TOKYO — Norie Kosaka knew better than to get her hopes up. A volunteer at the Olympic Games, she had been assigned to work at the opening ceremony on Friday night and naturally assumed she would be one of the workers placed outside Olympic Stadium or tucked into some faraway corridor.
Instead, her supervisors informed her that she would be stationed inside the lower bowl of stands, just a few rows from the glittering, hourslong extravaganza. Her heart swelled.
“They told me, ‘You can watch a little bit,’” she said about her bosses. “So I was very happy.”
Kosaka’s job was to monitor one of the seating areas, and she took it seriously. But a few peeks would be OK, she figured. She smiled and pointed to her head.
“I want to put it in my memory,” she said.
Kosaka, 54, a manager at a bank in Tokyo, was one of the few locals who would even have the chance to do so.
Fans have been barred from the Olympics this year because of the pandemic. As a result, the 68,000-seat stadium was almost devoid of spectators on Friday night. An endless span of vacant seats formed a bleak backdrop to the multicolor spectacle unfolding on the infield in front of her.
The crowd that had access was small and exclusive: sponsors and sports officials, dignitaries and journalists, no party representing the populist spirit of fandom the Olympic Games purport to represent.
“I’m lucky,” Kosaka said. “I wish more people could see this.”
She wore gray athletic pants, sneakers and a face mask. On the small bag slung over her shoulder were a handful of Olympic pins.
And on the concourse behind her were signs of what might have been: Placards to direct the crowds that would never materialize; concession stands with their shutters rolled down; sprawling bathrooms in pitch-black darkness; with fans barred, no one bothered to turn on the lights.
Many in Japan would have preferred the Games had not opened at all. Outside the stadium on Friday, hundreds of protesters made their opposition plain, their voices and noisemakers filling the brief silences of the ceremony.
Kosaka’s feelings about the scenes in front of her were convoluted, hard to fully decipher. Her bursts of excitement were cut with pangs of guilt.
“I feel so sorry that they cannot be here,” she said about the tens of thousands of fans who had planned to attend. “I would feel more proud to be here, proud to be a volunteer, if everyone was allowed to come inside.”
She pinched her light blue uniform and explained how anxious she had started to feel in the streets of Tokyo on her way to work.
“I feel a little scared to wear this because maybe an anti-Olympic person would attack me,” Kosaka said. “But I didn’t do anything wrong. I just want to support the athletes.”
Public polls all year long have shown the majority of people in Japan wanted the Games canceled or postponed.
On Friday, protesters crowded outside the stadium chanting slogans denouncing the event. Whenever the booming music of the ceremony subsided, the sounds of the activists’ horns and shouts echoed around the stands inside. They paraded around a sign that read, “Stop the five rings.”
But others, even as they were barred from entering, were just eager to be close to the fanfare. Yoka Sato, 28, arrived three hours before the ceremony with her boyfriend to claim a spot on a bench near the stadium gates. “I came to see the fireworks,” she said.
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Phuong Thai, 28, an architect living in Tokyo, had signed up to work as a volunteer in order to have a “once-in-a-lifetime experience” and absorb what she presumed would be an electric atmosphere. Instead she lingered outside the stadium for a sleepy shift that mainly involved traffic control for the pack of international journalists. She said she hoped people could make the best of a bad situation, but found it hard to do that herself.
“I feel a bit sad, actually,” she said.
Kosaka said she had been compelled to volunteer after hearing stories about the Olympics from her friend, Erick Wainaina, a marathoner who won a bronze medal for Kenya at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. He told her about the noise and color and excitement. (Kosaka is an avid runner herself, and she said she and Wainaina were going to the same massage therapist when they met almost 15 years ago.)
She soon became fixated on attending the Games. In 2018, she asked her boss if she could take a 10-day leave to work as a volunteer. In 2020, when the Games were postponed, she created an Instagram account where she positioned figurines in intricate, Olympic-related poses to deal with the void.
So it was with an extra sense of appreciation that Kosaka watched the intricate dance numbers and the endless parade of athletes in the muggy night air.
“I’m lucky to be here, and I’m lucky to be healthy,” she said. “I have to think about the people who can’t be here.”
Engrossed at times by these scenes, she stood on her tiptoes to snap photos on her phone, sat back down and then quickly stood up to take some more.
The emotions — the pride, the guilt, the excitement, the sorrow — combined to overwhelm her as she stood listening to Japan’s national anthem, watching performers raise the country’s flag.
“I felt tears coming out,” she said, running a finger along the skin above her face mask. “That was the most beautiful Japanese flag I have ever seen.”
Hikari Hida contributed reporting.