The strangeness of Tokyo’s huge head is amplified by the prevailing strangeness of these games © Leo Lewis/FT


As the world’s greatest athletes began to pour through the airport and a Covid-menaced Tokyo entered its final countdown to the Olympic Games this Friday, an immense, disembodied human head rose above the city to open the Cultural Olympiad.

The merits of the giant hot air balloon as a piece of art are for others to decide. As a piece of airborne mega-dissonance, it is somewhere between the flying gargoyle in cult film Zardoz and the Jewish mother in the skies of Woody Allen’s New York Stories. Neither seems a natural symbol of global athletic endeavour, but a $25bn showcase is never just about sport.

The strangeness of Tokyo’s huge head is amplified by the prevailing strangeness of these games — an event that has polarised the difference between success and failure like no other and now teeters somewhere between the two. 

If there were tens of thousands of carefree foreign spectators joining an even larger domestic throng, the almighty floating head would nod cogently above a festival of humanity. As matters stand, with Tokyo in a state of emergency, infections at a six-month high, a visiting Olympic delegate in hospital with Covid-19, an outbreak among athletes and audiences barred from almost all events, the head highlights the difficulty of simultaneously putting on an amazing show and begging people not to gather and marvel at it.

If reconciling that paradox is tough for the organisers of the games and the surrounding events, it is becoming all but impossible for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s government. His cabinet is now at a record low (according to a Friday poll by Jiji) sub-30 per cent approval rating and knows that in a couple of months’ time it will be answering for all this, but without its International Olympic Committee bodyguard. 

A prime example of this dawning horror has been Suga’s apology-strewn management of the sale of alcohol in bars and restaurants — which suggests that, in its current wrench between the conflicting duties of host and protector, his government cannot organise “a brewery in a piss-up”.

The problem centres on Tokyo’s fourth state of emergency (SOE), which will cover the period before and after the Olympics. As with the city’s three previous SOEs, it allows bars and restaurants to open until 8pm, but requests they not sell booze. With each successive declaration, both the purveyors and consumers of alcohol have become bolder in calling the state’s bluff, fighting a mutual rebellion for the right to drink and stay in business, creating what is essentially a Potemkin Prohibition. By SOE2, the trade continued under the cloak of impenetrable verbal codes like “grape juice” and “barley tea”; at this point in SOE4, with the sun shining and vaccinations rising, diners just ask for wine or beer. 

But while the authorities might otherwise have given some leeway to this, the minister spearheading the pandemic response, Yasutoshi Nishimura, is acutely sensitive to such brazen rule-breaking because of the games and the rising infections. In the space of about a week, Nishimura came up with two schemes to enforce the rules. The first decreed that the government should contact the nation’s banks and ask them to lean on the bars and restaurants (possibly with threats of loan withdrawals) to follow the guidelines. A day of stunned, thin-end-of-the-wedge outrage later, the plan was abandoned.

The second brainwave was for the National Tax Agency to write to wholesalers asking them to stop supplying alcohol to the bars and restaurants caught flouting the ban. Effective, perhaps. But the All Japan Liquor Merchants Association, whose political arm has been a stalwart supporter of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and who knows there is an election on the horizon, was not amused. Its dissent provided a real-time, three-ring spectacle of Suga’s government caving in to business interests, apologising for trying to enforce its own rules and running out of ideas about what to do next.

The finite resource, as exposed by this double stumble and the apologies that followed, is credibility. In the longer term, the government knows it has a solid supply; its immediate problem is that for the next few weeks, the Olympics is going to keep emptying the hopper in ever more absurd ways. An immense floating head, launched into the skies above one of the most popular parks in Tokyo on a sunny Friday afternoon, is always going to draw a thick crowd of gawpers; the government that gives the go-ahead to inflate it during a state of emergency cannot really be surprised if its edicts on alcohol are not taken seriously.

leo.lewis@ft.com

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