For the thousands of journalists coming to Japan to cover the Olympics, one condition of entry was a short, hard quarantine. No one would be allowed to leave their hotel room for three days after their arrival.
Except there were workarounds. The administratively inclined could apply for an exemption. Those who require food to live were allowed to go to the store. Essentially, anyone who was determined to leave could.
Some went several steps further. By and large, Tokyo is dry for the duration of the Olympics.
Nonetheless, strongly worded e-mails were sent warning resourceful foreign day drinkers that they were bringing “a grave reputational risk” to themselves, their organization and the Tokyo 2020 Games.
According to the warning, they’d been spotted all over the city. Which may not have been the smartest thing to announce publicly if deterrence was the goal.
By Wednesday, the organizers had scrapped the hard quarantine altogether, then said, “[We] deeply apologize for the difficulties you have experienced upon arrival.”
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As that e-mail hit my inbox, I was standing groggily in another line at Haneda Airport. I’m not sure which one. The one with the green form, I think. Or maybe the yellow one. People kept handing me forms, then very politely asking me why I had the forms they’d just handed me. Huge portions of that first hour are a blur of stamps, stapling and people taking my phone away from me to do things on it that I could not.
You’ve been flying for 24 hours, you feel like you’ve been glazed in cooking oil, and the only thing you care about is a hot shower and a change of clothes.
So when someone holds up a form that is entirely in Japanese and asks if you’ve filled it out, your best guess is, “Where am I exactly?”
A whole genre of horror stories has sprung up in recent days about how long it takes to get out of a Tokyo airport right now. As many as six hours after landing. Sometimes eight.
“I heard nine hours at Narita,” one delighted volunteer told me.
Sadly, I can’t add to the notes of grievance. My journey through all nine circles of bureaucratic hell took three hours from kiosk to kiosk.
Considering all the nonsense we had to do – verify forms, verify apps, get new forms, verify those forms, get our forms all mixed up, get them unmixed, spit in a tube, wait to hear how that went, verify more forms, get credentialed, clear customs, get fingerprinted and photographed, run the gauntlet at immigration – it’s a wonder it happened so quickly.
They even managed to hang on to our luggage. A lot of North American airports can’t manage that under optimal conditions (I’m looking at you, Tampa).
Around the time they’d wedged a couple of hundred of us into a smallish departure lounge to wait for the results of our rapid COVID-19 tests – with the guy next to me, mask off, screaming bloody murder into his phone – I’d lost faith in the efficacy of the process. Meanwhile, a guy was walking around the room offering plastic face shields to whomever wanted one. Screaming Phone Man ignored him, and he ignored Screaming Phone Man.
But after running through the public safety gauntlet, I’ve come to understand we all have our roles to play in this farce.
We, the visitors, come laden down with forms, proving we are sufficiently supplicatory.
They, the hosts, create an infrastructure to process those forms, proving they are sufficiently gracious.
Together, we link arms and pretend we are fighting this thing together, leaving unsaid the fact that no one needs to be fighting it at all.
Sometimes, that teamwork does not make the dream work. For instance, why are foreign visitors banned from using the elevators in the hotel we’re staying at? The lovely woman at the check-in was very emphatic on that point. Elevators for locals only.
I’m not complaining, since I could use the cardio. But it still makes no sense. Whether or not you bar us from the elevators, we are still here, filling the air in the lobby with our globules, making the breakfast nook pestilential and befouling the laundry room.
Also, if you are that afraid of contagion, maybe the Olympic fortnight wasn’t the best time to plan your Harajuku staycation.
But that’s just common sense, and we are well past that. Olympics-wise, we can’t even see common sense in the rear-view anymore.
Where we are is in the realm of make-believe. The Tokyo Organizing Committee makes us believe that it’s really scared, and we pretend we won’t sneak out to the bars if Dad takes his eye off us for a second.
This is why the head of Tokyo 2020, Toshiro Muto, won’t definitively promise that the Olympics are going ahead regardless of where the COVID-19 numbers end up. It’s not because he’s considering cancellation. That ship has launched.
It’s because Muto must pretend to consider cancellation, because he is pretending to be scared, while we pretend to take him seriously.
Another for instance. In order to leave the airport, I was jammed onto a bus filled with sweaty, irritated, jet-lagged hacks sitting almost on top of one another. But in order to leave the bus, we were told to go one at a time and not touch our luggage, but rather wait for it to be loaded into a cab, which we would all take singly.
As we waited, a volunteer regaled us with “fun facts” about Tokyo. Fun fact No. 1: “Tokyo is a paradise for foodies.”
”WE AREN’T ALLOWED TO GO TO THE RESTAURANTS, MATE,” someone bellowed. This was all getting more high-school auditorium by the moment.
But, like the pretending, the fun facts could not be stopped.
The IOC pretends to be worried about the athletes. The athletes pretend to be worried about security. The security pretends to be worried about the “reputational risk to the Tokyo 2020 Games.” And around and around we go.
While we’re all busy pretending, they’ll manage to wedge in a few sports. Before you know it, it’ll be over and no one need ever worry again about running into me as I take huge, wet breaths in the elevator while hanging over the buttons.
The only people who don’t have to pretend are the local viewers. They’ve all been locked out of the Games. Which means they’ll be enjoying this event from the only secure locations at the Olympics: their living rooms. No forms required for entry.