The Zika Virus and Tokyo Olympic Security

MosquitoWhat if Something Like the Zika Virus Outbreak Occurred During the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?

At the time this commentary is being posted news reports about the Zika Virus in Brazil are filling the broadcast, social, and print media. Those responsible for the safety and security of participants and visitors during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics might wonder how the health and public safety authorities in Japan would respond to a similar public health concern during the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. A review of reporting about how Japanese authorities responded to three similar threats in the past can indicate how they might respond to a threat like the Zika virus in Tokyo in 2020. Our review will begin with a look at a public health threat quite similar to the threat posed by the Zika virus.

2003 – SARS

With regards to the SARS (Severe Acquired Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in Asia in 2003, a Japanese doctor published an article in a Chung Shan Medical University (Taiwan) publication which asserts the Japanese authorities distorted information about the severity of the SARS outbreak in Japan. You can download a pdf copy of the article here.

2001 – Anthrax Scare

2001 – Anthrax Scare Some readers might remember the anthrax scare that occurred shortly after the radical Islamic terror attacks on New York City on September 11, 2001. The anthrax scare was followed in the U.S. by a rash of media reports of “white powder” incidents when people saw white powder and were afraid it represented an attempt to infect a location with anthrax. More information is here.

The writer was posted to the FBI liaison office at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, Japan during all of 2001. The writer learned that several false reports of anthrax attacks occurred in Japan as they had in the U.S. But unlike in the U.S. the Japanese mass media carried very little reporting about these incidents. A high level Japanese police official confirmed to the writer that Japanese law enforcement authorities had told Japanese mass media companies (primarily newspapers and broadcasters) that they should limit reporting of anthrax hoaxes. The same Japanese police official claimed that Japanese media companies followed this police guidance and self censored numerous reports of suspected anthrax attacks.

2011 – The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster

The Fukushima Nuclear Disaster. The nuclear power plant meltdown event in Japan in March 2011 was a public health and safety threat of the highest order. Late in 2011 a Japanese government-appointed investigative panel issued an interim report on the Japanese emergency response to the disaster. The New York Times published an article on the topic here.

The chairman of the panel that produced the report was Yotaro Hatamura, a professor emeritus in engineering at the University of Tokyo. According to the New York Times article, Hatamura stated that when responding to the Fukushima nuclear disaster the Japanese authorities” failed to think of the disaster response from the perspective of victims.” In 2011 the writer was posted to the FBI liaison office at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, Japan and based upon his first hand observations at the time of the Fukushima nuclear disaster he heartily concurs with Hatamura’s statement.


The three events described above indicate that the Japanese government, similar to many governments around the world, might hide, limit, or distort information that could embarrass the government or its officials or the nation overall. Regardless, those responsible for the safety and security of participants and spectators at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will receive from the Japanese government information regarding the safety of those who participate in or attend the games. However, safety and security officers should keep in mind that the Japanese government may be neither the best nor most complete source of information regarding potential public health and safety threats in Japan that might develop during the games. Therefore, as they prepare for 2020 they may want to develop sources of safety and security information outside of the Japanese government.