There’s nothing quite like a live sporting competition for creating a sense of occasion: The tension in the crowds, the dreams of athletes coming true; the hopes of a nation in the balance. From my own experience, even a blind man listening to commentary can get pulled in by the excitement of fans as the competition reaches a climax.

But without the screams of a capacity crowd willing their heroes on, can the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 Olympics still make for a special occasion? I fear that, for a blind person listening to the commentary without the atmosphere of a crowd, the drama may be rather muted. Imagine a description of a 100-meter sprint, stripped back to the bare essentials: “The athletes crouch down. Bang! They’re running, they’re running. And the Jamaican has won! Now, here’s a word from our sponsor.”

Winning will still be special for the athletes who have been training for five years now in preparation for this Olympics. Even without the usual influx of foreign spectators, there will undoubtedly be plucky underdogs and fierce contests that manage to excite a worldwide audience.

The absence of multinational crowds mingling with the locals in Tokyo will be a huge loss for many residents of Japan, though. It got me wondering whether anyone will actually be happy to have the Olympics held under such unusual circumstances.

Putting aside thoughts of the coronavirus for a second, I wonder if anyone in Tokyo will be sitting down in front of their television thinking, “Ah, how relaxing to watch the 100-meter sprint without the hubbub of foreign visitors!”

I often used to go into coffee shops here to relax and read a newspaper. I would go up to the counter to order and, as I approached, I’d sometimes see a look of panic in the eyes of the barista who was going to have to take my order. I could almost hear them thinking, “Oh no — a gaijin! Please don’t speak to me in English, please don’t speak to me in English!”

I would order a hot coffee in Japanese. Then, there would be a moment’s silence while the cashier got their breathing under control, before they said, “Certainly. One iced coffee coming up.”

I don’t feel any anger toward these poor sufferers of what I’m going to call “gaijinophobia,” and I sincerely hope they take solace in this quieter-than-usual Olympics. Gaijinophobia, to me, is a bit like xenophobia but not as insidious. It applies to well-meaning natives of largely homogeneous island nations that panic when forced to interact with someone from another country.

Case in point: In 2017 it was reported that an attendant at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden was caught letting non-Japanese people into the park for free. Everyone was supposed to pay ¥200 to enter, but an investigation found that the attendant had been waving the fee for foreign residents for years, letting hundreds of thousands into the garden at no cost.

When he was asked to explain his actions, he said that he had once been shouted at by a foreigner. As a result, he had developed an acute fear of talking to them. This gaijinophobia resulted in lost revenues for the park estimated at more than ¥25 million.

The ticket collectors will undoubtedly be stricter at this year’s Olympics, and there are still sure to be struggles, drama and tears. They just won’t come from people like our friend at the park.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.