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Japan is an orderly place, run by officials and managers who tend to be risk averse. That’s why things work so efficiently and effectively here.

Thus, when Tokyo2020 organizers created an Artist Selection Committee to create official posters for the lead up to the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, I would have expected them to be traditional in their outlook.

After all, the posters that have been in the public eye for the past few years have been those of the Olympic and Paralympic logos – as conservative as you can be.

But Tokyo2020 is not your grandparent’s Tokyo1964. The committee commissioned19 artists to create posters, and I imagine that the brief they were given was very liberal. Of the 20 official posters that were officially revealed in early January, only 4 at most would be identified as representing the Olympics and Paralympics, either because the official logos are referenced, or Tokyo 2020 is explicitly displayed. The other 16 could be posters for anything.

But that’s OK. They are a wide variety of styles and interpretations of what the Olympics and Paralympics represent, which is in line with the hopes of Masayoshi Aoyagi, the chairman of the artist selection committee, who said in this article that the committee looked for a diversity of values and aesthetic sense to reflect this era of diversity, and so they selected photographers, manga artists, graphic designers. He said that you can see the very rich diversity of the art scene, as well as the incredible individuality and creativity of these artists.

If you are in Tokyo, you can see all 20 posters on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo until February 16, 2020. There is no charge for viewing this exhibit.

 

HARMONIZED CHEQUERED EMBLEM STUDY FOR TOKYO 2020 OLYMPIC/PARALYMPIC GAMES, by Asao Tokolo

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Tokolo was selected to design the logos for Tokyo 2020 in April, 2016, and it is his design that has been the object of the posters promoting the Olympics. For this larger poster project, Tokolo reimagined his design for two separate Olympic and Paralympic posters, creating patterns that to me, reflect celestial bodies or traditional Japanese fabrics. Tokolo said that “…these designs, ‘individual’ rectangles form ‘groups’ under ‘rules.’ The designs were created partly on the computer, partly by hand. My aim was to create a ‘relay baton’ to be passed on from 2020 to future generations. I created the designs as a tribute to the Tokyo 1964 designers, who relied on compasses and rulers for their creations, and by imagining what mediums would be employed by designers of the future.”

 

Now it’s your turn! by Naoki Urasawa and The Sky above the Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa by Hirohiko Araki

Urasawa and Araki

Both Urasawa and Araki are acclaimed artists of manga, the Japanese style of comic book drawing. Urasawa of Tokyo, whose manga works include best-selling titles as “Yawara!” and “MONSTER,” created a comic page that shows an athlete getting ready, with the anticipatory words “tsuzuku,” at the bottom, which means “to be continued.” Araki, a Miyagi artist who is known for his comic series, “Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure,” riffed on a very popular Japanese image – Hokusai’s “Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa. “I imagined the gods of sports descending on Japan from a sky filled with clouds resembling turbulent waves.

 

FLY HIGH by Shoko Kanazawa and Open by Koji Kakinuma

Kanazawa and Kakinuma

Two calligraphers were invited to create posters for Tokyo2020.  Kanazawa selected the first character in her first name “sho,” to boldly represent her wish that “everybody supporting the Olympic Games, will soar high above Tokyo to reach people the world over.” The character “sho” means “to fly high.” Kakinuma selected the characther “開,” which means “open.” He said “I imagined Olympic and Paralympic athletes working toward new height every day, and told myself, ‘Open, open, open!’ as I applied brush to paper until I felt myself to be completely ‘open.'”

 

Flow line, by Daijiro Ohara

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Ohara is an artist from Kanagawa, Japan who imagined the route of the Olympic flame from Athens to Tokyo as a jumbled set of intersecting lines and loops, which reflects the complexity of connectivity. “What could possibly link an individual with an event in which world-class athletes compete?” asked Ohara. “It is not easy to grasp what does connect a huge-scale event with an individual –  such connections can be erratic, or elusive.”

 

Higher than the Rainbow by Mika Ninagawa, and Ludus, by Viviane Sassen

Ninagawa and Sassen

Ninagawa is a photographer and filmmaker who is reflecting the limitless potential of para-athletes. Of this image of Renshi Chokai, she said “para-athletes are cool. This simple message is what this picture is about.”  Sassen, a photographer, from Amsterdam, said she wanted to “depict the JOY of PLAY,” as well as cultural diversity and the variety of nationalities who all come together to participate in the Olympic Games.”

 

Wild Things – Hachilympic, by Tomoko Konoike

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The most arresting poster to me was this “wild thing,” chasing a bee (“hachi” in Japanese). Perhaps Konoike, an artist from Akita, was channeling Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things. She said that “as animals, each human being grasps the world with totally different perceptions. We see the world through our own unwelts. None are the same. No words are identical. No light is identical. If the Olympic Games prepare themselves for that and address it honestly, then in time, a new ecosystem, filled with the senses, for a small organism, will begin to function.”

All photographs above were taken by the author.

You can see all of the posters at this link.

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Happy 2020 New Year from the olympians

Welcome to 2020!

Welcome to the Year of the Rat!

While the “rat” in English tends to have negative connotations, in terms of the Chinese zodiac, the rat is seen in a very positive light.

In Chinese culture, the rat is energetic, alert, flexible, witty and full of life. The rat, because of it’s reproductive prowess, is a symbol of wealth.

As the Chinese zodiac runs on 12-year cycles, and the Olympics run on 4-year cycles, there have been a large number of Olympiads, both summer and winter, held in the Year of the Rat.

Year of the Rat

Summer

Winter

1900

Paris

1912

Stockholm

1924

Paris

Chamoix

1936

Berlin

Garmisch-Partenkirchen

1948

London

St. Moritz

1960

Rome

Squaw Valley

1972

Munich

Sapporo

1984

Los Angeles

Sarajevo

1996

Atlanta

2008

Beijing

2020

Tokyo

You can see a few selection trends via the above table. Initially, the Olympics were highly European-centric, with a shift to North America towards the end of the 20th century. The 21st century has seen a shift towards Asia, including three Olympiads in a row held in Asia (2018 – PyeongChang, 2020 – Tokyo, and 2022 – Beijing).

The 1972 Sapporo Olympics, only 8 years after Japan’s triumphant hosting of the Summer Olympics in 1964, were also a success. Not only did Japan win its first gold medals in a Winter Olympiad, it is said that the Sapporo Games turned a profit. The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics were considered the first Olympiad to make money as well.

So while the Olympics in general are not profit-making events, the Year of the Rat and its aura of prosperity may make a difference in the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics. By many measures, Tokyo2020 is already a success.

So if you smell a rat this year, that may be a good thing.

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The women’s volleyball team victorious, from the book “Bi to Chikara”

The Japanese were buying televisions, this magical device that brought the world into their homes. And with the Tokyo Olympics arriving in October, 1964, sales for color television were soaring like their pride in hosting the Olympics.

The Tokyo Games had a massive impact on the psyche of the Japanese – no event in the history of Japan was viewed as much by as many people. Reports of television ratings in Japan vary wildly depending on the source. One source explains that over 75 million people watched some part of the Olympics over the two-week period, for a rating of 97.3%. That’s amazing since the population in Japan at the time was about 100 million.

Another source explains that three of the four highest rated programs in Japan in 1964 were related to the Olympics:

  1. 15th NHK Red and White Song Battle (NHK General, December 31) 72.0%
  2. Tokyo Olympic and Volleyball Women’s Final “Japan vs Soviet Union” (NHK General, October 23) 66.8%
  3. Tokyo Olympics Closing Ceremony (NHK General, October 24, 16: 52-18: 20) 63.2%
  4. Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremony (NHK General, October 10 13: 43-15: 20) 61.2%

But I suspect this list from Wikipedia is misleading as it focuses on ratings for one channel. The number one program, the annual new year’s eve programming (Red and White Song Battle) was broadcast only on NHK. But the Tokyo Olympics, on the whole, was broadcasted on multiple channels, sometimes up to five channels covering the same event. That was the case for the Opening and Closing ceremonies, as well as the highest rated event during the Olympics – the women’s volleyball final – when the Japanese defeated the Soviet Union to win gold.

Japan Television Program_Volleyball_October 23
Japan Television Program on October 23, 1964

One can say, with little exaggeration, that nearly everyone in Japan was watching that match.

Think about that – when was the last time an entire nation’s eyes were watching the same exact thing, united in their attention and feelings? In recent years, I can think of only moments of disaster and distress: 9.11 in the US or 3.11 in Japan.

In terms of uplifting moments, never was Japan more united, or prouder, than at 9 pm on October 23, 1964, when the final point sealed the victory for the Witches of the Orient, as the women’s basketball team was affectionately called.

I must admit. I believe I felt a bit of that unity and pride 55 years later, in September and October 2019. The Rugby World Cup is currently being held for the first time in Asia, and the host country, Japan has the only Asian representative in the tournament.

Rugby Fans go wild after Japan defeats Ireland_Kyodo
Japan supporters at a public viewing site in Tokyo celebrate after Kenki Fukuoka scored a try. Photo: Kyodo

Japan kicked off the tournament on September 20, 2019, defeating Russia 30-10. The television rating was 18.3%, attracting a peak of 26 million viewers. On September 28, Japan pulled off an upset, upending Ireland 19-12, igniting celebrations across the country, and sending ratings higher with 29.5 million viewers. As excitement and expectations noticeably grew among casual and non-rugby fans, viewers of the Japan-Samoa match on October 5 climbed to 47 million.

With three wins in hand during the tournament pool plan, a Japan victory against Scotland would send Japan into the Top 8 for the first time. Nervous but hopeful, over 54 million people were tuned into to watch, attracting a peak rating of 53.7% at the end of the match, when Japan realized their dream of advancement into the elimination round.

Alas, the Brave Blossoms could not survive the South African python that squeezed the life out of the Japanese ruggers. Ratings during the course of the match suffered as viewers realized that the impossible dream was indeed just a dream.

But the dream is the thing. Japan was living a dream vicariously through the incredible energy and surprising skill of the Brave Blossoms – these upstarts turned world beaters.

Is the 2019 Rugby World Cup a sign of things to come? Will the 2020 Tokyo Olympics raise expectations of triumph and pride? Will Japanese heroes emerge to capture the imagination of children and adults across the nation? Will the Olympics unite Japan in a way that exceeds the unity inspired by the Japanese ruggers?

There is little doubt in my mind – the Tokyo 2020 Olympics will bring the nation together.

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Chiharu Ts’baki and Steve Myers rehearsng for my book launch party!

It was October 10, 1964 – a bright and beautiful Autumn day.

After years of hard work, years of worry, years of questioning whether the world would embrace Japan after the turmoil of world war, the Tokyo Olympics had finally arrived.

To the world, Japan was radiant, fresh-faced, smiling from ear to ear, looking at the world with eyes wide open, like a baby, looking at her beautiful mother for the first time.

The feeling at that time was reflected in the song, “Konnichiwa Akachan” (こんにちは赤ちゃん) , sung by Michiyo Azusa. This popular tune was released in 1963, but Japanese would still hear it on the radio and the TV constantly throughout 1964 as it captured the spirit of the time – optimism for a bright future!

Below is the singer, Chiharu Ts’baki and the guitarist Steve Myers, performing “Konnichi was Akachan” (which means “Hello, My Baby!”) at my book launch party on October 10, 2019, the 55th anniversary of the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games.

The sense of optimism at the time was powerful, as Japanese adults who made the Olympics possible, and who cheered on and welcomed athletes from all visiting nations, were alive at the end of the Pacific War, when all they and their families knew was poverty, homelessness, hunger, and disease, at least for those in the burned out rubble-strewn cities of Japan.

The Japanese rebuilt the nation and were rightly proud to bring to the world the most logistically demanding global event of its time. And on that beautiful Autumn day on October 10, never was the nation prouder. Japan was akin to a newly born baby, smiling into the eyes of her mother, as in the song.

The person who wrote the lyrics to “Konnichiwa Akachan” was Rokusuke Ei. He also wrote the lyrics to a 1961 song that was very popular during the Olympics, not only to the Japanese, but also to foreigners visiting the country. The song was sung in Japanese, and still sold over 13 million copies worldwide, hitting number 1 on the pop charts in the US, Canada and Australia.

This song was known in Japan as “Ue o Muite Arukou,”(上を向いて歩こう) and its catchy melody made singer Sakamoto Kyu a global star, and made Japan relevant to the world. To the rest of the world, it was known as “Sukiyaki,” the idea of a British music promoter who thought that the Japanese dish would make more sense to the Western world. You can’t argue with success.

If you understand the lyrics,“Ue o Muite Arukou” sounds like a love song, or one of unrequited love. But Rokusuke Ei wrote not about love, but about defeat.

Ei participated in the anti-government protests against Japan’s signing of the Mutual Treaty of Cooperation and Security with America. And after the government signed the treaty, American soldiers and military bases were allowed to remain in the country. Ei was sad, and wrote that famous song, reflecting a more complex relationship Japan had with the West, particularly the United States.

While anti-government protests were happening in Japan in the early 1960s and around the world, they were gaining real force in the late 1960s. In fact, the 1968 Mexico City Olympics were scarred by the killing of dozens if not hundreds of students during an anti-government protest by government forces, only 10 days prior to the start of those Games.

If the Olympics came to Tokyo in 1968, it’s likely that the clamor of anti-government protests in Japan would have created tension if not trouble during the Games.

If the Games came to Tokyo in 1960, it’s likely that the Japanese economy in the 1950s, while accelerating, would not have been robust enough to support the organization of the Games for the summer of 1960.

In other words, 1964 was the perfect time, the right time. And after the successful completion of the 1964 Olympics, they were often called the Happy Games, and in retrospect, the Last innocent Games.

Two of Rokusuke Ei’s most popular songs captured the mood of the time, and are, in my mind, intertwined with the joy and wonder the Japanese had for the XVIII Olympiad in Tokyo.

Here again are Chiharu Nacitas and Steve Myers with their beautiful rendition of “Ue o Muite, Arukou.”

Tokyo 2020 torch relay torch

Olympic torches have been carried on planes and boats, via wheelchairs and bicycles, even underwater. But never in space – until now.

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronauts, Soichi Noguchi and Akihiko Hoshihide, will be orbiting the earth from the International Space Station (ISS) during the Olympic torch relay, which begins on March 26, 2020 in Fukushima and ends on the day of the Opening Ceremony on July 24, 2020.

According to Nikkan Sports, Noguchi will be in the space station from the end of 2019 for six months, while Hoshihide will check in to his new abode around May next year. While they will bring the Olympic torch with them in space, they apparently will not light the torch. It would be the symbolism of peace and resilience that the space torch bearers wish to share with the world. In a press release, Noguchi said

I believe that the light of the flame will encapsulate the “power of recovery” emanating from Japan’s recent natural disasters, as well as the “tolerance” that allows us to accept diversity and the “dynamism” uniting local communities in a global festival, and that it will herald the sunrise of a new generation. To everyone in Japan, I say please join with us astronauts and help create a road of hope illuminated by flame.

If you want to literally join them in the torch relay, and carry that gorgeous sakura gold torch, you can apply now as the deadline is August 31, 2019. There are four corporate sponsors and 47 prefectures which are taking applications for the torch relay with the goal of recruiting 10,000 torchbearers under the theme: Hope Lights Our Way ( 希望の道を、つなごう).

The corporate recruiters are Coca Cola, Toyota, Nissay and NTT. In all cases, you need to pick one of the prefectures of Japan where you want to run. Here is the map of the torch relay, and here is the schedule. If you want, you can apply to up to five recruiting entities.

People born on or before April 1, 2008, of any nationality will be considered.

Prefectures: You can apply directly with each of the prefectures. You can find the links to each of those prefectures and their applications in the middle of this page. There are 47 prefectures, so there are 47 links.

Coke on app torch relay page
Coke on app torch relay page

Coca Cola: The longest-running sponsor of the Olympic Games, Coca Cola, has been a sponsor of the torch relay for 13 Olympiads. You have to apply via their Coke On smartphone app. This “pre-selection” step is a challenge as you need to explain in 200 characters or less (not words) “what you love and do as you are and…if there is an episode that you made someone happy with it.” You also get to upload “your appealing photo or video” up to 40mb in size. After I applied, I received a notification that if they think I’m worthy, I will hear back from them in 3 to 5 weeks. The announcement of those selected will be as early as the end of the year. Apply here.

Toyota: Like Coca-Cola, Toyota is a TOP sponsor, which means they are able to market their brand with the Olympic brand globally. Unlike Coca-Cola, their “pre-selection” is comprehensive. In addition to contact information, they are looking for “local challengers,” asking for your plans “to make your community (= your desired prefecture) a better place,” in 220 words or less (not characters). Toyota also allows you to upload three photos or video files, as well as provide links to “relevant websites or videos.” In that same box, they allow you to provide additional information – “a simple comment showing your enthusiasm.” Toyota replied via automated email that “entrants who pass preliminary selection will be notified in early October 2019.” Apply here.

Nissay (Nippon Life Insurance Company): Nissay is a Tokyo 2020 Olympic Gold Partner, and like Toyota, their pre-selection application is fairly comprehensive. They provide an opportunity to explain your relationship to the prefecture (relatives, etc.), what people important to you are you running for, and why. There is an additional text box to add information or links to sites. Different from the others, they ask for you to select from a drop-down list of “Torchbearer values.” I selected “Sense of Unity Born of Celebrations (The Spirit of Encouraging.” Apply here.

2020 tokyo olympic torch relay map and schedule

NTT: NTT, the Japanese telecommunications and infrastructure giant, is also a Tokyo 2020 Olympic Gold partner. Like Nissay, the emphasis is on the connection you have with a particular prefecture, as well as a general section to “self PR” yourself in 400 characters or less. They have a drop-down menu that asks you how to categorize your “action and legacy plan: Sports and health,  Urban planning and Sustainability, Culture and education,  Economy and technology, or Reconstruction, all japan, transmission to the world. This is the only corporate partner which asks for a “third-party” recommendation. This was the only one of the application processes I could not complete. There were technical issues of saving my input, and then trying to re-register proved futile. Apply here.

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.

Meiji 4

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.

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.

Azuma 1
Azuma Baseball Stadium

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s what the data shows.

And that’s good enough for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labor Shortage and Overwork

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

 

Consequences

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

 

Lack of Worker Rights

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

 

Foreign Migrant Workers in Particular at a Disadvantage

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

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

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

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

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

Josh Larsen's hands

I was with the USA Climbing team in Tokyo a couple of weeks ago and talking with team coach, Josh Larson, and I couldn’t help but notice his hands.

They were ugly.

Fat. Dry. In desperate need of a manicure.

For climbers, the fingers carry a significant chunk of the freight, and as a result, get really fat. After years of sustaining one’s body weight on one’s fingertips, sliding them into the slimmest of crevices, and slipping off the tiniest of edges, fingers get swollen and calloused over time. The result – really ugly fingers.

But in the world of sports, sometimes ugliness is the price of admission.

Take basketball for example. LeBron James. Shaquille O’Neal. James Harden. These athletes are famous for their incredible athletic ability, but not for their feet….more specifically, some of the ugliest toes you can imagine. So what to do you get an NBA superstar who has everything? According to The Washington Post…a pedicure.

For MMA fighters, boxers and wrestlers, it gets even uglier with cauliflower ears and broken noses. I won’t show those images here. But if you have a strong stomach, or are an ENT specialist, enjoy!

Ears

Noses