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.

Advertisements

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
Barcelona road to Segrada Familia
The wide-open road to Segrada Familia in Barcelona.

In my view, the streets in Barcelona are not suffocating with traffic. I was only in Barcelona for a few days in April, but the roads in the business districts are amazingly wide, and we were never slowed in our travels. When I walked the narrow paths of Gracia, a cozy neighborhood in the middle of Barcelona, I never felt squeezed by cars. I lived in Bangkok for 11 years. I know what bad traffic looks like.

But of course it is all relative. While Barcelona is no where near as hot, congested or polluted as Bangkok, for citizens of Barcelona, conditions are not as good as they should be. According to this VOX article by David Roberts of the University of Pennsylvania, Barcelona is the fourth-most population-dense city in Europe, is well under the World Health Organization’s recommendation for 9 square meters of green space per resident at 2.7 square meters, suffers from urban heat island effect at 3 to 8 degrees Celsius warmer than the region around it, and is considered one of the noisiest in the world.

One of the reasons for this poorer quality of life is due to decades of negligence by former totalitarian leader, Francisco Franco,  After the generalissimo passed away in 1975, development in Barcelona began again, peaking with financing sparked by the Olympics, which may be another reason for the state of Barcelona today.

According to Samuel Rosenthal and his article, Olympic Cities and the Legacy of Infrastructure: Barcelona 1992 and Athens 2004, the planners for Barcelona were essentially taking advantage of global trends, including the desire for large cities to invest in urban renewal, and to also brand Barcelona as an exciting destination for tourists and global financing. In fact, Rosenthal explained that planners shifted attention from “publicly planned, small-scale infrastructural improvements to larger schemes funded by private investors.”

This is not unique to Barcelona. The organizers leveraged the Olympics to realize long-held plans for the development of Barcelona as would any other city. But as I wrote previously, these Games were so successful economically that it is often held up as the gold standard for an organization of an Olympiad, cited as The Barcelona Model. But one can argue that the Olympics triggered inflows of private capital that brought both benefits and detriments to Barcelona, as Rosenthal explains.

…this largely positive appraisal of the Barcelona Olympics belies the negative consequences of its planning strategy that have become evident in succeeding years. The regeneration of the waterfront, while touted as a positive outcome of the Games, has increased housing prices across the city, forcing many longtime residents to leave. Additionally, following the Barcelona Games, inflation in the city increased and unemployment rose. And on a larger scale the city branding approaches used for the Barcelona Olympics have increasingly placed control of the city in the hands of private agents. Generally, post-Olympic city planning in Barcelona has become less focused on the improvement of the lives of the city’s residents, and more attuned to strategies that seek to maximize the attraction of capital.

Part of the woes of urbanization and increased emphasis on development is a diminished prioritization of the working class. Economist Andrew Zimbalist, author of the fascinating book, Circus Maximus – The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, quoted Josep Maria Montaner, an architectural critic, in explaining how old housing and factories, landmarks of a different age, were demolished, and new development lacked any environmental or sustainability standards. Zimbalist then went on to explain how inflows of private capital led to gentrification.

Barcelona’s new urban zones were redeveloped with improved public services and, in some cases, direct access to the sea. These parts of the city became gentrified, and hand in hand with gentrification came higher prices. Higher prices meant that lower-income people had to relocate, and, more generally, plans for public housing were underfulfilled. One study noted the following impacts:

  • Strong increases in the prices of housing for rent and for sale (from 1986 to 1993 the cumulative increase was 139% for home sale prices and nearly 145% in home rentals)
  • A drastic decrease in the availability of public housing (from 1986 to 1992 there was a cumulative decrease of 5.9%)
  • A gradual decrease in the availability of private houses for rent (from 1981 to 1991 the cumulative decrease was 23.7%)11 Thus, like the experience with mega-events elsewhere, hosting the games in Barcelona was accompanied by a redistribution of living standards to the detriment of lower-income groups.

One can argue that the decrease in supply is being driven by a Silicon Valley start up called Airbnb, which is highly popular in Spain. For those who don’t know, Airbnb is a service that connects you with people who are offering accommodations in their own properties. The original premise of Airbnb was that you could rent out a person’s room, and you could spend time with the owner. Today, people and companies run businesses renting out apartments and houses to people who are looking for alternatives to hotels.

Airbnb

I spent a week in Madrid and Barcelona in April. In Madrid, I stayed in a room the owner lived in. He was out of town, but a guest occupied another room. It was a great experience as we got along well with the other occupant. In contrast, our Airbnb accommodation in Barcelona was owned by a couple who managed three properties, none of which they lived in. Overall, both experiences were great for us. But while Airbnb is a boon for tourists, it is to the detriment of local residents, as explained in this New Yorker article.

Nearly half the Airbnb properties in Barcelona are entire houses or apartments. The conceit of friendly locals renting out spare rooms has been supplanted by a more mercenary model, in which centuries-old apartment buildings are hollowed out with ersatz hotel rooms. Many properties have been bought specifically as short-term-rental investments, managed by agencies that have dozens of such properties. Especially in coveted areas, Airbnb can drive up rents, as longtime residents sell their apartments to people eager to use them as profit engines.

Yuukan Fuji_March 6 2019
“2020 Tokyo Gorin – Saiaku no Shinario,” (Tokyo 2020 Worst Case Scenario), by Robert Whiting, Yuukan Fuji, March 5, 2019 – The text inside the blue box is where I am quoted.

What could go wrong at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics?

I was asked that question by best-selling author, Bob Whiting, for a weekly column he writes for the Japanese  newspaper, Yūkan Fuji. My answer to him?

Anything.

And we don’t have to go too far back in time for a prime example.

It was less than three years ago when the organizers of the 2016 Rio Olympics had to endure an endless number of threats to the reputation of Brazil and the Olympics:

  • The Brazilian economy had tanked. Police and firemen protested at the airports they were not getting paid, warning people to stay away. There was even significant speculation that the  organizers would cut air conditioning in the Olympic Village to save costs.

Police on strike in Brazil airport

  • The largest scandal in Brazilian history filled the headlines in 2016, one that involved state-run oil company, Petrobras, in which officials received kickbacks in return for selection of specific suppliers, kickbacks that totaled some USD3 to 5 billion.
  • The question of whether the president of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, would be impeached and removed hung over the Games like a cloud. (She was removed from office 10 days after the end of the Rio Olympics.)
  • The threat of catching the Zika Virus, a mosquito-borne threat to pregnant women and newborns, kept tourists and Olympians away from the Rio Olympics.
  • The site of the triathlon and sailing competition, Guanabara Bay, was so contaminated with human waste that it threatened the health of athletes who would compete in those waters.
Garbage on the shore of Guanabara Bay_1June 2015 In this June 1, 2015 file photo, a discarded sofa litters the shore of Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo, File)

It’s impossible for Olympic officials to control the media’s thirst for issues and scandal, but the circumstances of Brazil at the time made it easy for the press to generate negative storylines.

Will that be the case in Tokyo, when the Olympics come to town in July and August of 2020? What are the headlines that could shake Olympic officials or encourage the naysayers?

  • North Korea Boycotts the Olympics: The Korean teams marched together at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in 2018, and even brought together North and South Koreans on the women’s ice hockey team. But if pressure mounts due to lack of progress in US-North Korea talks to denuclearize North Korea, who knows whether the Olympics will become an opportunity to raise the rhetoric and make North Korea’s participation a bargaining chip?

Is there precedent? Yes. The North Koreans abruptly boycotted the 1964 Tokyo Olympics the day before the opening ceremony.

  • Magnitude 8.0 Earthquake Hits Tokyo – Olympics Disrupted: The timing of an earthquake just prior or during the Olympics are highly unlikely. And yet, the fear of the big one in Tokyo is in the back of the minds of many in Japan since there hasn’t been one since the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. Last year provided multiple reminders of Japan’s vulnerability to mother nature. In an annual vote of the kanji character that bests represent the year of 2018, the symbol for “disaster” was selected. After all, in 2018, 200 people were killed in flood waters across 23 prefectures, dozens perished in a 6.6 magnitude earthquake in Hokkaido, and there were at least 11 fatalities when Typhoon Jebi swept through the Kansai region.

Is there precedent? Yes. The 1989 World Series, when a magnitude 6.9 earthquake struck San Francisco just prior to the start of Game 3 match between two Bay City teams, the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants.

  • Officials Deny Bribery Allegations in Black Tidings Affair: A dark cloud in the distance appears to be approaching. The former president of the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF), and longtime IOC member, Lamine Diack, has been held by authorities in France since November, 2015. One of the allegations under investigation is whether Diack and his son Papa Massata Diack, were responsible for payments of USD2 million made from officials in Japan to Papa Diack through a company in Singapore called Black Tidings. It is alleged that these payments, made in July 2013, were connected to bribes that would “help the Japanese capital secure the hosting rights for the Olympic and Paralympic Games,” according to the French newspaper, Le monde. The current president of the Japan Olympic Committee, and member of the IOC, Tsunekazu Takeda, is under investigation for corruption, and may end up retiring from the Japan Olympic Committee in June or July.

Is there a precedent? Yes. A year after the end of the 2016 Rio Olympics, the head of the Rio de Janeiro Organizing Committee and member of the Brazilian men’s volleyball team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Carlos Nuzman, was arrested for soliciting votes ahead of the 2009 IOC session to select the host city for the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Carlos Nuzman with Police Carlos Nuzman_Reuters

Make no mistake – prior to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, there will be a lot of noise, much of it negative. That’s just the reality of hosting a high budget big tent event like the Olympics.

But also, make no mistake – in the end, it is always about the athletes – their stories of struggle, fair play, excellence and achievement – that drive the headlines during the Games.  Those are the headlines that will inspire millions of young Japanese, and provide the motivation that propels a select few to future Olympiads.

By the way, the last two paragraphs are what Bob quoted me on at the end of his column – after all, you can’t end a story like this with such black tidings.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be great, and you won’t want to miss it!

2020 Tokyo Gorin – Saiaku Shinario_Robert Whiting YukanFuji March 5 2018 Olympics

Fukushima-Stadiums-To-Host-Baseball-and-Softball-Games-At-Tokyo-Olympics
Azuma Stadium in Fukushima will host at least one baseball game and one softball game (Image: The Asahi Shimbun)

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics begin on July 24 next year.

But the first sporting event will take place two days earlier, in Fukushima, when preliminary matches of women’s softball begin  at Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium.

Azuma Stadium is about 90 kilometers from Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, the site of Japan’s gravest nuclear disaster since World War II.

It was 8 years ago today when a 9.1 magnitude earthquake rattled the Pacific coast side of northern Japan (Tohoku), triggering enormous waves of water inland, both resulting in approximately 16,000 deaths, and leading to nuclear meltdowns in the Fukushima reactors as the tsunami overwhelmed the power plants. The nuclear fallout turned communities around Daiichi into ghost towns, and the prefecture into a national  pariah.

The decision by the organizers to bring sporting events to Tohoku during the Olympics was made with the intent to drive investment back to the area, and build a sense of hope to the region.

“This is a great opportunity to bring the spirit of the Olympic Games to this region, which was affected by the tsunami in 2011,” IOC leader Thomas Bach told a press conference in Pyeongchang, South Korea when this was announced on March 17, 2017. “It is also an expression of solidarity of the Olympic movement with the people in this region who are suffering from the consequences of this disaster.”

Baseball infielder, Akinori Iwamura, who played many years for the Yakult Swallows as well as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, was a member of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles when the earthquake and tsunami hit, continuing to play for a minor league squad called the Fukushima Hopes through 2016. His hope too was that the region would be revitalized, and Iwamura was a vocal cheerleader, according to this New York Times article.

“I call myself a missionary,” Iwamura said. “Even though it’s a negative way many people know the name of Fukushima, we have to change it into a positive way.”

Iwamura believed that hosting softball games during the Olympics at Azuma Stadium, where his Fukushima Hopes play, would build the area’s image and attract tourism. “When they go back to their country, they can tell their impression to the local people of their countries so it will bring more people to come for tourism,” he said.

Azuma to Daiichi map

However, there are those who not only consider such thoughts wishful thinking, they consider it a cover up, as this article from The Independent points out.

Immediately after the announcement in March that Fukushima would host baseball, anti-nuclear activists denounced the move. They argued that it created a false impression that Fukushima had returned to normal and glossed over the remaining hardships faced by an estimated 120,000 residents who still cannot – and may never – return to their homes.

Kazuko Nihei has two daughters, and she fled her home in Fukushima City in 2011, and has sworn never to return. The government has provide financial assistance to people evacuated from the terribly affected areas, particularly those in the area where nuclear radiation fears are greatest. The government ended that assistance for people like Nihei, and so she struggles to make ends meet, according to Channel News Asia.

“I have to work with every ounce of energy,” said Nihei, who works seven days a week to help keep the family afloat.

Why won’t she return with her family to Fukushima? The Japanese government has worked hard to decontaminate the area so that families can return. But the fears of radiation in the environment remain.

…the programme has not swayed everyone, with a poll conducted in February by the Asahi Shimbun daily and Fukushima local broadcaster KFB finding that 60 per cent of Fukushima region residents still felt anxious about radiation.

Nihei worries about “various health risks for children, not only thyroid (cancer) but others including damage to their genes. If there was a comprehensive annual health check, I might consider it, but what they are offering now is not enough, it only concentrates on thyroid cancer,” she told AFP.

Then there is the contaminated water used as a coolant in the nuclear reactors – a million tons of water that contain radioactive elements. Processing the contaminated water, as well as the ongoing dismantling of the nuclear plants, are long,  difficult and costly tasks – the New York Times states it would take 40 years and cost nearly USD200 billion.

Additionally, there is a risk to keeping the radioactive water in the thousand or so water tanks on land, near the power plants – the number will rise and the space to store the water is limited. And the tanks could crack, particularly if another major earthquake hits Tohoku.

fukushima water tanks

The Japanese government hopes to purify that water to the point where the water can be disposed of in the Pacific Ocean. But, as one can imagine, that idea doesn’t sit well with people who live there, particularly those in the fishing industry.

“That would destroy what we’ve been building over the past eight years,” said Tetsu Nozaki, head of the Fukushima Prefectural Federation of Fisheries Co-operative Associations. Last year’s catch was just 15 percent of pre-crisis levels, partly because of consumer reluctance to eat fish caught off Fukushima.

The Olympics will come and go. But the disturbing legacy of 3.11 in Fukushima will linger on.

img_1217b
Photo taken by author on January 6, 2019, from the fifth floor of a building.

It’s rising!

The New National Stadium, which will be the focal point for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, is about twice as high as it was a year since I last took pictures.

img_1178
Current view of inside the stadium, from Nippon Terebi.

The architect of this stadium, Kengo Kuma, is famous for working with wood, and you can now see long slats of light brown cedar wood lining the upper part of the stadium. While criticized heavily for dropping plans for a thoroughly different design by world-renown architect Zaha Hadid, the organizing committee did well in selecting Kuma. His design will certainly merge more harmoniously with the surroundings, particularly the wooded confines of Meiji Shrine. In fact, the New National Stadium is called The Mori no Stadium (杜のスタジアム), or the Shrine Forest Stadium.

b
The cedar slats that line the stadium eaves.

As Kuma explained in this interview, he was anxious about whether the color of the wood, which was tinged a light white color, would blend well with the green of Meiji Shrine’s trees. “But when I saw the texture of the trees (as a backdrop to the stadium), I was relieved that it was okay.”

img_1190
An Oedo Line train station – Kokuritsu-kyogijo Eki – is right underneath the stadium.

November 30, 2019 is the targeted completion date for the New National Stadium.

img_1216

Tokyo wins 2020 bid
Tokyo wins 2020 bid

573 days to Opening Day of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. On July 24, 2020, all the questions, all the angst, all the planning will end, and all that will matter are the athletes. For now, we can only speculate about what will be, and recall what has been.

 

Max Muncy
Max Muncy after his walk-off homer in the 18th inning of Game 3 of the 2018 World Series.

It was 30 minutes past midnight Friday night in Los Angeles. The game had been going for well over 7 hours. Up stepped tired veteran infielder, Max Muncy, who sent an opposite field home run to left center that won it for the Los Angeles Dodgers over the Boston Red Sox in game 3 of the 2018 World Series.

In Tokyo, Japanese fans watched Kenta Maeda play a pivotal role pitching shut out ball in the 15th and 16th innings, helping the Dodgers to victory in the 18th inning. It was after 4pm Saturday afternoon in Japan, which gave die-hard fans a chance to catch their breath, have an early dinner, and settle in to watch game 1 of Japan’s baseball championship series – The Japan Series.

And as the baseball fates would have it, the Hiroshima Carp battled the SoftBank Hawks of Fukuoka into extra innings as well. With a runner on second in the bottom of the 12th, Kosuke Tanaka of the Carp was up with Tomohiro Abe on 2nd with the potential winning run. Alas, Cuban southpaw Livan Moinelo of the Hawks struck out Tanaka, ending the inning…and to the surprise of the casual foreign fan, the game.

Game 1 of the Japan Series ended in a 2-2 tie!

Japan Series Game 1 score

Different from Major League Baseball, Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) has a rule that a game cannot continue beyond 12 innings, even if the two teams are tied. This is true during both the regular season and the post season. However, it is possible for the best-of-seven championship Japan series to go more than seven games.

For example, if both the Carp and the Hawks win three games each over the next six games, an eighth game will be scheduled, and the teams would play as long as it takes to determine the winner of the decisive fourth victory.

Of course, if there happens to be two ties, a ninth game could be needed, and so on.

Explanations as to why baseball in Japan has this particular rule are vague, and yet the ones bandied about have a whiff of cultural relevance.

Bob Whiting, long-time writer on Japanese baseball, said that “the explanation usually given is that the trains shut down around 11-12  each night so calling game a tie is so fans can go home. But that doesn’t explain the time limit on afternoon games.”

Another explanation of limiting the length of games is related to energy conservation. It’s possible league officials and owners did not like the optics of keeping the bright lights of the stadium on into the late hours of the evening while the average worker had been asked to make efforts to save energy, particularly during the oil shock years of the 1970s.

These optics were worsened again after the March 2011 triple disaster of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant crisis in northern Japan. As a result, the NPB ruled that games would not be allowed to go into extra innings at all if the game had already passed 3 hours and 30 minutes. Conserving power after the loss of the Dai-Ichi Nuclear Power Plant, and subsequent suspension of almost all nuclear power plants across the country, was the call to action.

There is no energy crunch today in Japan. Most people watch baseball games on TV, not in person. And yet a championship baseball game in Japan can end in a tie.

But as the Hawks manager said after the game, I hope with a straight face, “It was a big tie for us. We’ll be able to take advantage of it.”

2018 Japan Series Game 1

End of the 12th inning and Game 1 of the 2018 Japan Series
Seattle Monorail 2
Seattle Center Monorail, 1962; Seattle Times

When the monorail connecting Haneda Airport and downtown Tokyo opened up on September 17, 1964, a month prior to the opening of the XVIII Olympiad, it was yet another symbol of Japan’s revitalization and cutting edge.

The people who built the monorail in Tokyo likely saw the successful models before deciding on developing a monorail system of their own. Two of them were in the US – Disneyland in Los Angeles, which opened in 1959, and the Seattle Center Monorail, which debuted in 1962.

Half a century later, Haneda is still a reliable way to get to Haneda Airport. The Seattle Center Monorail is more of a decorative transportation option that takes you from one tourist destination to another. Still, the Seattle monorail transports over 2 million people a year. And for only a $2.50 one-way fare, the Seattle monorail takes you from Seattle Center, home of the city’s Space Needle, to WestLake Center, the heart of Seattle, in only 2 minutes. As you can see in the video, it’s a pleasant ride that gives you a great above ground view of the city!

 

Toyosu aerial view
The Toyosu fish market is pictured in this photo taken from a Mainichi helicopter on July 30, 2016. (Mainichi)

The Tsukiji era is over. The Toyosu era has begun today, October 11.

After decades in the planning, the government has finally moved the fishmongers of Tsukiji to a former gas storage facility in Toyosu, about a few kilometers southeast of the famed fish market.

One of the most popular tourist attractions in Japan, tens of thousands visited Tsukji daily to enjoy the fresh seafood, and if they arrived before 5 am, as hundreds did every weekday, to watch the auction of frozen tuna laid out like lumber on the slick fishmonger floor.

Tsukiji was also a significantly large market, as over 1,540 tons of seafood valued at USD14 million or JPY1.6 billion traded hands every day. Around 650 businesses operated in Tsukiji, including 100 vegetable traders that sold 985 tons of fruits and vegetables daily, creating a vibrant community with over 14,000 workers and 28,000 buyers doing in the crammed confines of the Tsukiji market.

This coziness of Tsukiji, while part of the charm, was also part of the problem. Working within facilities originally constructed prior to World War II, Tsukiji businesses were not air conditioned, and kept their fish and vegetables fresh with crushed ice. Since storage space was limited, fish could be found stored outside, even in the summer months. The hustle bustle of Tsukji was made greater with the countless number of trucks that transported goods in and out of Tsukiji on its narrow roads.

The cramped quarters were an issue, and the move to Toyosu nearly doubles the available space for the market from 23.1 hectares in Tsukiji to 40.7 hectares in Toyosu. There were other reasons to move – the steel beams that kept the buildings up were rusting, the building standards were not up to date in terms of eartquake resistance, asbestos was said to be in the walls, and rats filled the nooks and crannies.

Tsukiji tunnel and transportation hub_Asia Nikkei
The Loop Line 2 plan, Nikkei Asian Review

And then there is the coming 2020 Tokyo Olympics, providing an extra incentive to accelerate the move. Plans for 2020 included:

  • a transportation hub of 3,000 vehicles, called Bus Rapid Transport (BRT), that would be used to move athletes, officials, and volunteers around to the various Olympic venues,
  • an extension of a major road artery, called Loop Line 2, from downtown Toranomon to Toyosu, that would allow vehicles to move unimpeded via a tunnel dug underneath Tsukiji, and
  • The Olympic Village, to be built between the Tsukiji market and Toyosu market.

When Yuriko Koike came to power as governor of Tokyo in the summer of 2016, she put a halt to the planned November 7, 2016 move of the fish market to Toyosu when high levels of a poisonous chemical, benzene, were detected in the soil and in the air of the former gas storage facility.

Tsukiji Market aerial
Tsukiji Fish Market Aerial View

Two years later, after measures to diminish the impact of the contaminents in the soil were taken, Governor Koike officially gave the go ahead to open Toyosu on October 11.

That decision has brought closure to many of the Tuskiji businesses that eventually moved to Toyosu. But the delay has left considerable uncertainty for others, according to the Nikkei Asian Review.

One party is the Tokyo Olympic Organizing committee, which gives the committee much less time to convert the Tsukiji fish market into a transportation hub. Dealing with the tens of thousands of people on the move for two weeks during the Games, in addiiton to the already congested roads and trains of Tokyo, will be a tremendous challenge, and the readiness and effectiveness of the BRT will be critical to the success of the 2020 Olympics.

Another concerned party is a group, including Mitsui Fudosan Residential, Mitsubishi Jisho Residence, Sumitomo Realty & Development and Nomura Real Estate Development, which are creating different parts of the Olympic Village. The rooms for athletes will be converted and sold as condos after the Olympics, according to Nikkei Asian Review. They write that the 24 blocks of 5,600 condominums will help drive the population of the Harumi bayside area from 12,000 today to about 29,000 in ten years.

Unfortunately, the development of the tunnel part of the Loop Line 2, planned to transport people and vehicles underneath Tsukiji, was postponed after the move of the fish market to Toyosu was postponed.

As the area of the Olympic Village is not close to any train station (the closest station being a 25-minute walk to Kachidoki Station on the Oedo Line), the developers of the condos were depending on the development of high-speed connections from the Olympic Village Harumi waterfront area to Shimbashi train station in about 10 minutes, but that possibility appears to be in jeopardy with uncertainty over the development of the tunnel.

Uncertainty doesn’t sell.

Developers are hoping to start selling the condo units before the games, aiming to sell more than 4,000 of 5,600 units. But the uncertainty over whether the BRT will be fully operational by the autumn of 2022, when new owners are scheduled to take possession, is causing worries about how this will work out.

Toyosu has opened, and the era of early morning jaunts to the fish market, standing meters from the valuable frozen tuna being hawked in auction is over. As this site explains, you will find a more antiseptic version of the Tsukiji experience.

Expect the experience at Toyosu to be different from the lively, messy but also charming and authentic Tsukiji. It seems like a very organized and sterile atmosphere—and only certain clearly-marked areas will be accessible to visitors. The times of tourists touching the price tags of tuna are over—your experience is all behind glass windows now.

Tsukiji May 1989
The author at Tsukiji one early May morning in 1989, with an ugly moustache.