Tokyo 2020: how Japan could have avoided a karaoke Olympics
- Instead of karaoke’s ‘empty orchestra’, the Tokyo Olympics have empty arenas. This might have been avoided had the Japanese government addressed the Covid-19 threat seriously
Many karaoke sets come with an echo feature to enhance the vocals, sometimes even simulated applause. As television cameras pan over Olympic venues with thousands of vacant seats looming above the sporting action, the logic of karaoke appears to have become inverted in the Covid-19 era.
Taking a cue from karaoke simulation, Japanese organisers are providing their own canned applause to soften the hollowness of the empty arena experience.
But there is a striking difference between this immensely popular singing pastime, which celebrates the talents and aspirations of ordinary people, and the current Olympic spectacle – and it’s not the strict prohibition on alcohol in the stands.
One key element of the popularity of karaoke is that it allows everyday slouches and middling talents to feel more like gifted crooners as they perform amid the trappings of glitzy entertainment.
The games, by contrast, display the yawning abyss between the pinnacle of athletic achievement and the mundane human striving of the rest of us.
The games were dubbed the “Recovery Olympics” and were intended to showcase how much Fukushima communities had turned the page on the disaster.
But many in Fukushima feel decidedly ambivalent about the games. How could it be otherwise when, for nearly a decade, the state repeatedly intoned inclusive rhetoric about how important Fukushima and other parts of the Tohoku region were to the nation, about how much the Olympics would honour the immense suffering of residents and others, only to cast them aside when the festivities began?
But as recently as December 2019, a hotspot of high radiation was discovered next to the J-Village car park. Over 14 million tonnes of radioactive waste remain in Fukushima, along with “difficult-to-return zones” due to excessive radiation.
In this way, the Fukushima disaster is decidedly not “over.” But you wouldn’t know it from the official pronouncements related to the games, which favour bromide statements regarding shared sacrifice and resilience.
The Olympics are, unsurprisingly, about the Olympics. The myriad stories and personal dramas of the athletes, the past records and sporting accomplishments placed within the frame of current striving, the staggering feats of athleticism and mental toughness eclipse much else.
But Covid-19 casts a shadow over the games. Tokyo clearly had the resources and capability to vaccinate a large majority of its population before the Olympics. Japan is a can-do place, known for tightly organised meeting agendas, workaholic tendencies and strong civil society institutions.
Otherwise, Japanese would have mobilised the best new weapon against Covid-19 – effective vaccines – to safeguard the nation and prepare for the Olympics.
Instead, in advance of a massive, prestigious international event of unparalleled media exposure, Japan has only vaccinated about 25 per cent of its population. This avoidable situation has made empty arenas almost an inevitability.
The political attempts to play down the threat are reminiscent of the Fukushima crisis.
The cynical reflex favouring misdirection over transparency, the use of overly strict definitions and dubious statistical data to obscure the degree of domestic risk, have an all too familiar ring. Clearly, Japan’s leaders haven’t learned from the bitter lessons of the triple-disasters.
In reality TV shows like The X Factor and American Idol, the term “karaoke” is used to denigrate singing performances that lack intensity, originality, and true emotional engagement. In other words, karaoke describes “dialling it in” rather than truly throwing oneself into the performance.
Looking back over the past months of Covid-19 upheaval, Japan’s leadership could be accused of dialling it in when confronting yet another historic crisis.
Karaoke politics led to the empty arenas we see today. Against the backdrop of extreme trauma in Tohoku and fearless achievement in the Games, Japan’s leaders must do better.
Peter Wynn Kirby is an anthropologist at the University of Oxford