Alejandro Chaskielberg photo 1
The members of a family sit in the place where their house stood before being destroyed by the tsunami of March 11, 2011, Otsuchi town, Iwate Prefecture, Japan_photo art created by Alejandro Chaskielberg

I was living in Seattle. I was called out of an important meeting because my wife called, moaning into the phone about intense pain in her stomach. I told her I’d rush home, but it was 5pm and Seattle rush-hour traffic was like everywhere else: not so good.

It took forever to get home, and when I did, she wasn’t there. As it turned out, she called 911, got carted off in an ambulance, and was transported to a hospital. I saw the note and took off for the hospital. A few hours hooked up to an IV later, she was told that the food poisoning was no longer an issue, so we hopped in a taxi.

We got home at 10 pm, May 10, 2011. In Japan, it was 3pm, May 11, approximately 14 minutes after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck just off the coast of northeastern Japan. We turned on the TV and watched the horror unfold on CNN, doing all we could to contact friends and family in Tokyo, where the effects of the earthquake were also significant.

So much has been written about the events and aftermath of 3.11’s triple disaster: the earthquake, the tsunami and the nuclear meltdown at Daichi Nuclear Power Station.

One thing I learned a couple of years ago shocked me. It hit me on the treadmill one morning, while reading on my Kindle the book, “Bending Adversity: Japan and the Art of Survival“, by Financial Times editor, David Pilling. Chapter 14, “Fukushima Fallout”, began with these words:

Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station and Odaka
The sort distance from my ancestral home town and the Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station.

It looked like any other provincial Japanese town. There was the Shiga Hair Salon, with its red, white and blue barber’s pole, offering cuts and ‘iron perms’. Next door was the Watanabe Cake Shop, doing business since 1990 and housed in a two-storey mock Tudor building. Outside the nearby Jokokuji temple, a tiny granite stone Buddha figurine stood at the entrance, dressed in a weather-worn pink ceremonial shawl. The traffic lights clicked on and off, from red to orange to green and back again. Korean pop music erupted from unseen speakers, breaking what had been a fetid silence. The only thing missing in the town of Odaka, located less than ten miles north of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant, was people.

The Shiga Hair Salon! That was the home of my grandfather’s younger sister, a very short drive to the birthplace of my grandfather! In August, 1988, in search of my roots, I was informed by the Odaka city office that I had relatives at the Shiga Hair Salon. So I walked on over, rehearsed an opening line in Japanese in my head, and walked in. After fumbling through an explanation in poor Japanese, showing them the documents that traced my past to this neighborhood over 150 years earlier, and that the hair salon’s founder, Chozo Shiga, was married to my grandfather’s sister….well we were suddenly family! I was ushered into their home, shown pictures, fed sushi and told stories. Later that day, they took me to the original home of my grandfather and ancestors, where the owner still cared for the tombstones of my ancestors.

Needless to say that time in 1988, and that moment when I learned my ancestral hometown was a ghost town, were both emotional jolts. Still today, I do not know what has happened to my relatives in the Shiga Hair Salon, although I’m pretty sure that the ancestral burial ground has been swept away as it was fairly close to the coast.

But my pain pales in comparison to those who truly suffered five years ago today.

When the demolition of the National Olympic Stadium began last year, and they needed a place to put the Olympic Cauldron, it was decided that the cauldron should be displayed in Tohoku. So on June 27 of 2015, the cauldron was unveiled in Ishinomaki, Miyagi, an area hard-hit by the effects of the tsunami. Athens Olympian and gold medalist in the hammer throw, Koji Murofushi, lit the cauldron, shining a light on Tohoku.

Koji Murofushi
Koji Murofushi lights the Olympic cauldron on June 27 at a park in Ishinomaki, Miyagi

The Olympic cauldron is expected to stay in Tohoku until 2020, when it would be returned to Tokyo to resume it’s spot in the new National Olympic Stadium.

Like the Olympic flame, which represents eternal peace and hope, the 2020 Olympics represent an opportunity to show that Japan is back, and the hopes and dreams of Tohoku are alive and well.

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Winning National Stadium Design
Winning design for 2020 Olympics National Stadium

 

Oops!

If you’re going to design an Olympic Stadium, you have to include plans for a very large cauldron that feeds the Olympic flame for two weeks.

Due to increasing costs that strained the patience of even government bureaucrats, the stadium design by world renowned architect, Zaha Hadid, was scrapped quite suddenly, pitting the Japanese government and the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee in a pissing match with the architect.

Subsequently, new designs were rushed into competition, and the winning architect stated that the stadium would not be completed in time for the 2019 World Rugby Cup, which has been particularly unpleasant and embarrassing for the organizers.

And now it was revealed that the winning architects forgot to design a place for an Olympic cauldron, something that the IOC specifically stipulates must be visible both inside and outside the stadium. On top of that, the new design will rely heavily on wood in the interior part of the stadium. As you should be reminded, wood is susceptible to burning. And bringing a massive fire close to wood may have negative ramifications.

But the designers will move things around and find some innovative fix that will allow a fantastic stadium to be built. After all, they caught this design flaw early. Let us not forget, there have been many instances where design flaws hidden or ignored eventually led to disaster. Here’s a great link called, The 50 Worst Architecture Fails. And here are a few of the more interesting fails:

The Aon Center
The Aon Center in Chicago, Illinois

The Aon Center: This skyscraper in Chicago, Illinois used carrara marble on the exterior of this building. When a marble slab fell off and crashed into the roof of the neighboring building, they decided that it was safer to spend USD80 million to resurface the building than wait for another marble slab to fall to earth.

Lotus Riverside
The Lotus Riverside in Shanghai, China

The Lotus Riverside: This 13-story residential structure in Shanghai, China fell over due to the effects of an underground parking lot being built underneath. Actually, the reason is kind of complicated. Here’s how the article explained it: “When creating a parking structure beneath the building, workers had placed removed earth into a nearby landfill The weight of the added dirt caused the banks of a bordering river to collapse and the resulting water infiltrated the building’s base, turning the foundation to mud and causing the building to topple onto its side.”

highway 19 overpass
Highway 19 Overpass in Laval, Quebec, Canada

Highway 19 Overpass: A 20-meter section of an overpass in a Montreal suburb simply broke off and dropped to the road below, killing five people in their cars.

Tacoma Narrows Bridge: Opened on July 1, 1940, this suspension bridge in Tacoma, Washington lasted only four months. Yes, when you don’t pay for support materials like trusses and girders, you definitely save money. There are other costs however. Watch this amazing video of the bridge actually breaking apart in the 40 mph wind.

Sendagaya platform
The phantom platform on the southern side of Sendagaya Station.

 

Did you know that of the 50 busiest train stations in the world, only 6 are outside Japan? Here’s a list from 2013 if you’re curious.

Tokyo’s train network in particular is amazing, or bewildering if you look at a train map. The train will get you almost anywhere you need to go, and if the schedule says it’s arriving at a specific time, it’s a pretty safe bet it will.

Not on that list is Sendagaya Station. But I know for a fact that it was one of the busiest stations in 1964, and will be again in 2020. Sendagaya Station is about 300 meters away from the once and future National Stadiums. Sendagaya Station itself is a relatively small station. It’s a one-platform station that accommodates trains going East and West on the Sobu Line, which cuts through the heart of Tokyo.

Sendagaya platform exit stairwell

 

But if you have ever been there, you may have noticed another platform on the southern side of the station. This was a platform used in 1964, when the area was flooded with folks going to and from the various Olympic venues in that area. And a single platform was simply too narrow to handle the volume. Train authorities shuddered at the thought of waiting passengers getting shoved onto the tracks because of the crowds, so the extra platform was built two months prior to the opening of the Tokyo Games.

Since 1964, that platform has very infrequently been put back into use – the time of Emperor Hirohito’s death and funeral rites in 1989 being one of those few exceptions. But come 2020 and the crowds, the phantom platform will find employment again.

mosquito

It is not a pretty sight – a newly born child with an unusually small head and brain damage. The working theory is that these abnormalities are caused by a virus, known as the Zika Virus, delivered by a certain strain of mosquito. It is believed that millions of people in the Americas, particularly South America, are infected, but that for the most part, “the infection causes no symptoms and leads to no lasting harm.” (See the New York Times article “Short Answers to Hard Questions About Zika Virus.)

And as the New York Times emphasized in another article, the connection between Zika and abnormalities in newborns is still unproven: “…the big question is whether Zika is responsible for the huge increase in birth defects reported by doctors, hospitals and other medical officials in Brazil over the last few months. That connection has still not been proved.”

And yet, it is the fear Zika creates that is of most concern to people in the Americas, particularly in Brazil, where the Olympic and Paralympic Games will be held in August and September this year. Millions of people from all over the world will visit, and while transmission of the Zika virus is unclear, the fear of the spread of the disease has increased. Will people who get bit in Rio de Janeiro become infected, and can they spread the virus in their own country via mosquitos locally? Will pregnant women be at significant risk?

In fact, The Center for Disease Control in the United States has issued a warning against travel for pregnant women and women trying to become pregnant to over 20 countries, primarily in the Caribbean, Central and South America, including Brazil. And the World Health Organization has declared Zika an “international health emergency.”

In the run-up to the London Olympics in 2012, there were fears of a flu pandemic. The Chinese government publicized the fact that thousands of additional hospital beds would be kept open in case of an outbreak of SARS. Fortunately, those particular fears never became an issue, and ultimately, those epidemics never emerged. Will Zika be different? One concern is the unknown nature of the Zika virus. The American Psychological Association explained the impact of the fear of the unknown disease in this article.

Research has shown that different threats push different psychological buttons. Novel, exotic threats like Ebola or avian flu raise anxiety levels higher than more familiar threats do. This reaction may have to do with our amygdala, which research suggests plays a role in detecting novelty as well as processing fear. In one recent study, for example, Nicholas Balderston and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee found that activity in the amygdala increased when participants looked at unfamiliar flowers right after seeing pictures of snakes (PLOS ONE, 2013).

And, at the same time, people often under-react to familiar threats. For example, influenza sickens as much as 20 percent of the population a year, and kills thousands. Yet because most people have had the flu and survived, or know someone who has, people may feel less urgency toward getting a seasonal flu vaccine. This may help explain why the U.S. vaccination rate for the 2013–14 flu season was only 46.2 percent.

I feel for the organizers of the Rio Olympics. As I had described in a previous post, one

Sazae-san_You Didn't Do Your Homework Thief

Japan is an incredibly safe city. With over 13 million strangers jampacked together, you might think that the crime and violence that plague other cities in the West might be evidenced in Tokyo. But that isn’t the case.

I won’t go into factors here. But I was surprised to see that in the world of Sazae-san in the early 1960s, crime was not an unknown quantity. In the cartoon at the top of the page from the book The Best of Sazae-san – The Olympic Years“, Sazae-san jokes about the incompetence of a con-man. In the cartoons below, the illustrator Machiko Hasegawa is able to make light of kidnapping and theft.

Sazae-san_Don't Worry I Won't Kidnap You

 

Sazae-san_It Was a Cheapie

The reality is, crime may very well have been on the minds of many Japanese in Tokyo at the time. As this line graph of violent crime rates from 1950 to 1996, Japan actually had higher rates of violent crime than Sweden, the United States and the UK in the late 1950s early 1960s. That was likely a product of the post-war years as Japan was crawling its way out of a decimated landscape, both economically and physically.

Total Violent Crime Rates 1950 to 1996
From the book, The Great Disruption, by Francis Fukuyama

Another popular signal of this anxiety was the powerful 1963 film, “High and Low”, by director Akira Kurosawa, starring actor Toshiro Mifune as a rich industrialist who must come to grips with the kidnapping of a child. Here is a wonderful summary and analysis of the film by New York Times film critic, A. O. Scott.

The Best of Sazae-san

Sazae-san is one of the most well-known comic characters in Japan. Created, written and illustrated by Machiko Hasegawa from the 1940s to the 1970s, Hasegawa’s characters are as much a part of the average Japanese psyche as the Yomiuri Giants, a platter of soba, or Natsume Soseki.

Hasegawa wrote about the everyday lives of an average Japanese family, the Isonos. Her genius was to illustrate normal activities as vignettes, and controversial topics in sweet and innocent frames. I found many examples of this in a recently published book of her cartoons translated into English, called “The Best of Sazae-san – The Olympic Years“. It was a delight to read about the issues the average citizen in Tokyo were dealing with in the 1960s.

Here is one comic strip that deals with an issue linked to the Olympics.

Sazae-san_I'm Against the Olympic Road

 

Cities all over the world were building highways and expanding roads into avenues to accommodate the explosion of automobiles on the road. Tokyo was no exception. And when Tokyo was selected as the host of the 1964 Summer Olympics in 1959, urban planners saw this as an opportunity to transform Tokyo.

One of the roads that passed through a somewhat wealthy, somewhat sleepy part of Tokyo, was called Aoyama Doori (Aoyama Road). Aoyama Doori connected Shibuya and Ginza, and was one of the noisiest and busiest thoroughfares in the city. In addition to the expectation that traffic would get worse was the general expectation that infrastructure changes related to the Olympic Games would accelerate the pace of change and pain. City planners insisted that Aoyama Doori be widened dramatically, from 22 meters to 40 meters.

Watch this video from the 2:15 minute mark to 7 minute 45 second mark to see what Aoyama Doori was like in the early 1960s.

Dealing with the tremendous change was a challenge to the citizens of Tokyo, the most populous city in the world. The change created tremendous stress for its citizens. Hasegawa recognized this stress. But in her sweet particular way, she laced her negativity with sentimentality. Why is Sazae-san’s younger brother, Katsuo against the widening or building of a road in the cartoon? Not because of the impact to people and commerce, but because of the impact on a bird’s nest.

Against the Road Expansion!
“Against the widening of the road!” Screenshot from the EdX video for the course “Visualizing Postwar Tokyo, Part 1”

 

National Gymnasium Annex exterior 1
The National Gymnasium Annex

I like flea markets so I found myself roaming one in Yoyogi, which happened to be right next to the beautiful National Gymnasium. The site is composed of two complementary structures, the main building where the swimming and diving events were held during the 1964 Tokyo Games, and the Annex, which is where basketball games were held.

After browsing the goods on the crisp winter day two Sundays ago, I thought I’d see up close what I had already written about. The larger structure of the Kenzo Tange-designed buildings was closed. But fortunately, the Annex was hosting an event, the 27th Annual Women’s Gymnastics Club, a free event, so I suddenly found myself in the stadium where Jerry Shipp, Mel Counts, Luke Jackson, Jeff MullinsBill Bradley and Larry Brown, to name a few, won their gold medal for the United States basketball team.

US Men's Basketball team vs Peru_Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha
US Men’s Basketball team vs Peru_from the book “Tokyo Olympics Special Issue_Kokusai Johosha”

Inside, pre-teen and teenage girls were performing rhythm gymnastics for family and friends, who sat in the dark and intimate stadium, the floor standing in brilliant lighted relief. The Annex seats only 4,000, so I could understand how the basketball games were hot tickets. Of course, the fact that there are only 4,000 seats means there is not a bad seat in the house. You can see that in the pictures.

National Gymnasium Annex pano 1
Panoramic view of the inside of the National Gymnasium Annex

National Gymnasium Annex pano 2

Thankfully, the annex, which is a sixth the size of the national gymnasium, will be one of several sites from the 1964 Games used in the next Tokyo Games. In 2020, the annex will be the site of the handball competition. But since 1964, basketball has become an international phenomenon, and women’s basketball, also growing in popularity, has been added to the mix. With that in mind, basketball in 2020 will be played in the Saitama Super Arena, which has a maximum seating capacity of 22,500 when basketball is in the house.

National Gymnasium Annex 1
Inside the spire of the National Gymnasium Annex

US team

zaha-hadid-japan-national-stadium-0

SIXProposed 2020 Olympic National Stadium Design Dropped Due to Pricetag: The $2 billion price tag for the new National Stadium in Tokyo proved to be too high. The Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, faced down the president of the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and former prime minister, Yoshiro Mori, and send the committee back to the drawing board. This decision effectively removed the possibility of the stadium debuting for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.

No Boston Olympics

FIVE – Both Hamburg and Boston Drop Out: Both Hamburg, Germany and Boston, Massachusetts, USA were selected by their respective national Olympic committees to bid for the 2024 Summer Games, but both ended pulling out after referendum votes indicated the Games would not be supported by the cities’ citizens. While the bid for the 2024 Games remain competitive, with Budapest, Los Angeles, Paris and Rome still in the running, the reputation of the Games for their high cost, facilities that serve little purpose after the Games, the disruption to business and everyday life to locals, among others, continues to grow.

US Women Celebrate 2015 World Cup Victory

FOURUS Defeats Japan to Win Women’s World Cup: US had beaten Japan in the Olympics, but Japan was the reigning World Cup Champion. US goes into Rio with hopes of winning their fourth consecutive Olympic championship. The US team currently has 11 Olympians who only know gold: Christie Rampone in 2004, 2008 and 2012, Abby Wambach in 2004 and 2012, Tobin Heath, Carli Lloyd, Amy Rodriguez, Hope Solo in 2008 and 2012, Sydney Leroux, Alex Morgan, Kelley O’Hara, Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn in 2012.

See this link for 13 through 15, 10 through 12, and 7 through 9.

 

Tokyo Olympics with Rafer Johnson
Thomas Tomizawa with the NBC News team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Rafer Johnson seated.

My father was a member of the NBC News Team that covered the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. He’s far left, and that’s Rafer Johnson, Rome decathlete champion, seated, also a member of the news crew. The crew are wearing protective masks, being cheeky. They probably saw a lot of Japanese wearing these masks in and around town.

In modern-day Tokyo, men and women routinely wear masks during hay fever season to avoid the pollen, or during the fall and winter months to avoid giving others their colds. But I now realize that in 1964, the reason for wearing the masks was different – the air back then was filthy. Routinely in these crisp winter days, we have perfect views of Mt Fuji. Back then you couldn’t see it for the pollution. In the 1960s, Tokyo was a year-round cloud of dust. Here’s how writer, Robert Whiting described it in the Japan Times: “Tokyoites dwelled under a constant cloud of noise, dust and pollution as the city struggled to rebuild itself from the wreckage of the American B-29 Superfortress bombings.”

The dust, the noise, the smells, the ever-changing skyline and the disorientation with unprecedented change – for many, the transformation of Tokyo was overwhelming. What took the West a couple of generations to do – moving from agriculture to manufacturing – Japan was trying to do much faster. While the pace of change was exciting to many, giving them hope after post-war desperation, the 1960s was also a period of confusion and alienation for those coping with life in the most crowded city in the world.

 

Documentary Tokyo
Screenshot from NHK documentary, Tokyo.

 

I took an EdX MOOC course called Visualizing Postwar Tokyo under Professor Shunya Yoshimi of The University of Tokyo in which he highlighted the stress people in Tokyo were under due to this change. He shared the opening minutes of this NHK documentary called “Tokyo”, by director Naoya Yoshida, which shows the crowds, the noise, the traffic and the construction through the eyes of a woman whose father was killed in the Tokyo firebombings and mother who ran away from home.

As the woman says in the documentary, “Tokyo, unplanned and full of constructions sites, is no place for a human being to live. Only a robot with no sense could live in this rough, coarse, harsh and dusty city that doesn’t have any blue skies. Many people complain like this. But I disagree. I think this city is just desperately hanging along, just like me.”

As Professor Yoshimi said, “the woman in this film is a symbol of the isolation in the big cities.”

But again, rest assured. Tokyo is one of the biggest cities in the world, and today, is arguably, the cleanest.

Mt Fuji from Roppongi
The view from my office.
Stadion St Moritz_1928 and Present Day
Stadion St Moritz, home of the 1928 and 1948 Winter Olympics – Top – 1928, Bottom – Present Day

He was 13 years old and was visiting the site of the 1928 and 1948 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland, as he did every winter as a child. An Olympian from those 1948 Games happened to be there, under whose tutelage Rolf Sachs had his first opportunity to go careening down the icy corridor of the bobsleigh track.

Sachs, a renown Swiss artist and designer, would continue to visit St. Moritz in the winters into his adulthood and would always see a large pink building, abandoned, built for the 1928 Olympics. And while many saw the empty pink structure as perhaps an unwanted feature of the snow white background of the winter playground, Sachs envisioned a fascinating place to reside.

rolf sachs
Rolf Sachs

According to this short film by Matthew Donaldson, Sachs asked if he could buy and convert the Stadion St Moritz, and was essentially told “yes” if he could get through the paperwork. In addition to renovating the building into a winter home, he continued to build the only natural bobsleigh course in the world.

Sachs, whose father’s influence made him a purveyor and creator of art, believes his bobsleigh course is also the biggest art sculpture in the world. Not only that, superior to all other bob sleigh courses, this one has no negative environment impact.

“It’s fantastic to see that it was the first bob run and the last one that is still natural,” Sachs says in the film. “If I imagine the environmental impact of an artificial bob run, not only to run it, but to see in the summer these huge concrete walls, it’s really a joy to see how they built this in three weeks, and at the end of the season, it just melts away.”