The Distant Echo of a Raucous Match in Tokyo

CHOFU, Japan — One warm autumn afternoon two years ago, thousands of rugby fans converged on the plaza outside Chofu Station, in suburban Tokyo.

Japan would play South Africa in a quarterfinal match 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 a watch party that night.

I was back in Japan on a reporting trip that included attending the showdown that night. Like many Japanese, my friend Katsuki was swept up in the enthusiasm for the tournament, which included several exhilarating wins by the home team. He couldn’t find a ticket for the match, so we met in Chofu Station Square to join the fun before I left for the stadium, a short train ride away.

“My family watched the games on television and were excited not only about the Japanese team’s games but also the foreign teams’ games,” he told me recently. “I was very surprised that my hometown, Chofu, a common bed town, was filled with foreign crowds and with excitement, like a night in Roppongi,” one of Tokyo’s entertainment districts.

Through the miasma of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s hard to recall that the wildly successful Rugby World Cup was once viewed as a warm-up for the Tokyo Olympics. The crowds were electric, the hosts enthusiastic and proud. Many people expected the country to embrace the Olympics in the same way.

Yet when the Japanese and South African soccer teams met on Thursday night, a day before the opening ceremony, it was clear that most of that good will and bonhomie had vanished.

The game was played in the same stadium in Chofu, but there were no raucous cheering sections, waving flags or spirited celebrations. Just a few hundred people filled the more than 40,000 seats, and most of them were journalists. The piped-in noise echoed off the rafters. The slogan “United by Emotion,” posted on the back of the team benches, seemed more ironic than inspirational.

After the 1-0 Japanese win, the victors did not march around the grounds to thank their supporters; there were none.

“In 2019, the Rugby World Cup was here, and I saw the opening game in this very stadium, and it was fully of energy,” Hajime Moriyasu, the coach of the Japanese soccer team, said after the game. “That was the kind of environment I would have wanted our players to play in. I also would have wanted our supporters and people excited about the Olympic Games to experience that.”

Apropos of an Olympics dominated by the coronavirus, the game was almost postponed. The organizers said on Monday that more than 20 members of the South African team — players as well as staff members — had close contact with three others who had tested positive for the coronavirus. All of them were staying in the athletes’ village. The team was cleared to play six hours before kickoff.

“The quality of our team was diluted,” David Notoane, South Africa’s soccer coach, said of the several days in isolation. “We played survival football.”

The Olympics were troubled well before I returned to Tokyo this week. With the number of positive coronavirus cases rising and the rollout of vaccines troublingly slow, the government’s efforts to plow through with the Games have been met with widespread opposition from ordinary Japanese and powerful elites alike. Toyota, which has helped bankroll the Games, said it would not run Olympic-theme advertisements in Japan.

Tellingly, the plaza where Katsuki and I had watched hundreds of rugby supporters hoist beers is now dominated by a pop-up vaccination center where Katsuki received his first dose a few weeks ago. But any chance that he could witness the Olympics in person disappeared when the organizers said no fans would attend.

“I really wanted to watch the Games live and tried to buy a ticket, but the result was disappointing,” he told me. “There are many people who are against the Olympics being held in Tokyo. I’m hesitant to talk about the Olympic issues with my colleagues.”

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

I lived in Tokyo for a dozen years and know firsthand that the Japanese know how to have 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 soccer World Cup turned into a monthlong celebration. These events tempered the wariness that some Japanese have of foreigners.

I believe many Japanese will rally around the Olympics once they start. Hand-wringing and opposition before any Games — remember the Zika virus in Brazil before the 2016 Rio Olympics? — often fade once medals are awarded and national anthems are played.

The trouble is that any enthusiasm this time will be muted. Athletes will compete in front of seas of empty seats. The government has encouraged the Japanese to watch on television from home. In many districts of Tokyo, there are few obvious signs that the Olympics are taking place. In a store near my hotel, a rack of Tokyo 2020 merchandise — organizers declined to change to 2021 after the postponement — sat tucked next to a stairwell, not out front. Everything was on sale.

“It is sad that the legacy of the Chofu Station Square will be Covid instead of the Olympics,” Katsuki said.