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The lawyer leading a campaign to cancel the Olympics says he's 'fighting for these precious lives' that will be lost if the Tokyo games go on

INSIDER logo INSIDER 5/25/2021 hbrueck@businessinsider.com (Hilary Brueck)
a man sitting in front of a computer: "The hospitals are overcrowded, we're completely overwhelmed," Utsunomiya told Insider. Team Utsunomiya Kenji © Team Utsunomiya Kenji "The hospitals are overcrowded, we're completely overwhelmed," Utsunomiya told Insider. Team Utsunomiya Kenji
  • The delayed 2020 Summer Olympics are scheduled to be held in Japan this July and August.
  • More than 80% of Japanese people don't want them to take place, given the low rate of vaccinations and infections surging.
  • A lawyer has started a petition to cancel the games, and delivered it to the president of the games.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Kenji Utsunomiya has successfully petitioned the government to get what he wants before.

In 2003, Utsunomiya, a Japanese lawyer, stood up - along with 3 million Japanese people who signed his petition - and asked the nation's leaders to clamp down on predatory loan sharks, who were preying on borrowers so hard that many ran away from their families, their jobs, and their lives.

By 2006, new Japanese laws were enacted to curb interest rates, and set debt limits, in line with what he proposed.

Now, Utsunomiya says he's fighting for the lives of many more Japanese people, as the Tokyo Olympics approach this summer amid a deadly wave of new COVID-19 infections in the country.

"The reality is people are dying," Utsunomiya told Insider through a translator. "Lives that can be saved will be put in danger because of the Olympics."

Japan and the IOC show no signs of buckling to the pressure to cancel the games

a man holding a sign: A protester demonstrates against the upcoming Olympics on May 9, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images © Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images A protester demonstrates against the upcoming Olympics on May 9, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images

With only 2% of Japan fully vaccinated, and a fourth wave of coronavirus infections overwhelming the nation's hospitals already, most Japanese agree with Utsunomiya that now is not the time for any games.

Japan's deadliest week with the virus so far was last week, according to the latest data available from Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. 764 people died from the virus in Japan over the past seven days, and the country logged 33,795 new cases. Already, the number of deaths from COVID-19 in Japan in 2021 has surpassed the death toll from all of 2020.

A recent survey showed that more than 80% of Japanese people want the Summer Olympics either canceled entirely, or postponed to a later date. Utsunomiya's Change.org petition has garnered nearly 400,000 signatures online, winning it a spot among the top 1% of Change petitions.

Despite public sentiment, the Japanese government and Olympics organizers show no signs of changing their minds.


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Instead, Japan has promised to ramp up its vaccine drive, with a new vaccination site in Tokyo opening this week aiming to vaccinate 10,000 seniors a day, and another in Osaka promising to dispense 5,000 shots a day, according to Reuters. The new vaccine centers can hardly be called mass vaccination sites, as the populations of Tokyo and Osaka are roughly 14 million and 2.7 million, respectively.

"The coronavirus situation in Japan is getting worse, and there are more cases every day," Utsunomiya said. "Healthcare workers are busy enough now that it's not realistic to be able to host the Olympics safely."

The International Olympics Committee (which makes most of its money selling TV rights to the games, not physical tickets) also continues to assert that the games, the most expensive Summer Olympics yet, will be held in a "safe and secure" manner this summer, with rigorous testing of athletes, vaccines available for both players and staff, and no spectators allowed into the country from abroad (athletes' families won't even be allowed to watch them in person).

30 Japanese hospitals are also being put on reserve in case any Olympians catch the virus while they're there, a move which has angered many Japanese.

"Hospitals are overcrowded, completely overwhelmed by the number of patients," Utsunomiya said. "There have been deaths at home because people aren't able to go."

Vaccines are being offered to Olympians, while most Japanese healthcare workers have not gotten shots yet

Posters reading "Medical capacity reached its limits. Stop the Olympics!" and "Give us a break. The Olympics are impossible!" in the windows of Tachikawa Sogo Hospital on May 10, 2021 in Tokyo. Carl Court/Getty Images) © Carl Court/Getty Images) Posters reading "Medical capacity reached its limits. Stop the Olympics!" and "Give us a break. The Olympics are impossible!" in the windows of Tachikawa Sogo Hospital on May 10, 2021 in Tokyo. Carl Court/Getty Images)

Pfizer is donating shots to Olympians and Olympic staffers who want them, but they're not required, and Olympic organizers won't disclose how many of the athletes will be vaccinated in time for the games.

Meanwhile, most Japanese healthcare workers have not been vaccinated, and even fewer of them will be available to give out shots if they're dispatched to work the Olympics.

"There's talk of a huge penalty (if the Games are canceled), but if 100,000 people from 200 countries descend on vaccine-laggard Japan and the mutant variant spreads, I think we could lose a lot more: Lives, the burden of subsidies if a state of emergency is called, a fall in gross domestic product, and the public's patience," SoftBank founder Masayoshi Son, the second-richest person in Japan, said on Twitter, criticizing the decision to continue holding the games.

Utsunomiya says the reasons the Japanese government won't back down from the festivities, despite the outbreak, are clear.

'This is very much politically driven'

a man standing in front of a window: Utsunomiya hands his petition to a staffer at the office of Seiko Hashimoto, president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee, on Friday, May 21, 2021. Team Utsunomiya Kenji © Team Utsunomiya Kenji Utsunomiya hands his petition to a staffer at the office of Seiko Hashimoto, president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee, on Friday, May 21, 2021. Team Utsunomiya Kenji

"This is very much politically driven," he said, explaining that the government has received low ratings for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic. The prime minister may be banking on the Olympics running well as a way to help boost his chances in upcoming elections, slated for this fall.

But with new more infectious variants circulating, the future of the games, and the unvaccinated Japanese people around them, is far from certain.

"I'm fighting for these precious lives that may be lost due to this politically driven approach to the Olympics and the coronavirus situation," Utsunomiya said.

All translations courtesy of Lisa Masuda.

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