other time in Yoyogi Park, the sight of workers going about their business with power saws would pass unnoticed. It’s a densely treed spot and the glorious 57-year-old oaks and cedars won’t prune themselves.
But in mid-2021, with the Olympic spectacle just 50-odd days away and its momentum now seemingly impervious to medical, media or public calls for cancellation, the woodsmen have become convenient villains. The park must be readied as an “Olympic Live Zone”.
A few dozen trees have to be cut back to make space for the site, whose usage, as with everything else, will ultimately be dictated by coronavirus.
And however limited the tree-surgeons’ activities may be in practice, to their fiercest online detractors they are vandalous, ecology-hating stooges for an Olympic project that is eroding Japan’s sanity and sovereignty.
The rising indignation at the Olympic tree-cutting offers a neat encapsulation of much (beyond the global pandemic) that has gone wrong with the games at this point.
That includes the tin-eared “barring Armageddon it’s a go” messaging from International Olympic Committee officials and the many unforced errors of local organisers, including the resignation in February of the president of the Tokyo Olympics, Yoshiro Mori, over sexist remarks.
Meanwhile, the Japanese public has a darkening, frustrated sense of the unstoppable arrival of tens of thousands of athletes and their teams.
A FITTING SETTING FOR THE BATTLE
Yoyogi Park is a fitting setting for the latest battle over the wisdom of holding the Olympics in a still-untamed pandemic with less than 3 per cent of the country fully vaccinated.
The 134-acre expanse of central Tokyo land was used as the Olympic Village in 1964. In a fine example of a legacy that was neither large public debt nor decaying facilities, the village was afterwards converted into one of the capital’s loveliest parks.
Whether you agree or not with the lionising of the 1964 games, which were not without problems, they have been a source of Japanese pride for almost six decades. Few places evoke their memory as powerfully. The trees currently being cut back are among the 1,100 that were planted, as seedlings, by the departing athletes back then.
There are several obvious problems with the decision to push ahead and build the Live Zone.
The area was conceived to encourage dense public throngs – originally as large as 35,000 people, since downscaled into the hundreds – to celebrate the festival aspect of the games. It was always part of the Tokyo 2020 plan.
Even the dullest imagination can see that without a pandemic, it would have been stupendous fun.
JAPAN’S INCONSISTENT APPROACH EXEMPLIFIED
But for several months, Yoyogi itself has exemplified Japan’s inconsistent approach to both rising infection numbers and the decision to aver that the games are without risk.
The same wide open spaces that will be used for the Live Zone were fenced off in March to discourage gatherings and have been closed ever since. That policy, whatever its true value to pandemic control, now looks ridiculous against the might-is-right suasion of the Olympics.
Either crowds are allowed to come in numbers to enjoy the Live Zone and the closure of the park’s open areas was unnecessary in the first place, or they decide crowds are not allowed to come and the Live Zone is another colossal waste of money and a flawed reason to chop back trees.
With only limited visibility of what will happen, the public has been left to wonder whether the zone’s construction is cynically going ahead to satisfy yet another unbreakable financial commitment made pre-COVID, or, worse, whether the zone’s only guests will be visiting Olympic officials.
The Yoyogi trees are a sideshow, but they reveal a chasm between the organisers and the Japanese public that will yawn wider between now and the opening ceremony.
Having overcome the macro objection of going ahead, the organisers have almost no option but to steamroller every micro objection that arises.
The government has for better or worse accepted the grand risk that, as the chair of the Japan Doctors’ Union put it, the legacy of the games will be the emergence of a new “Olympic” COVID strain.
It was an all-in bet, and all-in bets require a certain performance that fails the instant there is any flicker of weakness or compromise.
The public, having lost any real capacity to blow the project off course, will snarl ever more ferociously around the micro objections and inconsistencies.
Projects like the Live Zone – and others to come – will be treated as hard proof that the organisers have either not understood the bet they have made, or are deliberately understating how much has been put on the table.