The exclusion of overseas spectators from this summer’s Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics amid the pandemic, some observers say, is a result of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s hope to avoid losing further political ground ahead of a general election that must be called by this fall.

As Suga’s administration scrambles to contain the coronavirus, with the emergence of new variants becoming a fresh source of concern while uncertainty lingers over when COVID-19 vaccines will reach the entire population, he has been treading carefully not to invite more criticism over the government’s handling of the pandemic.

More than a week before a formal agreement was reached with the International Olympic Committee during a virtual meeting on Saturday, the government internally decided to bar foreign spectators, a number that would have totaled an estimated 1 million, even though doing so is a heavy blow to the country’s tourism sector.

The decision by the key organizing bodies, also including the International Paralympic Committee and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, could also prolong Japan’s tight border controls.

Currently, a ban is in place for all new entries by nonresident foreign nationals except for those allowed under “special exceptional circumstances” and places a cap on weekly arrivals to avoid adding strains to medical facilities.

“Even as it means inflicting big damage on inbound tourism, Suga’s government decided not to let in spectators from overseas to prevent people from saying that coronavirus infections increased because of the government’s lack of policies,” said Hitoshi Komiya, a professor of modern Japanese political history at Aoyama Gakuin University.

“The strengthening of border controls is one of the few cards Mr. Suga has left to show the public that he is strictly controlling the coronavirus,” Komiya said. “He is becoming very defensive and cannot gamble.”

On March 5, the government extended the COVID-19 state of emergency covering the Tokyo metropolitan area by two weeks to Sunday, having deemed the state of infections had not improved enough to end it by an earlier deadline. The pace of decline in new cases of COVID-19 disease in the nation has slowed, while there is a fear that coronavirus variants may spread rapidly through the country and that currently available vaccines may be less effective against them.

Shigeru Omi, head of the government’s COVID-19 subcommittee, has warned that variants would become the dominant strain in Japan “sooner or later.”

Japan has also been beefing up border controls to keep the virus at bay, such as requiring all those arriving from 24 countries where COVID-19 variants have been detected to take additional testing on the third day after entering Japan and closely monitoring whether entrants are strictly observing a 14-day self-quarantine period.

“If there is an outbreak that takes place because foreign visitors were allowed in, that’s electoral suicide” for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party led by Suga, said Michael Cucek, an assistant professor at the Temple University Japan campus and an expert on Japanese politics.

Suga will need to call a general election by dissolving the House of Representatives sometime before October when the current four-year term of Lower House members ends.

Olympic minister Tamayo Marukawa delivers a speech at a five-party meeting of Tokyo Games organizers on Saturday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS
Olympic minister Tamayo Marukawa delivers a speech at a five-party meeting of Tokyo Games organizers on Saturday. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

Three polls are also set to be held in April to fill vacancies in parliamentary seats, while the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly election, a key test for the LDP’s junior coalition partner Komeito, is set for July.

“You can’t avoid the (Olympic) teams, the team members, and staff, but you can avoid having foreign visitors. If you don’t take that step and something happens, (it’s an) electoral disaster” for the LDP, Cucek said.

Recent opinion polls by Kyodo News have shown that the Cabinet’s support rating correlates directly with the spread of coronavirus infections. The approval rate fell 2.5 percentage points in February from the previous month to 38.8%.

Economists say that it will be difficult for Japan to relax its travel restrictions and welcome inbound tourists following the decision on overseas spectators.

“If foreigners are not permitted to enter Japan for the Tokyo Olympics, the country may lose the opportunity to allow them in the future, although the plan was to gradually ease border controls after letting them in for the games,” said Masato Koike, an economist at the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute.

Koike said unless vaccines cover the entire population or a system of vaccine passports, which certify a holder has been inoculated, is established, there is no prospect for the tourism sector to see a recovery for the time being, possibly for the rest of the year.

The absence of overseas spectators at the Olympics and Paralympics is likely to decrease overall consumer spending, including accommodation and dining expenses, by ¥60 billion to ¥70 billion from the total of ¥207.9 billion projected if the games were to be held under normal circumstances, according to the Daiwa Institute of Research.

“Compared with Japanese people, foreign visitors stay a longer number of days (at hotels) so their expenditures tend to be bigger,” Yutaro Suzuki, an economist at the institute, said in a report released Friday.

Spending by the average foreign tourist per visit came to ¥137,948 in 2019, more than double the ¥60,995 spent by domestic travelers per trip, according to data from the Japan Tourism Agency.

“Giving up on welcoming foreign spectators will also reduce opportunities for Japan to promote its attractions to the world and could lessen the impact of inbound demand that was expected to expand due to the games,” Suzuki said.

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