Distant Echoes of a Loud Match in Tokyo


CHOFU, Japan — On a warm autumn afternoon two years ago, thousands of rugby fans gathered in the plaza outside Chofu Station in suburban Tokyo.

Japan will play South Africa in the quarter-finals of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in a few hours. While the South Africans were heavy favorites, the mood was jubilant as Japanese fans mingled with supporters from around the world. There was music, face painting and a giant screen for an hour party that night.

I had returned to Japan on a reporting trip that included participating in that night’s showdown. Like many Japanese, my friend Katsuki was enthralled by the tournament, which featured exciting home wins. He couldn’t find tickets for the match, so we met at Chofu Station Square to join in the fun before heading to the stadium, which is a short train ride away.

“My family watched the matches on TV and was excited not only for the matches of the Japanese team, but also for the matches of foreign teams,” he told me recently. “I was amazed that my hometown of Chofu, an ordinary bed city, filled with foreign crowds and excitement like a night in Roppongi”, one of Tokyo’s entertainment districts.

Thanks to the miasma of the coronavirus pandemic, wildly successful Rugby World Cup was once seen as a warm-up for the Tokyo Olympics. The crowd was enthusiastic, the hosts were enthusiastic and proud. Many expected the country to embrace the Olympics in the same way.

But when the Japanese and South African football teams met on Thursday night, the day before the opening ceremony, it was clear that much of that goodwill and friendliness had vanished.

The game was played at the same stadium in Chofu, but without loud cheering segments, flag waving or enthusiastic celebrations. Only a few hundred people filled the more than 40,000 seats, most of them journalists. The sound from the pipes echoed in the beams. The slogan “United by Emotion” written on the back of the team benches seemed more ironic than inspirational.

After the 1-0 Japanese win, the victors did not walk on the pitch to thank their fans; there was none.

Hajime Moriyasu, head coach of the Japanese football team, said after the game, “The Rugby World Cup in 2019 was here and I saw the opening game in this stadium and it was full of energy.” “It was the kind of environment I would want our players to play in. I also want our supporters and people excited about the Olympic Games to experience it.”

Due to an Olympics dominated by the coronavirus, the match was almost postponed. There are more than 20 members of the South African team – players and staff members – organizers said on Monday. close contact with three other people who tested positive for the coronavirus. All of them were staying in the village of the athletes. cleared for team play six hours before the start time.

“The quality of our team has declined,” said David Notoane, South Africa’s football coach, for the few days in isolation. “We played survival football”

Before returning to Tokyo this week, the Olympics were tumultuous. With number of positive coronavirus cases rising and the release of vaccines is uncomfortably slow, The government’s efforts to move forward with the Games were met with widespread opposition from both ordinary Japanese and powerful elites. Toyota, which helped finance the games, said it would do just that. Not running Olympic-themed ads in Japan.

The plaza where Katsuki and I watched hundreds of rugby fans raise beers is now dominated by a pop-up vaccine center where Katsuki got his first dose a few weeks ago. But the chance to witness the Olympics in person was gone when the organizers said no fans would attend.

“I really wanted to watch the games live and tried to get a ticket but the result was disappointing,” he said. “There are many people who oppose holding the Olympics in Tokyo. I hesitate to talk to my colleagues about Olympic issues.”

It has been a sobering experience for Japan and for me as well.

I lived in Tokyo for a dozen years and I know firsthand that the Japanese know how to throw a big party. I remember how the Nagano Games in 1998 captivated the country and how friends took the bullet train to the mountains just to witness the festivities. In 2002, the World Football Cup became a one-month celebration. These events lessened the wariness of some Japanese towards foreigners.

I believe many Japanese will rally around it after the Olympics start. Handshake and opposition before any Game – remember Zika virus in Brazil before the 2016 Rio Olympics? – usually disappears when medals are awarded and national anthems are played.

The problem is that this time any enthusiasm will be silenced. Athletes will compete in front of the seas with empty seats. The government encouraged the Japanese to watch it on TV from home. In many areas of Tokyo, there are few obvious signs that the Olympics are taking place. In a store near my hotel, a shelf of Tokyo 2020 goods – organizers refused to move to 2021 after a delay – was tucked into the side of a stairwell, not the front. Everything was on sale.

“It is a pity that the legacy of Chofu Station Square is Covid rather than the Olympics,” Katsuki said.


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