Construction of the National Gymnasium_AP

It’s already a year behind schedule.

When the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee decided to renege on its agreement to Zaha Hadid to build the National Stadium for the 2020 Olympics, the decision resulted in a second search for an architect, and a plan that had a year lopped off the timeline.

So while many people have faith in the Japanese construction industry to make heroic efforts to get the stadium ready in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, it comes with an extra challenge – the fact that unemployment is at its lowest unemployment rate since 1995 – 2.8%. While politicians in America and Europe are looking for easy ways to produce thousands if not millions of new blue-collar jobs, Japan cannot find enough people to keep up.

The aftermath of the 2011 tsunami, aka 3.11, is still impacting Japanese society today, as construction work in the Tohoku region of Japan sucks up a large percentage of the construction worker pool. So construction companies are rushing ahead with the talent they have. In the productivity equation, that should mean longer hours for the workers.

But Japanese corporations have been warned by the government that they cannot work their people to death. Compensation claims for cases of “karoshi” (worked to death) have been steadily increasing over the years as the public realizes there are limits to the loyalty one can show one’s company or one’s leaders.

Recently, Olympic Minister Shunichi Suzuki was at the construction site of the National Stadium and said that while the work is continuing as scheduled thanks to the workflow efficiency, he warned that “working conditions must meet legal standards.”

He cited the case of a 23-year old worker who had been working on the construction site of the National Stadium, and who had committed suicide in July. According to the Mainichi, he was working well over the limit of 80 hours of overtime per month, although the records showed that he was under the limit. According to this article, the worker’s mother said that her son would routinely wake up at 4:30 am and get home at 1 am. The Japan Times stated that the suicide note of the worker stated he was “physically and mentally pushed to the limit.”

The rock of the 2020 deadline. The hard place of the worker shortage. Is there a way out of this squeeze?

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Benjamin Spock with children
Dr. Benjamin Spock

One of the most famous names in America in pediatric health, at least in the 20th Century, was a man named Dr. Benjamin Spock. His book, Baby and Child Care, was a perennial best seller and the bible on child care. The only other book to outsell his in America – the actual Bible.

What I didn’t know was that Spock was a gold medalist, a member of the American eight-man crew that was so dominant at the 1924 Paris Olympics that their time of 6 minutes and 33 seconds was almost 16 seconds faster than the second-placed Canadian crew.

A renown expert in the medical field, an Olympic champion, Spock was a name in America few did not know. And yet, despite a relatively wealthy upbringing, he was not born with confidence and expectations of greatness. As he explains in the book, Tales of Gold: An Oral History of the Summer Olympic Games Told by America’s Gold Medal Winners, Spock explained that his mother was a very devoted tyrant, and his father was a self-made man who was obsessed with status, proud to have been a member of the finest and exclusive social clubs at Yale University.

When Spock entered Yale, I believe around 1921, he wrote:

I felt very unsure of myself. I felt unpopular and unable to compete with other boys. I felt like a sissy, a mother’s boy, and I was timid. I was afraid they might bully me and that I would not be able to do the things they were able to do.

Sports was an acceptable avenue of exploration, and he continued his focus on the high jump, which he trained in at his high school. But try as he could, he could not improve beyond mediocrity. One day in his freshman year, he walked by the rowers in the Yale gym. In rowing, height can be an advantage. Despite his skinny frame, Spock was tall, six feet four inches (1.9 meters), and so caught the eye of the captain of Yale’s rowing team.

“What sport do you go out for?”, said the captain.

“High jumping,” said Spock.

“Why don’t you go out for a man’s sport?” said the captain.

To Spock, who yearned to be seen as a man’s man, these were the words that struck his soul. To be seen as having potential in one of the most respected and manly of sports at the time – rowing – was a revelation. “I was elated. The captain of the crew thought that I might be crew material! That had never occurred to me.”

Benjamin Spock
From the book, Tales of Gold

Granted, the Yale squad was one of the worst crew teams in the United States. As Spock described, their technique was outdated. “You’d lie way, way back to get the length of the stroke and pull the oar up almost to your chin and shove it away.” But during Spock’s freshman year, the rowing committee at Yale decided it was time to change things up, so they hired a coach out of Washington named Ed Leader, who transformed the stroke and the team.

In two years under Leader’s leadership, Yale’s rowing team went from worst to first, and Spock’s eight-man crew defeated a crew made up of US Navy officers fairly handily, earning the right to compete at the Paris Summer Olympic Games. In Paris, the American eight from Yale were considered favorites with perennial favorites, The Thames Rowing Club of Great Britain. Fortunately for the US, the Thames Rowing Club had in Paris only four members of the crew which won the prestigious Grand Challenge Cup at the Henley Royal Regatta the previous year, perhaps paving a golden path for Spock and his team.

Baby and Child Care coverAs Spock wrote about his team’s gold-medal-winning finals, “the race itself was an anticlimax. We won by, I think, 3-and-a-half boat lengths. You’re not meant to win a race that short by as much as a boat length.”

Spock graduated from Yale, and then got his doctor of medicine at Columbia University, launching a career to become America’s most famous pediatrician. Interestingly, Spock became very critical of putting children or young adults into “excessive competition”, worrying that parents were putting too much pressure on their children. “The problem is,” he wrote in 1985 in Tales of Gold, “that Americans are meant to be the best in everything.” He even had thoughts about parenting in Japan, arguably an early hotbed for prototypical Tiger Moms.

I was visiting Japan, and if any country is worse than the U.S. for competitive youngsters, it is Japan. Their educators told me that a shocking number of elementary school children commit suicide and that the number is going up every year. They commit suicide because they don’t think they’re getting grades high enough to satisfy their parents. What kind of society is that in which children have to kill themselves because they can’t compete?

Opening Ceremonies 1964_Bi to Chikara
Opening Ceremonies 1964, from the book, Bi to Chikara

In Japan, my birthday used to always be a national holiday.

Two years after the Tokyo Olympics staged their grand opening ceremony on October 10, 1964, the Japanese government declared 10/10 a national holiday. When I lived in Tokyo from 1986 to 1994, my birthday was always a day off. Very often, schools all over Japan would hold sports festivals for their students and families, a significant cultural phenomenon in Japan.

In 2000, this holiday called Health and Sports Day was moved to the second Monday of October, to ensure that Japanese get that day off, so this holiday often falls on a day before or after October 10. This year, the second Monday is October 9.

With the start of the 2020 Olympics scheduled for Friday, July 24, government officials are considering a change in the law to make that day a national holiday, according to Asahi. Doing so would decrease the car and mass transportation traffic significantly, and allow people and vehicles related to the Olympics to move more efficiently that day, in addition to making it easier to implement security plans.

The government is considering a few options:

  • Make July 24, 2020 a public holiday, but not to make it an annual holiday
  • Move the public holiday held on the second Monday of October to July 24 (No!)
  • Move the public holidays of either Mountain Day (August 11) or Marine Day (third Monday of July) to July 24.
  • Create an additional annual public holiday on July 24 (That would get my vote!)

Japan has a reputation for being a workaholic culture, with the perception that people tend to log long hours at the office. In some companies and in certain departments, that is certainly the case. To the credit of the Japan press, they call out the worst companies (ブラック企業 burakku kigyō) for their culture of ridiculously long hours. And if you work in HR in Japan like I do, then you know that many companies have vacation utilization rates of 50% or less, ie: if you have 20 days of leave, you take only 10 days or less that year.

National Holidays in Japan

But the truth of the matter is, as residents here know, Japan has a high number of public holidays – officially 16 – more if you count the unofficial days off companies give their employees after New Years. As I understand it, only countries like India, China, Hong Kong, Colombia and the Philippines have more.

Because there are so many holidays, many clumped together so that Japanese can take as long as a week off twice in a year, many Japanese feel they can’t use up all their vacation days even if they wanted to. When I moved from Tokyo to Seattle, I felt this difference viscerally, shocked at how few public holidays there were in the US compared to Japan.

Japan is a public holiday paradise, and I hope that the government chooses to make July 24 a new and permanent holiday.

But please don’t touch my Health and Sports Day in October. It’s my special day.

running in heat

Imagine it’s Sunday, August 9, 2020, the final day of the Tokyo Olympics. The marathon has started, tens of thousands of people are lining the route, and the morning sun is radiating a furnace room of heat.

On August 9 this year (2017), the temperature hit a high of 37 degrees Celsius, or 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s hot man! And potentially dangerous for runners, as well as spectators. According to Makoto Yokohari, a professor of city planning at the University of Tokyo, in August the temperature at the location of the national stadium in Tokyo gets to 30 degrees at 7:30 am, and rises to the mid 30s in Asakusa, the mid-way point of the 2020 marathon. Yokohara adds in this article that much of the route, especially around the Imperial Palace, is not under shade.

Runner’s WorldFor runners, the fastest times often come in cool weather, in a range of 4.5 °C (40 °F) to about 13 °C (55°F), according to this analysis from Runner’s World. But when you run a marathon in hot weather, your body will rebel. According to this article from Scientific America, marathoners need blood to go in two directions at the same time – to your muscles to deliver oxygen and keep your muscles pumping, and to your skin so that your body can cool down. When it’s really hot, unfortunately, the blood that goes to the muscles that are getting a work out, gets even hotter, and the blood that gets to the surface doesn’t cool down. You sweat more, you dehydrate, and your body reacts with heat cramps, heat exhaustion, or even heatstroke.

The mother of all heat related illnesses. Your body temperature rises above 105 degrees F and it becomes a life-threatening situation. Most often, heatstroke results from untreated heat exhaustion, although it’s very possible for heatstroke to come about with no signs of heat exhaustion. Heatstroke is characterized by extreme fatigue and weakness, confusion and odd behavior, disorientation and finally unconsciousness. Your body’s regulatory system completely shuts down at this point, sweating ceases, and your skin becomes hot and dry. Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there. Convulsions and seizures can occur as your brain begins to shut down; coma and death are possible in the worst situations. GET OUT OF THE HEAT IMMEDIATELY! Seek medical attention, get in the shade, drink water, etc anything to get cooled down! You do NOT want to get to this point.

running in heat 2

For us pedestrians, succumbing to the heat is commonplace in August, according to Akio Hoshi, a professor of health science at Toin University of Yokohama. “The number of people transported by ambulance due to heatstroke or heat exhaustion has peaked in early August in recent years. So the Tokyo Olympics fall in the period with the highest risk,” Hoshi said.

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics were held in October, and the weather was primarily wet and cold….preferable conditions to the marathoners of 2020.

I don’t enjoy running. My preference is to read my kindle while exercising on an elliptical machine. But on the weekends, I will head out into the neighborhood, often climbing the stairs of road overpasses, and running through the residential area I live in.

But now I run with an Apple Watch, and even more conveniently with Apple Airpods.

I bought the Nike Apple Watch opportunistically in a recent visit to Portland where the lack of a sales tax makes big purchases attractive. My main objective was to upgrade on my Fitbit.

airpodsWhile the Apple Watch is cool, as all Apple products tend to be, the jury is still out regarding its utility as an exercise measurement tool. I’ve recently realized that not only does the Apple Watch lack the measurement tool that the Fitbit has to measure stairs climbed, it also does not automatically measure sleep time and patterns.

That’s a disappointment.

The revelation has been the Airpods! First, how does a one-size-fit-all headset stay in any person’s ears, I have no idea. But I can run and jump and the Airpods stay in place (although I sometimes feel better pushing them in on occasion).

Running without wires has been a revelation. With the Air Buds connecting to the Apple Watch via bluetooth, I can run relatively unencumbered without wires. For me, it was one of those nagging issues that, once removed, feels liberating.

Betty Cuthbert 2_with torch at Sydney Olympics
Betty Cuthbert with torch at The 2000 Sydney Olympics

Rhonda Gilam was a typical woman living in Mandurah, a city south of Perth, Australia. In 1985, she was middle aged, married, and her three children were adults. She ran a bus charter business with her husband Keith, and she enjoyed golf, tennis and taking trips in her buses. But she gave it up when she said she received a message from God telling her to give up that life, which she did.

In 1991, Gilam heard a second message, according to this article in the Weekend Australian. The message is: “Ring Betty Cuthbert.” So she does.

Thus began an incredible friendship between Gilam and one of the 20th century’s greatest sprinters, Betty Cuthbert, the only athlete, male or female, to win Olympic championships in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter races. The two had met only briefly once before. As they had both recently experienced a dramatic re-awakening of their relationship with God as born-again Christians, they connected immediately over the phone. Gilam told Cuthbert that “she had been called by God to care for Betty Cuthbert.”

In her autobiography, Golden Girl, Cuthbert wrote that was surprised by the call, but when she was invited to take a weekend break with Gilam in Mandurah, Cuthbert agreed to join her. After a wonderful weekend with Gilam, Cuthbert decided to leave her home in Perth and move to Mandurah so she could be near Gilam, allowing herself to be dependent on someone.Golden Girl

This is no ordinary friendship. For the next 24 years, Gilam took care of Cuthbert, who was a far cry from her physical self of the 1950s and 1960s. Cuthbert had MS, or multiple sclerosis, a debilitating condition that impacts the nervous system, leaves her fatigued, impacts her motor skills and her eyesight, and currently requires her to be in an electric wheelchair. Cuthbert had lived with MS since the early 1970s without telling people beyond close family members and friends, and in fact left her family in Sydney so she would not be treated like a person with a disability.

Betty Cuthbert 3_with Rhonda Gilam
Betty Cuthbert with Rhonda Gilam

Gilam’s life became one of devotion to the care of Cuthbert. Until Cuthbert moved into a nursing home in 2015, Gilam kept Cuthbert’s apartment clean, transported her, showered her, massaged her, answered her fan mail, cleaned her clothes…everything. Another legendary Australian track star, Ron Clarke, a close friend of Cuthbert’s, was also grateful to Gilam according to the magazine article.

“I was just upset that she had done so much to be such a legend of Australian sport and then no one was helping her. I was disgusted. She was our greatest athlete. But she was also fiercely independent. So needing assistance was something foreign to her.” For years Clarke watched Betty fight her disease largely alone as she actively fought off first a wheelchair and later the notion of full-time care, relenting, at last, to the divine intervention of Rhonda. “When you get the call, you get the call,” Clarke says. “You have no idea what Rhonda’s done. She took her in, her and her husband, and they looked after her. Phenomenal. Had it not been for Rhonda, I don’t know what would have happened to her after that.”

Thanks to that special bond between Gilam and Cuthbert, the legendary winner of the 400-meter finals at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics is still flashing her radiant smile.