Even if disaster is averted, a sense of national renewal will remain elusive

Clouds gathered over Komazawa stadium in Tokyo as the Olympic torch arrived on July 9th. Because of the pandemic, the traditional public relay was replaced by a small ceremony behind the stadium’s closed doors. Protesters outside held signs that read “Protect lives not the Olympics” and “Extinguish the Olympic torch”. As Kyogoku Noriko, a civil servant, put it, “Now is not the time for a festival.” More enthusiastic onlookers lined a nearby footbridge, hoping to catch a glimpse of the flame through the stadium’s rafters. For Honma Taka, an office worker, the torch offered “a bit of light within the darkness”.

Mr Honma longingly recalled a brighter day in the same park eight years earlier, when he joined thousands of others to celebrate as Tokyo won the right to host the games. Abe Shinzo, Japan’s prime minister at the time, said he was happier than he had been when he became prime minister. Mr Abe saw the Olympics as a chance to lend credence to his bullish catchphrase: “Japan is back”. He hoped the games would help the country snap out of its gloom after decades of economic stagnation, demographic decline and devastating natural disasters. The games, says Taniguchi Tomohiko, a special adviser to Mr Abe, were seen as a source of “a commodity that was in scarce supply: hope for the future”.

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