Rikako Ikee in the pool
言葉に表せないくらい嬉しくて、気持ちが良くて、幸せです。 “Words can’d describe how happy I am! It feels so good to be back in the pool. I’m so happy!” – Rikako Ikee, 406 days after being told that she can’t swim and compete in Tokyo2020.

 

It’s official. Tokyo 2020 is happening in 2021.

What does that mean? What impact does the change have on anything?

Firstly, I hope it gives  swimmer Rikako Ikee a chance to compete. One of Japan’s rising stars, the then 18-year-old Ikee became the first swimmer to win six gold medals in the Asian Games back in August, 2018. Six months later, Ikee was diagnosed with leukemia, and had to cease all competitive training in order to defeat the cancer. She promised her fans to be back in racing form for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

On the road to recovery, Ikee posted the above Instagram picture on March 17, happy to finally get permission from the doctor to swim again. She said in the Instagram post that there were no words to describe how happy she was, and what a great feeling it was to be back in the pool.

I hope that somehow, Ikee is able to fully recover, get herself back in shape within a year, and swim in Tokyo, for her legion of fans.

Here are a few more random thoughts:

Four-Day Weekend: A couple of public holidays were moved around to give the country days off on Thursday, July 23, and Friday, July 24, in order to create a less congested Tokyo at the start of the 2020 Tokyo  Olympics. Do we still get to keep that long weekend?

Russian Roulette: In December of 2019, Russia was banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) from competing at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, as well as the 2022 Beijing Olympics. While Russian athletes could compete as “neutrals” if they can prove they have not doped, the case is still being appealed by Russia in front of the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Maybe the extra year helps them figure out how to sway the courts to allow Russia representation in Tokyo.

Olympic Village: Before the virus hit the fan, the rooms in the Olympic Village that would be converted into condos after the Games were seeing strong demand last year, with applicants outstripping number of rooms at a rate of 2.5 to 1. Will those who bought into the Harumi waterfront property have to wait a little longer to enter their Olympian abodes?

Summer Days: The 2020 Games were scheduled for July 24 to August 9. The equivalent time period would be July 23 to August 8, missing by a day that opportunity to end the Tokyo Games on the anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki, as would have been the case in 2020.

A Marathon Battle: The IOC unilaterally moved the men’s and women’s marathons from the streets of Tokyo to Sapporo on November 1, last year. Will Tokyo governor, Yuriko Koike, make another push to restore the marathon to Tokyo?

Coronavirus Redux: If viruses like Coronavirus thrive in cold weather, will we see a recurrence in the next winter? Will we experience the anxiety of rising fevers and uncovered sneezes as the temperatures dip, making everyone wonder if an outbreak were imminent?

Kansai Masters: The “Olympics” for 35 years and older, The 10th World Masters, is coming to Japan from May 14 – 30. Thousands of athletes from 35 to 105 will be coming from all over the world to compete To be held in the Western part of Japan, the Masters will be the canary in the coal mine, as it were. If a virus is lurking in the Spring of 2021, the organizers of the Kansai Masters will be tasked with tough decisions.

Odd Year: Tokyo2020 will still be called Tokyo2020, despite the Games taking place in 2021, the first time for an Olympiad to be held in an odd year.

2021 will be an odd year. But I give it an even chance to be great.

Tokyo 2020 + 1.

Can’t wait.

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Diamond Princess

We followed the story of the Diamond Princess as if we were binge watching a Stephen King adaptation on Netflix – with fascination and fear.

 

The two-week quarantine of the 3,711 passengers and crew on the British grand-class cruise ship docked at Yokohama harbor was a constant reminder to the Japanese of how close the coronavirus outbreak has come to Japanese shores. The death of two elderly passengers on board the Diamond Princess on February 20 at the end of the quarantine intensified the concern over the Japanese government’s decision to release hundreds of passengers who tested negative for the virus.

 

In fact, as the number of reported infections on the ship climbed, so too did the number of reported infections across Japan: Kanagawa, Wakayama, Hokkaido, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, Okinawa, Kyushu, Aichi, Chiba….

 

Masks are the coinage of the land. Tokyo and Kyoto are no longer swarming with tourists as inbound cancellations climb. Announcements of meeting and conference cancellations in companies across the country are coming hard and fast. Organizers for the March 1 Tokyo Marathon and the March 8 Nagoya Women’s Marathon are dropping tens of thousands or participants from the race, and allowing only the elite runners to compete.

 

And then there’s the elephant in the room.

 

Will the Tokyo2020 Olympics be cancelled?

 

Yashiro Mori, former Japan prime minister and current president of the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games pointed at the elephant in the room and said:

 

I would like to make it clear again that we are not considering a cancellation or postponement of the games. Let me make that clear.

 

That was February 13, just before the cases of coronavirus began to crisscross the country.

 

Dr. Hitoshi Oshitani, a Japanese virologist, said on February 19 that the Olympics could not take place today.

 

“I’m not sure [of] the situation in Japan at the end of July,” he said at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan on Wednesday, as per The Associated Press. “We need to find the best way to have a safe Olympics. Right now we don’t have an effective strategy, and I think it may be difficult to have the Olympics [now]. But by the end of July we may be in a different situation.”

 

Or we may not be.

 

We have no cure for coronavirus right now. We understand so little about the latest virus outbreak. And in the absence of clear facts, what often fills the void is doubt, speculation and fear.

 

Am I safe? Will a cure be found in time? Will the virus burn out as the temperature climbs?

 

Will the Olympics be cancelled, its sunk cost like an albatross around the necks of the country, the IOC and the massive number of organizations and businesses that have invested in these Games?

Or will the Olympics rise like a Phoenix, overcoming crisis, sending our spirits aloft?

 

Note: This article was written on February 22, in the midst of daily changes and updates regarding the coronavirus in Japan.

 

The National Stadium in Tokyo opened its doors to 60,000 people on Saturday, December 21, 2019, a combination ceremony to mark a major milestone on the road to Tokyo 2020, and a concert featuring popular Japanese bands Dreams Come True and Arashi.

Designed by architect Kengo Kuma, the venue is sometimes referred to as the Forest Stadium, in reference to the significant use of wood in the stadium’s exterior. With cedar and larch sourced from each of the 47 prefectures of Japan, Kuma designed a stadium he intended to meld into the green surroundings of the stadium, particularly the spiritual woods of neighboring Meiji Shrine.

 

google maps view

“I want to go beyond the era of concrete,” Kuma, 62, said in a Japan Times interview. “What people want is soft, warm and humane architecture.”

The stadium is composed of five levels above ground, which rises to about 50 meters at its highest point. Each level is topped by lattice rooves of long wooden slates, designed to allow seasonal winds to flow into and through the stadium, aided by 185 fans that direct the winds inward.

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Ample greenery in and around the stadium_photograph by author

Kuma has said that he modeled his stadium design on the Buddhist temples of Kyoto and Nara, appreciating how well those temples have aged. “We will show the model of a mature society in the stadium,” Kuma says. “That’s the way to live a happy life relying on limited natural resources from a small land.”

On the whole, the Japanese who have seen it appear to be happy, according to posts on social media or reports on Japanese television, particularly proud that the biggest visible milestone to the start of Tokyo2020 has been completed.

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Photograph by author

Entry into the stadium appears smooth with QR readers, although I haven’t seen anything on whether that included security checks. The corridors that ring the seating areas and house the food and beverage booths are wide and easy to navigate through crowds.

Inside, there are 500 spaces for spectators in wheelchairs. For everyone else, there are seats for 60,000. The seats are in five different colors, which cleverly deceive the eye into thinking empty seats are occupied, although no one anticipates too many empty seats in the coming Olympic or Paralympic Games.

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An opportunistic peak inside…

Different from other stadium in Japan, there are two large screens at the ends of the oval, with a ribbon screen that rings the middle level of the stadium, so replays and information should be easy to view. And apparently, thanks to the fairly steep angles of the seats, there isn’t a bad seat in the house.

 

steep seats

However, there have been a few comments about issues. The seats, which provide a great view, have very little space for people for possessions or for people to pass. If you happen to sit in the middle seats, you’ll make everyone stand up to get through, and you’ll have be careful not to knock over peoples’ beverages.

And for foreign visitors, the signage in English appears to be much to be desired.

 

But there’s time for that to be corrected. Tokyo2020 awaits.

 

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Hagibis
PHOTO: Typhoon Hagibis is heading north over the Pacific towards Japan’s main island. (AP: NOAA)

As I sit at home this quiet Saturday morning, Tokyo braces for the mighty hurricane Hagibis.

As Forbes claims, Hagibis could be as powerful as Hurricane Sandy, a category 2 storm that resulted in 2 billion dollars worth of damage to the East Coast of the US in 2012.

Today is October 12, 2019. For all the amateur and professional weather prognosticators who are fretting about the potential heat wave during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, to be held from July 24 to August 9, calm down.

So many have said, “Why didn’t they schedule the upcoming Olympics in October like they did in 1964?” They could have. But for financial reasons outlined in this informative New York Times article, they didn’t.

So imagine the Olympics taking place in mid-October, on a day like today. What would have happened?

The 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan is a test case. The organizers for the 2-month tournament, which has been very well received in Japan, selling out stadiums across the nation, have cancelled (not postponed) two matches between New Zealand and Italy, and between England and France due to the threat of Hagibis.

Well, the organizers couldn’t have predicted that.

Exactly.

Bob Schul wins 5000 in 1964
Bob Schul wins 5000 in 1964 in a cold and rainy day.

If the third day of the Olympics fell on October 12 like today, the organizers would have to cancel surfing, rowing, beach volleyball, skateboarding, shooting, archery, field hockey, softball, tennis, sailing, canoe slalom, road cycling, soccer, and equestrian dressage because they are outdoor events. But they would also likely cancel all of the indoor events as well, which include volleyball, fencing, gymnastics, table tennis, badminton, taekwando, swimming, weighlifting, baseketball, handball, judo, and diving because of the risk of harm and delay to spectators, organizers and athletes getting to and from venues.

Hurricanes aside, yes, it will likely be hot during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Most athletes and organizers will do the cost-benefit analysis in their heads, weighing their options, as they did regarding the more fearsome Zika Virus scare prior to the Rio Olympics. My guess is that even the marathoners and triathoners, who could be affected by the heat, will decide to go to Tokyo for the Olympics. I’m sure  the organizers will go overboard on creating cooler environments (although I doubt they can bring down the summer water temperature of Tokyo Bay for the triathletes.)

At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the weather was actually far from beautiful Autumn weather. The temperatures ranged from 14.6 C (58.2F) to 21.7C (71F), and was basically cool, cloudy and rainy almost every day. The road cyclists could see their breath in the hills of Hachioji, the runners in the Stadium had to run through rain and sometimes muddy conditions on certain days.

Atomic Bomb Japan Times_Oct 17 1964

And smack dab in the middle of the Tokyo Olympics, everybody in Japan were deeply concerned about radiation poisoning. Communist China decided to detonate its first atomic bomb as a test, on October 16, 1964.  The only nation to have an atomic bomb dropped on its soil, organizers and citizens alike were concerned about radiation fallout blown on the winds over the waters that separated the two countries.

Predicting the unpredictable – it’s cool if you can do it. I wouldn’t bet on it.

So for those who are sure what the weather will be like in Tokyo from July 24 to August 9 – here’s hoping you had nothing great planned outdoors today.

Trash Island Talk_Kietlinski_1
Associate Professor Robin Kietlinski

It’s amazing to think – over one third of all 44 venues for the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics are in the Tokyo Bay, landfill property developed over centuries, but particularly over the past 100 years.

According to Associate Professor Robin Kietlinski of LaGuardia Community College of the City University of New York, 16 venues for the Olympics will be held in what had been previously the open waters of Tokyo Bay.

In a talk Dr. Kietlinski gave on Friday, September 27, 2019, at the newly opened Japan campus of Temple University, she explained how the physical landmass of Tokyo along the Western edges of Tokyo Bay began to grow when Edo was established in the early 17th century as the de facto capital of Japan during the Tokugawa shogunate. But in the aftermath of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, and the firebombings of Tokyo during World War II, rubble was poured into the western and northern shores of Tokyo Bay.

Trash Island Talk_Kietlinski_2
A slide from Associate Professor Robin Kietlinski’s presentation showing the transformation of Tokyo Bay over the centuries.

Around the time of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, when the engine of the Japanese economic miracle was really beginning to rev, the waste produced by the tremendous growth in population, industry and consumerism was growing faster than they could manage it. Tokyo waterways were polluted and odorous. The landfill in Tokyo Bay became the dumping grounds of Tokyo, and ran rampant with rodents and flies. As I wrote in this blog post on Yumenoshima, site of Olympic archery next year, the Self Defense Forces had to be called into exterminate the fly infestation.

Today, as Dr. Kietlinski explained, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has built waste processing plants that pulverize and incinerate waste. All of the incinerator ash is then used for landfill in Tokyo Bay, continuing plans to increase the terrestrial space in the bay, according to this explanation of waste management from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

Infinity Heritage and Tokyo Bay Area Zones

Here is a list of all of the venues, including the Olympic Village, that sit in the middle of Tokyo Bay. You can see get more information on the Olympic venues here.

  • Aomi Urban Sports Park – 3×3 basketball, sport climbing
  • Ariake Arena – volleyball
  • Ariake Gymnastics Center -gymnastics
  • Ariake Tennis Park – tennis
  • Ariake Urban Sports Park – BMX, skateboarding
  • IBC/MPC (International Broadcast Center/Main Press Center)
  • Kasai Canoe Slalom Center – canoe (slalom)
  • Odaiba Marine Park – marathon swimming, triathlon
  • Oi Hockey Stadium – field hockey
  • Olympic Village
  • Tatsumi Water Polo Center – water polo
  • Tokyo Aquatics Center – swimming, diving, synchronized swimming
  • Sea Forest Cross-Country Course – equestrian
  • Sea Forest Waterway – canoe (sprint) and rowing
  • Shiokaze Park – beach volleyball
  • Yumenoshima Park Archery Field – archery
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Crews competing on the Sea Forest Waterway with the Tokyo Gate Bridge as a backdrop.

From August 7 to 11, the newly developed Sea Forest Park was home to the 2019 World Rowing Junior Championships, organized by the World Rowing Federation (FISA).

This is part of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee’s initiative – Ready, Set, Tokyo – to ensure that venues selected or built for the upcoming Summer Games are progressing well in terms of readiness. One of over 50 test events being held through May, 2020, the rowing test event is an actual world championship  for 18 years or younger. In this competition, approximately 550 athletes from fifty nations competed in this 5-day event.

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Looking west towards the start of the 2,000-meter course, with one of many planes taking off from Haneda Airport.

The name Sea Forest Park is a vision of what the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has for their property: a verdant forest on reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay. This waterway, designed for the rowing and canoeing competitions at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, forms a perfect rectangle, nestled between two pieces of reclaimed land and two connecting bridges. One of the few salt water regatta courses in the world, Sea Forest will continue to serve as a venue for rowing and canoeing competitions post Olympics.

P1130614
The competition on the sea, with a bit of the forest in the background.

I visited Sea Forest Park on the final day of the junior championships. And it was hot, the mid-day temperature hitting 34 degrees Centigrade (93 degrees Farenheit), with little green or shade in sight, particularly the grandstand at the finish line. There was one area for spectators off the grandstand where people could sit under a tent and view the competition on a large screen that broadcasted the races live.

This is a test event, so it’s likely that by the time the 2020 Olympics roll around, there will be more covered areas. In the meanwhile, there were opportunities to test a wide variety of things: the execution of races every 10 or 15 minutes, transportation of spectators to and from the Tokyo Teleport area of Odaiba, security allowing and stopping people from entering particular areas, awarding of medals and raising of flags.

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Rowing is a difficult sport to watch if you’re just a casual observer. The course is 2,000 meters long, which means that you’re staring off into the far distance trying to pick up the movement of very small boats. But as they get closer to  where the crowds are waiting, and the announcers’ voices, blaring through the speakers, informing us which boats are in front, the crowd noise grows. The spectators are there for their teams.

What I could observe, all went smoothly. More importantly, that is what FISA President, Jean-Christophe Rolland observed as well.

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We are the champions!

We are very proud to have this excellent new rowing course. The installations and fittings are remarkable. I would like to recognize the significant investment in this project.

Sea Forest Waterway_Google Maps
Sea Forest Waterway on Google Maps

Tokyo Metro Off Peak 1

With a population of over 37 million people, the Greater Tokyo  Area is the most populous city in the world.

So what is it going to be like when the Olympics come to Tokyo next year when the 2020 Tokyo Olympics takes Tokyo by storm from July 24 to August 8. That’s when an expected 650,000 spectators are expected to arrive, so there are legitimate concerns for the average city denizen, who can’t get tickets to the Show and just wants to get to work on time.

I see three major acts by both public and private institutions to decrease congestion in Tokyo during the Olympics next year: shifting of public holidays, restrictions on the Tokyo expressways, and encouragement of changes to commuting behaviors.

Public Holidays: Tokyo is the Land of the Public Holiday. There are so many, I get stressed in June because there isn’t one, let alone two or three like we have in January, May, September, October and November. With hopes of easing congestion in Tokyo around the beginning and end of the Olympics, “Marine Day” is being moved a week later to Thursday, July 23 (day before opening day), while “Sports Day” (traditionally in October) will be moved to Friday, July 24. Additionally, “Mountain Day”, will shift a day early to Monday, August 10, the day after the closing ceremony.

Restrictions on Expressways: Drivers were frustrated to find they could not access the highway where they wanted to on July 24 and 26 as the Tokyo government enacted a large-scale highway test by closing some 30 entry points to the Metropolitan Expressway, including entrance and exit points near event locations, for example those near the new National Stadium and the site of the Olympic Village. They had hope to reduce traffic on the expressways by 30%, but traffic only diminished by about 7%.  That has put more momentum behind plans for congestion pricing, where rates to enter the highway may rise by another 1,000 yen between 6 am and 10 pm.

Flex-Time: If you work for a global multi-national, particularly a technology company, then “work anytime, anywhere” is a cultural norm. Except for technology companies in Japan, the cultural norm may likely be, “if I don’t see you, then you’re not working, are you”. In other words, the idea of measuring performance on output, not on how many hours you are at your desk, has become a talking point among government officials and leaders upon passing of the “hatakaki-kata kaikaku kanren ho,” or the Act to Overhaul Laws to Promote Workplace Reform.

More specifically to the Olympics, the government is encouraging tele-work, and commuting during off-peak hours. The government is running a trial from late July through early September this year in which 2,800 employees at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government office were given laptops so the can work outside the office once a week during the times this year when the Olympics and Paralympics will take place next year. (One day a week only? Well, it’s a start.)

Tokyo Metro Off Peak 4
Tokyo Metro ad explaining the gold, silver and bronze-level points you get depending on when you commute to work on their trains.

If you take the subway in Tokyo, you will see the ubiquitous posters of Tokyo Metro marketing their Pasmo Card and its point system. Take their trains and accumulate points and prizes! And from July 22 to August 2, and August 19 to August 30, you can get bonus points if you take their trains from 7~7:30 am (25 points!), 7:30~8:00 am (15 points), and 9:30~10:30 am (10 points).

“This is a chance to make telework a legacy of the games that will take root” in society, Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko was quoted as saying in The Japan Times.

As Hemingway wrote, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Dark Tourist Japan A scene from Dark Tourist – Japan from season one.

Watching the Japan episode of Netflix’s first season of Dark Tourist was harrowing.

New Zealand journalist, David Farrier, went on a tour in Fukushima, likely in early 2018, and filmed scenes not far from the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant where radiation levels climbed dangerously high. Those on the tour were visibly worried.

So was I, and I was safe and sound in my living room.

The government evacuated about 160,000 people in the areas around Dai-Ichi right after the earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011, but restrictions for most of those areas have since been lifted. But I wondered again, is it safe or not?

I get that question a lot from people, particularly foreigners, especially since I write a blog on Japan, sports and the Olympics, and organizers for the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are holding sporting events in areas of Northern Japan impacted significantly by the 3.11 earthquake and tsunami.

Azuma 16
Signage at Fukushima Station for Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympics.

In the case of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, softball and baseball games will be held in Azuma Baseball Stadium in Fukushima, which is about 10 kilometers west of Fukushima Station, and 90 kilometers northwest of Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant.

Certainly, in the areas directly in and around the nuclear power plant, radiation levels can be high. The areas that Farrier filmed in his controversial program were in prohibited areas – thus the high radiation levels measured. But when I ask the experts, my fears are, on the whole, allayed.

bGeigie nano
The bGeigie Nano I built myself (with a lot of help from Jon Moross!)

I have been talking recently with leaders of the volunteer citizen science organization, Safecast, which came together very quickly in the aftermath of 3.11 to measure radiation levels in Tohoku in the absence of open and transparent reports from TEPCO and government officials.

In order to measure radiation levels, the team designed a geiger counter that volunteers can build and use, and they then worked to deploy these geiger counters to gather data and better understand where radiation levels are high.

I recently participated in a Safecast workshop to build my own device – the bGeigie Nano – a truly cool and compact measuring tool. On a trip to Fukushima, I decided to go to Azuma Baseball Stadium and measure radiation levels myself.

Getting off a local bus, I had to walk about 15 minutes, crossing the scenic Arakawa River, before entering the spacious grounds of the Azuma sports complex. In addition to the baseball field, there are facilities for track and field, tennis and gymnastics.

With my bGeigie Nano on and clicking away, I walked around the grounds for an hour, circling the track and field stadiums, as well as the perimeter of the baseball stadium.

The conclusion?

Measurements for radiation on the grounds around Azuma Baseball Stadium, including the surrounding roads, were low. My measurements appeared consistent with measurements taken by Safecast in the past.

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Azuma Baseball Stadium

According to Safecast lead researcher, Azby Brown, “all of the measurements you obtained showed the current radiation levels to be within normal background, ranging from 0.08 microsieverts per hour to 0.16 microsieverts per hour.”

Normal radiation exposure is usually described in millisieverts per year (mSv/yr = 1/1000th of a sievert) or in microsieverts per hour (uSv/hr = one millionth of a sievert). While a sievert is a massive dose, someone who spends 12 hours at the Azuma Baseball Stadium next year is likely to get only one or two millionths of that. Brown went on to explain that the measurements I registered around the stadium were fairly typical for what people encounter normally around the world.

For comparison, based on Safecast data, the levels you found around the stadium are similar to those in Tokyo, Brussels, Buenos Aires, or Washington DC, and less than in Rome, Hong Kong, or Seoul. The radiation that overseas visitors will be exposed to on their flights to Japan will almost certainly be higher than what they would get spending time at this stadium for Olympic events.  

We do not yet have measurement data for the nearby woods or riverbank, however, and experience suggests that these areas may show higher radiation levels. We will survey those areas soon, and let everyone know what we find. 

Azuma Stadium Safecast bGeigie measurements_RT
My measurements around Azuma baseball stadium as well as my route there by bus. Blue means low (normal) levels of radiation.

Certainly, there are concerns still about the long-term impact of the meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant. While the government has lifted living restrictions in many areas around the nuclear power plant, and is now heavily encouraging residents of those areas to return, the majority have chosen to stay away.

Still, if we look at the data, outside of the inaccessible exclusion zone, radiation levels in Tohoku are, on the whole, at normal levels.

That’s what the data shows.

And that’s good enough for me.

Construction of Olympic Village July 2018
Construction on the Olympic Village, seen on Tuesday, continues in Chuo Ward ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Games – July 2018 | YOSHIAKI MIURA

In 2008, the novel, “Olympic Ransom, (Orinpikku no Minoshirokin), the author, Hideo Okuda, reimagined the history of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, telling the story of a radicalized Tokyo University student who seeks to set off a bomb in the National Olympic Stadium during the opening ceremonies of those Games.

Ever since learning that his brother had died in an accident at a construction site related to the Tokyo Olympics, Kunio Shimazaki led the police on a wild goose chase, setting off low-level explosions across Tokyo in a run-up to the Games. When the novel’s hero, Inspector Masao Ochiai, confronts Shimazaki at a hiding place in Tokyo University, Shimazaki delivers his monologue:

Ochiai-san, do you know there is an underground passageway into the National Stadium? An underpass to all for the movement of players from underground into the world’s best stadium? The country has spared no expense in the making of it. Due to various pretexts though, the use of it was stopped. My older brother for the sake of constructing that unused underpass was forced into working shifts of sixteen continuous hours. In order to get through those shifts he turned to taking bad Philopon….and died. For the national honor, the country wasted huge amounts of money all while treating migrant workers like trash until they die, paying them only tens of thousands of yen. If we don’t change something here, the unfair gap between rich and poor will go on widening forever. And endlessly the same tragedy will repeat.

Those were lines from Asahi Television’s dramatized version of Okuda’s novel, about an event that never happened. And yet, this dialogue is being echoed today, about the working conditions of the construction sites for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

On May 15, 2019, the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) along with the Japanese Federation of Construction Workers’ Union, Zenken Soren, released a highly publicized report entitled, “The Dark Side of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics.” The report cites great concern regarding overworked and underpaid workers on the Olympic construction sites. In this Kyodo News report,  BWI General Secretary Ambet Yuson summarized his concern:

The Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics was Japan’s opportunity to address some of the long-running gaps within the construction industry in Japan, however, these problems have just got worse.  Wages remain low, dangerous overwork is common, and workers have limited access to recourse to address their issues.

Mary Harvey, the CEO of the Geneva-based Centre for Sport and Human Rights, and goalkeeper on the 1996 US women’s Olympic soccer squad, told AP that we needed to pay attention to these labor issues.

To think this is going away is burying your head in the sand, and I’m concerned it’s going to get worse. The heat of the summer months is upon us while construction deadlines are trying to be met. Someone dying or committing suicide shouldn’t be acceptable to anyone. Everyone should be taking a serious look at the risks identified in BWI’s report and, by everyone, I mean everyone who is a stakeholder, including the IOC, the Japanese government and construction companies.

The report offers facts and assumptions, which I have organized in the following categories:

Labor Shortage and Overwork

  • “Japan is currently suffering from an acute labour shortage and this is particularly apparent in the construction sector, where, today there are 4.3 jobs available for every construction worker.”
  • “Workers on the New National Stadium reported working 26 days in a single month, and workers on the Olympic Village reported working 28 days in a single month.”
  • “Today one in four Japanese construction workers – approximately 800,000 – are over the age of 60, and the Infrastructure Ministry predicts that by 2025 the industry will face a shortage of 470,000 to 930,000 workers.”

 

Consequences

  • “According to Labour Ministry figures there were 21 deaths from karoshi in 2017 in the construction sector, the second highest of all sectors.”
  • “…overwork itself creates severe safety risks, as fatigued workers are more likely to cut corners or make mistakes, putting themselves and their fellow workers in danger. One worker commented that he felt he is ‘always being pushed to meet the deadline,” while another said, “It’s not worth your life for this’.”
  • “Delays (In a variety of construction projects)… in a tight labour market will all translate into additional pressure on workers to meet deadlines, and a higher likelihood of unsafe working practices.”

 

Lack of Worker Rights

  • “Some workers were made to purchase their own personal protective equipment.”
  • “Workers also noted that they have become reluctant to raise their voice because managers do little to respond. ‘You point the issues out and request improvements, but this falls on deaf ears’. According to the workers, part of this problem is likely connected to the fact that the site foremen being dispatched neither have nor has sufficient training to do the work.”
  • “Two union leaders of Doken General Labour Union reported during the September 2018 International Forum that union organisers were harassed and intimidated by authorities when they attempted to reach out to workers in Tokyo National Stadium.”

 

Foreign Migrant Workers in Particular at a Disadvantage

  • “The number of migrant workers in the construction sector almost tripled between 2014-2017, with numbers now reaching around 55,000.”
  • “In the construction sector most of migrant workers are engaged through the Technical Intern Training Program (TITP). The TITP programme is supposed to provide training for migrant workers in key sectors with labour shortages; however, there has been widespread criticism of it as an exploitative scheme intended to render cheap labour.”
  • “TITP interns must be paid the legal minimum wage but it is rare that they are paid more, and this is currently set at less than half the average annual wage for construction (~US$40,000).”
  • “…it was reported that they (migrant workers) spoke no Japanese and communication was a challenge, particularly on OHS matters. Under Japanese law, employers must set up necessary procedures to ensure that health and safety procedures are established in a way that foreigners can understand.

In response to these reports, the Malaysian news portal, Malasiakini, called out to the Malaysian action to protect migrant workers in Japan.

We call for a guarantee from our Government that Malaysian workers’ rights and safety will be protected if they travel to Japan to work. This should include pre-departure orientation seminars on Japanese labour and safety law, and facilitating direct access to trade unions in Japan to ensure they can safeguard their rights on the job. The Malaysian Government must make sure that Malaysian workers are not trapped in a rights vacuum.

This report is likely a concern to the IOC and the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee. The IOC released a statement, saying “We take these issues very seriously and are committed to working with the relevant stakeholders to address them and find the appropriate solutions.”

But with the incredibly tight labor market in Japan, the IOC’s drive to decrease the Tokyo2020 budget, the increasingly tight deadlines for completion of Olympic venues, as well as competition for construction resources from all over the country, including reconstruction efforts in Tohoku in the aftermath of the 3.11 disaster, it is going to be hard to alleviate the pressure on the construction industry.

Musashino Forest Sports Plaza 5

It’s a bright airy arena – the Musashino Forest Sports Plaza in Chofu, Tokyo.  I attended the NHK Cup on Sunday, May 19, a national championships for artistic gymnastics in Japan, and it was exciting to watch the very best male gymnasts in Japan, and in the world.

Now, if only I could understand what Was going on.

I’m not a deep fan of gymnastics. I knew that Kohei Uchimura, the winner of the previous 9 NHK Cups, was unable to qualify this time around. I knew that one of the most promising young gymnasts, Kenzo Shirai, did poorly to qualify for the NHK Cup, so was not in good shape to win. But I had my guide book and was ready to watch a great competition.

The problem is, the arena – this new arena that opened up in November of 2017 – was so poorly outfitted electronically that it was impossible to know what was going on…unless you were really familiar with gymnastics and could recognize faces and names from a far.

As you can see in the photo at the top of this post, there was only a single large screen to my left. That screen basically provided an NHK feed of the tournament, except without any critical information, like the name of the gymnast being displayed.

In fact, spectators at this new 10,000-seat facility, which will house Olympic badminton, pentathlon fencing and Paralympic wheelchair basketball, were bereft of any basic information about what was happening before them, except for small digital signs at each event site on the floor.

It’s true, that artistic gymnastics, where six different  disciplines are happening at the same time, can be hard for the casual fan to follow. But if the idea is to attract as many fans as possible, particularly casual fans, then providing basic information to the spectator is critical. At the most average arena in the United States, one would expect to see a jumbotron hanging from the ceiling over center court, where the most basic information about scores, player information and video replays can be provided.

But the experience at Musashino Forest Sports Plaza was frustrating at best for the casual observer. You give up to the fact that you have no idea which person is doing what, where and when.

From the sponsors’ perspective, one would hope that their company name and logo is highly visible. But the main arena in Musashino Forest Sports Plaza has no such electronic signage. Instead, small placards hung awkwardly off the edge of the first and second level stands.

If you believe that stadium and arenas should be designed for the spectator (as well as sponsors), then you will have issues with many sports venues in Japan.  Most of the stadium and arena in Japan are owned by government authorities, and that they view these venues as cost centers, not profit centers. In other words, if there is a soccer stadium in some town somewhere in Japan, it will be very hard for a person with an idea to do anything other than soccer in that stadium, this despite the fact that concerts, obstacle sports racing, eSports and other such activities could attract many more and different people.

To change the conservative nature of stadium and arena administrators in Japan, the Japanese government through the Sports Agency have been pushing a plan to triple sports business revenue in Japan from JPY5.5 trillion yen in 2015 to JPY15 trillion yen in 2025. The Sports Agency want stadium and arenas to transform so that they can help contribute to those greater revenues.

In recognition of this need, the Sports Agency published in June, 2017 a report in Japanese called Stadium and Arena Revolution Guidebook. In this report, they highlighted 14 recommendations to drive this revolution.

You can find a fuller translation of that part of the report in this pdf.

Fourteen Requirements for sustainable management that attracts spectators and supports community development:

  • Requirement 1. Improvement to Customer Experience
  • Requirement 2. Realization of various usage scenarios
  • Requirement 3. Establishment of profit model and transformation to profit center
  • Requirement 4. Stadium/arena as the core of community development
  • Requirement 5. Identification of stakeholders and improvement in consensus building
  • Requirement 6. Attracting new customers and providing information
  • Requirement 7. Designing for profitability
  • Requirement 8. Management (operation, maintenance, repair, etc.) critical to sustainability
  • Requirement 9. Compliance and risk management for stadium and arena maintenance
  • Requirement 10. Leveraging the vitality of the private sector
  • Requirement 11. Various financing schemes
  • Requirement 12. Goal setting, evaluation, feedback
  • Requirement 13. IT and data utilization in stadium and arena management
  • Requirement 14: Stadium and Arena management personnel