The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Despite spectator ban, some Japanese residents are creating their own Olympic memories

Posing for photographs with the Olympic rings has become very popular, with lines sometimes stretching for more than an hour. (Michelle Lee/The Washington Post)

TOKYO — Shota Okamoto was running an errand with his wife and two daughters Monday when they decided to get a photo with the Olympic rings near National Stadium. They arrived to find a long queue that snaked around the block, and they waited more than an hour for their photo.

“Before the Olympics started, we were not sure about the Olympics being in Japan. But now that it’s happening, we’re cheering on the athletes,” Okamoto said.

The Olympics are underway, and some local residents are getting into it — despite the collective angst that had been building for months leading up to the Games. Public polling repeatedly showed that a plurality of Japanese voters wanted the Games to be canceled or postponed once more, fearing the spread of the coronavirus.

Although spectators have been banned from the majority of the events and the capital is under a coronavirus state of emergency, these Japanese residents are still finding ways to get into the mood and catch a glimpse of the international event.

Hours before the Opening Ceremonies, at least 2,000 people gathered at a park near National Stadium to watch the air force’s aerobatic squadron, Blue Impulse, draw the Olympic rings in multicolored smoke. During the ceremonies, crowds packed the streets outside of the stadium to listen to music seeping out of the stadium and watch the fireworks.

TV viewership in Japan for the Opening Ceremonies last week averaged 56.4 percent in and around Tokyo, the highest Opening Ceremonies viewership since the last time Tokyo hosted the Summer Games in 1964, according to Mainichi Shimbun.

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And a recent cycling road race drew huge crowds gathering in the streets to cheer on the athletes and take photos, prompting Olympic officials to ask locals to refrain from attending roadside events. Coronavirus cases have been on the rise in and around Tokyo, while vaccination rates remain in the 20 percent range.

“We are requesting general audiences to refrain from coming to the roadside under the current situation,” Tokyo 2020 spokesman Masa Takaya said during a briefing Monday. “We should thank those people who did not come and [stayed] in their homes to watch those events.”

Early gold medal wins by Japanese athletes have further buoyed fans here. The Abe siblings claimed a pair of golds Sunday in judo, becoming the first brother-and-sister duo to win individual gold medals at the same Olympics. Two Japanese athletes clinched the first Olympic title in street skateboarding, Yuto Horigome in the men’s competition and Momiji Nishiya in the women’s competition. Nishiya became the youngest Japanese gold medal winner at age 13.

Japanese public opinion on the Olympics is mixed, from disappointed former ticket-holders to those who vehemently oppose the Tokyo Games. But many residents said that now that the Games have begun, they want to enjoy the event and experience it however they can.

Okamoto, for example, said he was still concerned about the spread of the coronavirus during the Games but he hoped the Olympic protocols were working. In the meantime, he was especially rooting for Japan in judo. He and his family watched the Opening Ceremonies at home, and his older daughter, 4, danced along to the music.

“Yesterday was amazing,” Okamoto said, referring to the Abe siblings’ win.

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Dozens of people stopped by the rings Monday afternoon to take selfies. They went to the nearby Olympics gift shop to purchase T-shirts, Japanese flags and Olympic figurines. Some people stuck their hands through the fencing separating them from National Stadium to take a photograph of the venue from the closest angle possible.

Yuki Yoshino, 16, sat on the lawn in front of the rings Monday with four classmates, still dressed in their school uniforms. The five teens attend high school near National Stadium and stopped by to hang out after school.

Their school originally scheduled a field trip to watch the Olympics. While that trip was canceled, the girls are still excited about the Games. When asked about their favorite Olympic sport, the girls collectively shrieked, “Table tennis!” Then they giggled as they talked about their excitement to watch the table tennis finals and went about chatting on the lawn.