Performers put on a show before empty stands at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics opening ceremony on July 23. Photo: Reuters
Peter Wynn Kirby
Peter Wynn Kirby

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
In Japanese, karaoke literally means “empty orchestras”. Peculiar yet evocative, this name brings to mind an imagined “orchestra” providing the backup instrumentals for a performance that often takes place in a boozy bar setting, with variable skill levels and frequently dire performances.

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.

Instead of empty orchestras, we have empty arenas. Where individual athletes and teams perform in cavernous stadiums and on sports grounds bereft of fans, you could hear a chopstick drop.

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.


Inside the Tokyo 2020 Olympics opening ceremony

Inside the Tokyo 2020 Olympics opening ceremony

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.

As breathtaking and transformational as the Olympics can be, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. From the beginning of Tokyo’s ultimately successful bid for the 2020 games, the organising committee promised that the Olympics were going to help those hit hard by the 2011 triple disaster in Tohoku.


10 years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, survivors are hopeful but worried

10 years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster, survivors are hopeful but worried

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?

Why Fukushima waste water plan will remain a PR disaster

Yes, the opening action of the games took place in Fukushima, when a Japanese softball player threw the first pitch to an Australian batter in a stadium complex, J-Village, that for years served as a staging ground for nuclear workers struggling to contain the meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station.

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 the next year or two, authorities will begin to release about 1.25 million tonnes of irradiated waste water, stored precariously on site at Fukushima Daiichi, into the Pacific Ocean, despite strident opposition from fishermen and others.


Japan’s plan to release radioactive water from Fukushima nuclear plant into sea sparks outrage

Japan’s plan to release radioactive water from Fukushima nuclear plant into sea sparks outrage

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.

One can only conclude then that, as a matter of politics and public relations, Japan’s leadership deemed it was better to try to diminish Covid-19 as a problem rather than to acknowledge the dire threat that it posed.

Japan’s Covid-19 failures leave a dark cloud hanging over Tokyo Olympics

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.


Tokyo’s coronavirus infections hit record high for the third straight day amid Olympics

Tokyo’s coronavirus infections hit record high for the third straight day amid Olympics

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