Protesters were audible outside the Olympic stadium, reflecting widespread unease as the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Games got underway on Friday, while further afield Tokyo residents chose to critique the event in the company of friends.
Defying Covid restrictions under a prevailing state of emergency declaration, patrons gathered to watch the ceremony on large screens in a sports bar in Tokyo.
The first ten minutes of the ceremony were subdued, featuring a sole runner on a treadmill. And judging by the indifferent stares at the big screens, so were the patrons in the bar.
But when the Japanese national anthem started, a significant section of the gathered crowd became animated, and joined in a full-throated rendition of their national song.
Just maybe, they thought, things were about to pick up. But after a series of lacklustre performances that seemed disconnected, a real sense of confusion seemed to fill the bar.
And then things got worse. By now, several minutes into the ceremony, one country after another was being introduced, but in no discernible order.
It transpired that the introductions followed the order of katakana, one of Japan’s phonetic writing systems, instead of the more globally understood Roman alphabet system.
After an hour and a half or so of parading Olympians, the bar, which was half full at the start of the opening ceremony, began thinning out, with one patron after another exiting.
Those who stayed to the bitter end, especially Japanese, were in for a treat: not only did Japanese basketball player Rui Hachimura bear the flag for Japan; tennis player Naomi Osaka lit the Olympic flame for the host country.
One Japanese woman celebrated the fact Hachimura and Osaka, who are both mixed race, had a prominent role in the ceremony, given the Games’ focus on promoting diversity, remarking that it was a “beautiful show that highlighted the solidarity that we need in this world to overcome prejudice, hate, and conflict.”.
But Hachimura and Osaka’s double act was not enough to save the ceremony from critics: “Random, sluggish and confused. There was no connection between the performances”, declared a Japanese woman in her thirties, sitting with friends in the sports bar.
Her friend and peer, a woman from China, adds: “It is disappointing that this is the best that they could do”.
Another friend, an American-Japanese in his twenties, was more emphatic: “Go big or go home. Worst Olympics ever”.
But it’s not just the success or failure of the opening ceremony that is still in question: many people in Tokyo hold the view that the Games should not be going ahead at all.
During the opening ceremony, a small but vocal group of protesters in front of the Olympic stadium could be heard calling for the Games be stopped.
One of their banners read, “Cancel the five rings,” referring to the Olympics themselves—according to a video of the incident shared on.
There are no plans to cancel the Games. And, for the organisers, a ray of hope that the Games will yet ignite the imagination still exists.
“Saw the drones from our balcony—that was certainly cool,” one expat in Tokyo, a man in his fifties from Holland, says, referring to a spectacular light show with drones during the ceremony.
Another expat, a German in his twenties, adds: “I liked it.” And given the current Covid-19 pandemic, he believes it is “amazing” that something as unifying as the Games can still take place.