Meiji 3

It was a normal Saturday morning, out shopping with the wife at the local supermarket when I spotted the display of chocolate with the now omnipresent Tokyo 2020 mascots, Miraitowa and Someity.

The 4th largest chocolate confectionary producer in the world, Meiji, has the Olympic and Paralympic mascots hawking their famous chocolate snacks, kinoko no yama (mushroom mountain) and take no sato (bamboo village), which are essentially morsels of cookie topped with chocolate in the shape of a mushroom and a bamboo shoot respectively.

Meiji 5

And then I saw the price for a bag of these snacks – JPY1,000 (a little less than USD10). Holy moly, I thought.

That’s when my finely honed investigative journalistic instincts sent tingles though my body like a Bob Woodward version of spidey sense. As they always say, follow the money!

I went down aisle five to see if the regular kinoko no yama/take no sato snacks were available. And there I saw it, the truth as plain as day – a pack of 12 for 275 yen. The Tokyo2020 bag was a pack of 8 for 1,000 yen! I took a few nervous minutes to crunch the numbers checking them several times over because I simply could not believe my eyes.

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Miraitowa’s version was selling for 125 yen a pack while the traditional version was about 23 yen a pack. Miraitowa has a heck of a brand that he can hawk his version of the same product for over 5 times the normal rate!

It’s like finding out that Supreme T-Shirt you bought for $1,150 was actually made for about $10. (Please don’t fact check me on that last point. I have no idea.)

Meiji 20
And they taste exactly the same!

Ok, but then my eagle eyes caught the fine print on the back of the packaging:

A portion of the proceeds from the sale of Tokyo 2020 Official Licensed Products will be used to help stage the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

I did check on the internet, including Meiji’s site. This packaging and price was released on July 23, to commemorate the Tokyo2020 Year to Go campaign. But to be honest, there is no mention about how much of that 1,000 yen is going to Tokyo 2020. I hope it is a large percentage.

I fear though that most people are not going to put a premium on the chocolate-covered-mushroom-cookie. I hope they do, and contribute to the coffers of Tokyo2020…but mom’s probably not going to shell out 5 times the price so that Taro-kun can get the sticker inside.

But who knows?

Olympic fever is rising with the temperature.

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The “free” sticker in side.
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There is only one legacy of the Olympics, of every Olympics, that really matters – the impact on the aspirations of children. On Wednesday, July 24, 2019, the organizers of the Tokyo2020 Games celebrated the One-Year-To-Go mark with a day of fun and games for the kids. With school out, parents took their kids to the Tokyo International Forum at the outskirts of the Ginza district, and future venue for weightlifting during the summer games next year.

 

 

As the Japanese word for five is “go”, and there are a total of 55 Olympic and Paralympic events, the organizers dubbed this event “Let’s 55!” And indeed kids of all ages had activities galore for a fun-filled “go-go” day.

 

 

Both inside and outside the International Forum, there simulations and games for: fencing, basketball, field hockey, cycling, karate, archery, volleyball, weightlifting, golf, baseball….you name it. And to make sure they tried everything, they were given a sheet with all of the activities to get stamped after an activity, and to receive other gifts.

 

T2020_1YTG_Miki Ando
Olympic figure skater Miki Ando.

 

Amidst the fun and games, the officials were proud and optimistic about prospects for the Games a year hence.

“Preparations are making excellent progress, thanks to the amazing work of the Organising Committee and with outstanding cooperation and support from the government and the business community, said Thomas Bach, the president of the IOC. “There is so much to look forward to. I have never seen an Olympic city as prepared as Tokyo with one year to go before the Olympic Games.”

 

T2020_1YTG_photo with Kanae Yamabe
Getting your picture taken with 2016 Rio Olympic judoka bronze medalist, Kanae Yamabe.

 

And with a nod to the youth, Tokyo 2020 President Yoshiro Mori said:

I believe the Tokyo 2020 Games will become an important part of Olympic history and a talking point for future generations. This–the second time that Tokyo will host the Olympic and Paralympic Games–will be an occasion where the world is united as one regardless of nationality, race, culture or religion. I fervently hope younger generations will learn to respect, understand and accept each other as a result of these Games and play a central role in realising an inclusive society in the future.

 

T2020_1YTG_weightlifting 1

 

Tokyo2020 1 Year to Go signage

I was asked by Stephen Wade of the Associated Press a question:

Why the massive demand for tickets for these games? Did you expect it?

Personally, I didn’t expect the massive demand we saw in the ticket lottery the organizing committee held in May. My only experience for buying Olympic tickets was PyeongChang, which was pretty easy. I thought that if I applied for the most expensive tickets for 2020, I’d have a good chance of getting the tickets I wanted. But that clearly wasn’t the case. Over 3 million tickets were sold, but I got nothing.

The high demand appeared to surprise everyone, Japanese and non-Japanese alike.

To be honest, many people I’ve talked with had the impression that the Japanese in general were blasé about the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. Foreigners often told me that the Japanese didn’t seem to be excited, even now as we approach a year out.

But in hindsight, that perception may be due to a cultural tendency for Japanese to be more measured in their demeanor, towards anything.

For example, when global multi-nationals measure employee engagement in an annual survey, Japan often scores the lowest of all the countries. It may not be because the engagement or morale levels are low in Japan. It could be because Japan will commonly respond to questions on a 5-point scale with the middle rating of 3. Such a tendency will result in a lower overall score compared to other cultures which score more easily to the edges. Tending to ratings of 3 doesn’t mean the Japanese aren’t happy. They may in fact be simply defaulting to a cultural norm of restraint.

The reality, as we are learning, is that the Japanese are quite passionate about the upcoming Olympics. In addition to 7.5 million people registering for the oversubscribed ticket lottery in Japan, more than 200,000 people  applied for the Tokyo 2020 Games Volunteer Program, 120,000 more than was needed.

And that passion will continue to grow since entering a cycle of three consecutive Olympiads in Asia: PyeongChang, Tokyo and Beijing. The ability to watch events in their own time zone has had an impact on the Japanese. Dentsu reported that the percentage of Japanese who watched the Olympics grew considerably from the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics to the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.

Dentsu also reported a significant rise in “pride as a Japanese” from the 2016 to the 2018 Olympics, which may be due to a growing belief that Japanese talent is rising, boding well for hometown success in 2020.

As we approach the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the international sports federations are more frequently holding world championships in Japan, and the national teams of all the Olympic sports are making trips for look-and-see tours and training camps. Thus the number of opportunities for Japanese across the country to see their current and emerging heroes has increased dramatically, not just in the traditionally popular sports of swimming, wrestling, gymnastics and volleyball, but also in the increasingly popular sports of table tennis, basketball, badminton and sports climbing.

As for scandals, perhaps people feel such practices are the norm in today’s world,  that the limited facts available regarding the Black Tidings payment do not make for a definitive case, and thus the stench of scandal may not be so distinct. Besides, the head of the JOC took responsibility by stepping down so the party could go on.

The whiff of scandal, it appears, was only that. A whiff. The Japanese are smelling something else in the air – smells like….victory.

Here is the AP article where I was quoted.

N Star_hotel rooms in Tokyo_15July2019
N Star’s July 15 broadcast on hotel rooms.

Finding a hotel room in central Tokyo has always been a challenge, especially with the incredible growth in inbound tourism in recent years.

Finding a hotel room in central Tokyo during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics – could be harder than getting a ticket to an Olympic event, according to this Asahi News article.

N-Star, an evening news program on TBS, gave a breakdown of room availability in Tokyo and the surrounding prefectures on their Monday, July 15 broadcast. They reported that 46,000 hotel rooms in Tokyo have already been reserved by the IOC, sports federations and national Olympic committee members.

That’s 46,000 out of approximately 300,000 hotel rooms available in the Tokyo area, and that doesn’t include the rooms that are likely being set aside for Olympic sponsors, media and various other Olympic-related organizations.

For example, all 830 rooms in the Tokyo Bay Ariake Washington Hotel in Odaiba, where the media center will be located, are all reserved during the weeks of the Tokyo Olympics, and thus currently unavailable to the public.

There is an intent to release rooms to the public in the Fall, as the IOC and the various other organizations firm up the number of rooms they will actually need. But right now, it’s hard to find rooms to reserve now. N Star did a survey, looking at the prefectures surrounding Tokyo: Kanagawa, Chiba, and Saitama:

  • Kanagawa: There is, apparently, a luxury hotel in front of Kawasaki Station in Kanagawa prefecture, which is about 20 minutes from Tokyo Station by train, where you can  reserve rooms during the Tokyo2020 Games. The most expensive hotel listed on Google Maps is the Kawasaki Nikko Hotel.
  • Chiba: A business hotel near Makuhari Hongo Station in Chiba prefecture, which is about 40 minutes from Tokyo Station, is reported to start taking reservations from August. No, I couldn’t figure out the name of the place.
  • Saitama: N Star looked at larger cities in Saitama like Kawaguchi, Urawa and Oomiya, only to come up in empty. Apparently, you  have to go out as far as 50 minutes away as Kasukabe. They found a Japanese-style business hotel where you can reserve now.

N Star did provide recommendations for the flexible traveler:

  • Guest Houses: these are commonly frequented by non-Japanese, which they said would be good for Japanese who like these kind of inter-cultural interactions. Here is a link to Booking.com’s “10 Best Guest Houses in Tokyo.”
  • Capsule Hotels: TKP is a chain of capsule hotel they identified, which has a First Cabin brand. I stayed at one in Haneda Airport, which is reasonably priced and spotlessly clean. The picture they showed was much bigger than the traditional capsule hotel room, which is literally a space for a person to lay down, not to stand. Here is a link to Booking.com’s “10 Best Capsule Hotels in Tokyo.”
  • Leisure Hotel (Love Hotel): Love hotels, which you see scattered throughout Tokyo for their short-stay offerings, are traditionally for couples who are looking for a discreet place to commune. But with the demand for rooms so high in Tokyo, Love Hotels are a very real option for visitors and tourists seeking a clean, inexpensive place to stay. These accomodations are plentiful, often near train stations, and as the broadcast emphasized, are being marketed as clean, safe rooms for single women. Here is a link to Booking.com’s “10 Best Love Hotel’s in Tokyo.”

One option not provided in the N Star broadcast was Airbnb, which is just beginning to recover in Japan after a change in laws that put controls on people who wanted to lease rooms on the Airbnb platform. In a search for the week of July 22-29, 2020 in Tokyo, you can find a range of offerings from about JPY6,000 to JPY437,000 a night.

If you are lucky enough to snag tickets at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, you still need to have a place to stay. Happy hunting!

An San of the mighty South Korea team
An San of the mighty South Korea team.

It was a national holiday on a Monday, and despite the drizzle, you might expect a large crowd for this Tokyo2020 event in Yume no Shima, where some of the best archers in the world gathered.

Steve Wijler of the Netherlands 3
Steve Wijler of the Netherlands

It was day 5 of an 8-day event as part of Tokyo 2020’s series of “Ready Set Tokyo”  test events, which will continue until the middle of next year.  But as it was a test event, spectators were not invited. Thus,  the grounds seemed empty, a smattering of competitors, coaches, officials and media meandering in and around the area of competition.

No Spectators
No Spectators invited

In July, 2020, the spectator stands will have been constructed and these grounds will be packed with people. But during this tournament, the primary purpose is for world-class athletes to test the newly opened facilities in a competition format.

Mariana Avitia of Mexico with coach
Mariana Avitia of Mexico with coach

The site on Yume no Shima is one of only 8 permanent facilities built for the Tokyo 2020 Games. (Twenty five of the 43 venues required are existing sites, while another ten are not permanent, to be dismantled after the Games.) The main area for the archery competition is made up of two long lanes where two competitors face off, aiming for the yellow bulls-eye 70 meters away.

Judging the Results
Judging the Results

Archers marched in with a guide holding their national flag. The judge greeted the competitors. The arrows were launched and brought back to the archers by a person on a motorized scooter. And strangely enough, the music in between competitive moments was hugely dominated by tunes from Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel. “The River” seemed strangely appropriate.

Denchai Thepna of Thailand
Denchai Thepna of Thailand

With a year to go before the Games, the landscape is still raw. Sponsor signs, which you will not see during the Olympics, were boldly displayed. And the lack of people created a somewhat somber, lonely atmosphere. But it is another step in the incredibly complex logistical nightmare that is the Olympic Games, and as far as one could tell, all seemed to be proceeding without incident.

The Arrow Bearer
Staff shuttled the arrows back and forth between the targets and the shooting stage.

“Next year the Olympic Games are here in the same venue and now it feels like we’re starting the Olympic process,” said Chang Hye Jin of the dominant South Korea team, double gold medalist at the 2016 Rio Olympics. “I expected the weather conditions here in Tokyo to be very hot and with strong wind. But there’s no wind and the temperature is low, so that is good. Before the Olympic Games, this tournament gives me a chance to get experience in this field. I can learn the wind direction and get used to the environment.”

Below is what an arrow traveling 240 kph looks like when shot.

All photos/video taken by the author.

My book on the 1964 Tokyo Olympics is now available. And through July 31, you can buy the Kindle (ebook) version for 99 cents, or the equivalent in your region. I don’t mind if you buy the paperback version or even the hard cover if it is available on your Amazon site. Note, if you buy a Kindle version, please be careful that you are buying from the Amazon store your Kindle is registered.  Click here to buy the book, and understand why I entitled it:

1964

The Greatest Year in the History of Japan

How The Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes

Final Book Cover-LOCK

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.

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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.

First book copy_1
An advance copy in my hands.

It looks great.

It feels great.

What was once, four-and-a-half years ago, only a spasmodic interaction of neurons – an idea, a dream – is now, to me, a weighty tome, a freshly printed book of off-white pages that flip crisply at the touch.

1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes is now a reality.

A sample chapter is available now – please download a copy here. The initial reviews are very good.

But you be the judge. The book launches on July 8, 2019. I can’t wait for you to read it.

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A picture of my father in the Preface – my inspiration for this book.
Mark Williams 3
Coach Mark Williams leading a stretch

On Saturday, June 22, children of all ages gathered at the world-class gymnasium at Funabashi Municipal High School in Chiba to meet the Americans. They jumped and rolled and stretched to the instructions of essentially the men’s gymnastics team and the coaches who will compete in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Yul Moldauer 2
Yul Muldauer before displaying his floor routine.

Eight members of the team arrived a week ago to practice, get familiar with Japan and its facilities, and to inspire. Great efforts are being made by Japanese municipalities to attract sports teams  from the two hundred plus countries expected to compete at Tokyo 2020 for look-and-see practice tours.

Sam Mikulak 6
Sam Mikulak on his horse.

In this case, the city of Funabashi, Chiba has been the host sponsor of the USA men’s gymnastics team for the past two years, covering costs of accomodations and logistics while they are in Japan.

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Sean Melton giving the kids of Funabashi a lift.

The gymnastics demonstration was in conjunction with the US Embassy’s Go for Gold program, which is an effort to engage students in Japanese schools with American athletes and diplomats.

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Genki Suzuki on the rings.

“This is a great way for USA Gymnastics to give back to the people of Funabashi and thank them for being such gracious hosts during this training camp stay,” said Jon Omori, special liaison and advisor for the United States Olympic Committee.

To get an idea of the engaging way the members of the men’s team worked the crowd, watch this video.

Looking dashing in suit and tie, Rui Hachimura stepped up to the stage with a bright smile, greeting the legendary basketball player, Julius Erving. Erving had just announced that Hachimura had won the 2019 Julius Erving Small Forward of the Year Award, and was asked by the ESPN announcer how it felt to shake Erving’s hand.

Hachimura replied without missing a beat – “His hand is very big.”

The announcer laughed. The audience laughed. And Hachimura beamed as he looked at the award in front of him.

This is the confidence of a young man who is about to become the first Japanese to be selected in the first round of the NBA draft on June 20, 2019.

Only three years earlier, that confidence was not so apparent.

Rui Hachimura high school Rui Hachimura competes during the All-Japan Tournament in late December. | KAZ NAGATSUKA

Born of a mother from Japan and a father from Benin, a nation in West Africa, Hachimura grew up in Toyama, a relatively lightly populated part of Western Japan. In a culture where the phrase, the “nail that sticks out gets hammered down,” is often thought or heard, Hachimura, due to his size, his skin color and his hair, stuck out.

“My family was the only blacks in our prefecture,” Hachimura said in this CBS article. “A lot of people looked at me weird. They’d never seen black people before.”

Although baseball is Hachimura’s first love, he found that basketball and its constant movement and flow allowed him to leverage his boundless energy and athleticism. A star on the Meisei High School team in Sendai, Hachimura took his team to three straight All Japan high school tournament titles. At an appearance at the 2014 FIBA U17 in Dubai, the then 16-year-old Hachimura caught the eye of basketball scouts, including the assistant coach at Gonzaga University, Tommy Lloyd.

“Moved well, really good hands, could dribble the ball, had a normal follow-through, strength and explosion,” Lloyd said in The Spokesman-Review. “A lot of great tools.”

Rui Hachimura and Tommy Lloyd Gonzaga forward Rui Hachimura and assistant coach Tommy Lloyd,(Photo: Young Kwak, AP)

Major college programs wanted Hachimura – Arizona, LSU, Vanderbilt and my hometown team St. John’s. But in the end, Lloyd helped convinced Hachimura to come to Gonzaga, which houses a powerful NCAA Division 1 basketball team made up in good part by players outside of America.

“I like that this program has teammates and coaches who are like family,” Hachimura said in The Gonzaga Bulletin. “I knew there were a lot of international players playing here and they know the process of developing international players.”

The 18-year old moved to Washington State in America in early 2016 and he had significant challenges. Hachimura had never lived overseas. He had been to the US only once. He spoke very little English. His first task was to become eligible to even enter Gonzaga as his acceptance was dependent on passing the SAT test, the most common aptitude test used by universities and colleges in America. After several attempts, Hachimura scored well enough to satisfy Gonzaga in May, 2016, and announced that he would move to the United States to enter Gonzaga’s English Language Center that month, according to the Japan Times.

With hopes of playing as a freshman in the 2016-2017 season, Hachimura had to improve his English so he could at least understand instructions from coaches and talk to teammates. As a result, he had to miss 50% of the team’s practices so he could attend Gonzaga’s English language program.

In the early stages, it didn’t appear the language lessons were working, as explained in late 2017 by Coach Mark Few in The Gonzaga Bullettin.

He’s a professional at nodding and acting like he knows. Then when you pin him down he has no idea. So I’ve been trying to pin him down a lot to make sure, because we have to make sure. But he’s getting better inch by inch.

Rui Hachimura u17 Team Japan Rui Hachimura in 2014 FIBA 2017 World Championship in Dubai – Canada vs Japan, Day 2, Group phase

Hachimura was also adjusting to the faster, more aggressive level of play in America, according to Few.

He’s pretty laid back. At his size, he needs to be a physical entity… that’s tough to match up with and tough to block out… he’s just got to get a little more intense.

Or as Lloyd remarked more succinctly, “Early on, he looked like Tarzan, but sometimes was playing like Jane.”

Today, Hachimura is definitely playing like Tarzan, and will become not only a potential piece in an NBA team’s success in 2019, but a potential marketing bonanza for Hachimura, particularly in his native Japan. Kyodo News reporter Akiko Yamawaki said that Hachimura’s impending draft selection is big news in Japan.

All of Japan finds it so exciting. Everybody thinks, everybody knows he’s going to change the culture of Japanese basketball. It would be really huge news. When Ichiro signed with Seattle, (Shohei) Ohtani signed with the Angels, I think it would be the same kind of news in Japan.

And after an NBA season under his belt, who knows what Hachimura can accomplish as a member of Team Japan at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.