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.

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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.)

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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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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.

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

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Lead Climbing Wall in MoriPark Outdoor Village in Akishima, Tokyo, Japan

The climbing wall looms high over the green at MoriPark Outdoor Village in Akishima, Japan, a yoga class finding serenity in the quiet strength of the monolith.

It’s a sunny Sunday morning on April 21, 2019, and the USA Climbing Team has just arrived and huddled on the grass to confirm their routine for the day. After training intensively most of the week indoors, it was time to get some work done outdoors.

MoriPark Outdoor Village, which is on the western edge of Tokyo, is a compact shopping center, with tenants which sell only outdoor gear and wear, or provide health and sporting services. For Team USA, the village’s climbing walls served as the venue for their day’s training.

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Drew Ruana and Nathaniel Coleman on the speed climbing wall.

Across the street from the rope-climbing wall was the speed climbing wall, used for one of the three climbing disciplines that will determine a medal for climbers at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. At the base of the 15-meter wall, the young men and women of Team USA (the oldest member was 22) began their stretching and prepping routine.

Five days later, the team would be competing for glory at the International Federation of Sports Climbing (IFSC) Worldcup in Chongqing, China. For now, it was a day for low intensity training.

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Ashima Shiraishia and coach Josh Larson

Members of the team, including USA Climbing coach, Josh Larson, first got their senses sharpened with a round of hacky sack. Others stretched in their own AirPod-induced sensory isolation. And a couple pulled out their favorite distraction – the kendama.

A simply constructed wooden plaything out of Japan’s traditional past, the kendama is a wooden ball connected by string to a hammer-like handle that allows the player to catch the ball on a spike or on one of two cups. According to climber, Nathaniel Coleman of Salt Lake City, kendama became an addiction among slacklining athletes, which spread to the climbing world.

Eventually, the climbers had their opportunities scrambling up the wall like frantic Spider-men, hitting the metal plate at the top of the wall stopping the clock in 7 to 8 seconds. A medal for sport climbing will be up for grabs for those athletes who can compile the best combined scores for three types of climbing: lead climbing, bouldering, and speed climbing.

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Claire Buhrfeind and Kyra Condie

Lead climbing is about creativity and endurance. Bouldering is about puzzle solving, getting introduced to a new pattern of hand and footholds, and figuring out the best path. Speed climbing is about practicing the same exact pattern of hand and footholds on a wall that has existed for 10 years, a pattern which is solidly entrenched in the muscle memory of the fastest climbers.

Many climbers love the chess match of the other disciplines – lead and bouldering – but broadcasters love the clear-cut simplicity of speed climbing. In fact, the fastest event in the Olympics will be speed climbing, where the world record is an incredible 5.48 seconds.

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Zach Galla

And like any young sport, there are those who wonder if sports climbing is being sold out to the broadcasters who cater to the lowest common denominator. Kyra Condie of Minnesota is ranked 8th in the world in bouldering, and she learned her skills in the climbing gyms that nurtured climbers, and encouraged support and fun. “I worry,” she said “that climbing will become too competitive,” and lose the fun part of the climbing culture.

But the competitive nature of  climbers are also stoked by sport climbing’s debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games. John Brosler of Dallas, Texas started climbing when he was 10, when his parents sent him to summer camp where he got hooked on the wall. John loves the competition of climbing and is “really psyched” to see the best.

John Brosler 1

“I got to see this sport grow from a niche when climbing gyms were few and far between,” said the 22-year old. “It’s really cool to see it gain traction and become an Olympic sport.”

But sports climbing is a global sport, and Team USA has some catching up to do.

In the three climbing disciplines of lead, bouldering and speed, Team USA is ranked 8th, 8th and 12th respectively. European nations like Slovenia, France, the Czech Republic and Russia, as well as Japan are proven teams that look to medal in 2020.

Ce Ce Kopf 1

While climbing teams in Europe and other parts of the world have been better funded, and training together more formally for a longer time, Team USA has just been unifying its resources in the past year, according to Larson. The Boston native was hired as the team’s first coach in 2018. He was hired by the new CEO of USA Climbing, Marc Norman, who asked his team’s officials to move to Salt Lake City in order to make it easier to coordinate Team USA’s activities.

USA Climbing Team

“It was only a few years ago when I’d go to a tournament in Europe, on my own, without a coach, and find out who else was on the team when I’d see them arrive,” Larson said.

In Tokyo, Team USA is together, benefiting from the camaraderie that comes from  training together, and the aggregate knowledge that comes from their shared experience. Team USA’s time together has been short, but sport climbing rise to Olympic levels has also been quick. Not everything about the strategy and tactics of how to win a combined climbing event is known.

In other words,  gold, silver and bronze in climbing is for the taking.

Ichiro Uchimura Hanyu Icho
Clockwise from upper left: Ichiro Suzuki, Kohei Uchimura, Kaori Icho, Yuzuru Hanyu

The 24-year old figure skater walked into a private room in Saitama Super Arena, the television to his left showing clips of the World Finals Figure Skating Championship that had just ended on the evening of March 23, 2019.

“I lost! I can’t believe it (“Maketa yo, kuyashii!),” said Yuzuru Hanyu. He glanced at the television set which showed his rival and winner of the world championship, American Nathan Chen. “How do I beat that?”

Despite Hanyu’s incredible free program and brief hold of first place, Chen’s was better.

“I really wanted to win when I was skating,” Hanyu stated. “I think I did my best, but the problem is that a figure skating competition consists of two days, and I lost both. It means that I simply do not have enough strength to win.”

Chen is a brilliant young skater, who has proven his metal by defending his world championship. But Hanyu will not go down without a fight.

Those who have followed Hanyu even a little know that he is not losing confidence. He may in fact be steeling himself for the greatest competition he has faced. Battling and overcoming an ongoing ligament injury to his right ankle, Hanyu won gold in PyeongChang last February, and the Cup of Russia in November. The flames of his competitive spirit have been fanned by Chen, and he’s out to take figure skating to the next level, which should surprise no one.

Hanyu is a living legend.

What’s incredible is that he is not alone here. We in Japan have been blessed, recent witnesses to once-in-a-century global talents in a wide variety of sports – four of them to be exact:

  • Yuzuru Hanyu (figure skating)
  • Ichiro Suzuki (baseball)
  • Kohei Uchimura (gymnastics)
  • Kaori Icho (wrestling)

Yuzuru Hanyu (figure skating): The Sendai native is a two-time world champion, has broken the world record in figure skating scores eighteen times, and is the first person since Dick Button did so in 1948 to win individual gold in two consecutive Olympiads. Can he do the unthinkable at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, and win an unprecedented third Olympic championship? I wouldn’t bet against him yet.

Ichiro Suzuki (baseball): After 28 years of professional baseball, the athlete known as Ichiro retired last week amidst adoring fans at the opening season matches between his Seattle Mariners and the Oakland A’s. No one has had more hits in professional baseball than Ichiro (4,367), and in the Major Leagues in America, he set the season hit record in 2004 with 262 hits, surpassing George Sisler’s record that stood for 84 years. His speed and defense made him a threat to steal a base as well as hits and runs in the field. There’s an overwhelming consensus that Ichiro will be the first player enshrined in the baseball hall of fames of both Japan and America. His love of the game, his training regimen and his flare for the dramatic will live on forever.

Kohei Uchimura (gymnastics): He is called King Kohei. The native of Nagasaki is the only gymnast to win all-around gold in every major title in a four-year Olympic cycle….twice. In other words, Uchimura won the world championship and Olympic gold from 2009 to 2016. You may as well tack on his silver medal in the all-arounds at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and call it a decade of dominance. Calling him the Greatest of All Time (GOAT), as many do, is not hyperbole. As Uchimura is 30, it is unlikely that his dominance will continue at Tokyo 2020.  But he might be there, giving us all still a chance to glimpse greatness.

Kaori Icho (wrestling): There is another Japanese GOAT – a woman from Japan named Kaori Icho. The freestyle wrestler from Aomori, Icho has won an unprecedented and incredible four straight Olympic championships since women’s wrestling became an Olympic sport at the 2004 Athens Summer Games. In fact, she’s the first female in any sport to win an individual gold in four straight Olympiads. Through that period, Icho had won 189 straight matches, a 13-year streak that ended in January, 2016 to a wrestler ten years her junior, only to re-start the streak and take her fourth gold medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. She is indeed the best female wrestler ever.

We in Japan have been most fortunate in recent years to live among living legends.

Ichiro Suzuki batting practice
Ichiro Suzuki during batting practice in MLB’s Opening Day game on March 20, 2019_Kyodo

It was opening day for Major League Baseball, and the Seattle Mariners were taking on the Oakland Athletics in Japan at the Tokyo Dome.

The A’s were winning 5-4 in the top of the fourth, and Ichiro Suzuki was coming up to bat. The future first-ballot hall of famer extended his right arm, holding his bat straight up, and awaited the pitch.

Six people on the 2019 Oakland roster were not even born when Ichiro started his career as a rookie for the Orix BlueWave in 1992. The hair on his head and face was trimmed nearly to the skin, but even that couldn’t hide the gray of a grizzled 45-year-old veteran.

Ichiro in the batters boxOpening day 2019
Ichiro awaiting a pitch at the opening day match up between the Mariners and the A’s. (photo by author)

Ichiro took a first-pitch strike, worked it to a 3-2 count, hitting a ball off his leg twice, before ripping a ball foul down the right field line, electrifying the crowd, all of whom were essentially willing Ichiro to get a hit – one more to the 4,367 hits in his professional baseball career.

Ichiro walked, and then, as the Mariner’s took the field for the bottom of the fourth, Ichiro jogged back in, embraced teammates around third base and entered the dugout to the applause of the fans.

I was one of those 45,787 fans, wondering if we had seen the last appearance of Ichiro on the field. Joining an American Chamber of Commerce of Japan event, I got a unique behind-the-scenes look at Major League Baseball. Jim Small, Senior Vice President of International Business at Major League Baseball, took us on a tour of Tokyo Dome: the press room, the bullpen and the field to watch batting practice.

Ichiro on lineup
Peeking inside the Mariners’ bullpen, with the game’s lineup written on the board. Ichiro batting ninth.

We watched Ichiro’s replacement in right field, Dan Vogelbach slash balls in the batting cage as Small pointed to the red patches in the green sea of artificial turf. He told us that two tons of clay on the mound and around the bases had been shipped in from the United States….by plane…after issues at the Panama Canal thwarted the forward progress of the freighter ship.

Getting the proper clay to Japan for two exhibition games and two official games was vital to Major League Baseball (MLB). With tens of millions of dollars of assets on the field in the form of professional baseball players, MLB didn’t want to have a repeat of what happened to Robin Ventura of the Mets, when they took on the Chicago Cubs in Japan in 2000, the first time any regular-season games had taken place outside North America. According to the New York Times, Ventura slipped twice in the batter’s box during a game, the Japanese clay being of a looser, drier consistency.

When we got into a meeting room for an Inside Baseball talk before the game, Small got down to business. Japan is a critical market, and a major source of revenue for MLB, whether it is media (e.g.: streaming of MLB games), sponsorships (e.g.: commercials or corporations that want to market themselves using the MLB logo or Japanese players in MLB uniforms), consumer products (e.g.: jerseys and caps), and events (e.g.: exhibition or regular-season games).

And MLB, like so many other businesses, want to grow smartly around the world. According to Small, investing in markets like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Latin America is a no brainer – baseball is a popular part of the culture and so the fandom and infrastructure are in place for MLB to plug and play. That’s why MLB is holding 2019 regular season games not only in Japan, but also in Mexico.

MLB is also looking at emerging markets, those with strong economies and perceived  to have the potential to grow the sport. Thus, games between teams in one of the fiercest and famed rivalries in baseball – The New York Yankees and The Boston Red Sox – will take place in London, England on June 29-30.

Jim Small on Bloomberg

It’s unclear whether baseball will take off in England – there is so much competition for the English sports fans’ mindshare and wallet. But MLB believes that the Asian emerging markets show tremendous potential for growth, particularly China and India.

China: As China prepared for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Small told us that leaders in China recognized that they were not competitive in baseball compared to its Asian neighbors, like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. They saw baseball as an Asian sport and they wanted to be better. Today, 650,000 viewers watch each MLB game broadcasted in China, in Chinese, which actually dwarfs the Japanese market. Some 300 stores sell MLB goods. And there are actually 7 Chinese nationals in the farm systems of major league baseball teams. China may not make the top 12 for the Olympics in Tokyo, but they are determined to catch up to their Asian brethren.

India: In 2008, the Pittsburgh Pirates created some media buzz by announcing the signing of two pitchers from India to minor league contracts. As interest by Indians in American baseball has grown, so too has MLB’s interest in growing the India market. As Small explained, India’s love for cricket is an advantage, particularly from a talent perspective, as the throwing and catching movements, on the whole, are similar to those in baseball. But perhaps even more intriguing is this: India has an incredibly high percentage of people who own connected devices like smartphones and tablets – 90%. That’s 90% of 1.1 billion people, of which 89% interact on social media. That’s the kind of market where the right steps can grow brand awareness very quickly.

Ichiro maybe saying goodbye to baseball. But the MLB is saying hello, konnichiwa, namaste and ni hao to the world.

(Oh by the way, Seattle won 9-7.)

Sports Symbols 1964 and 2020
Can you guess which symbols represent which sports from 1964? Go to the end for answers.

A picture, they say, tells a thousand words. You could also say, it tells it in a thousand languages as well.

In 1964, as organizers were preparing for the arrival of tens of thousands of foreigners for the Tokyo Olympics, the Japanese were concerned with how to direct people to the right places and the right events with the least amount of error, particularly in a country where foreign language proficiency was poor.

The decision was to use symbols to show people where various places were, like the toilets, the water fountain, first aid and the phone. Symbols were also used to identify the 20+ sporting events on the schedule for the Tokyo Olympics. Due to this particular cultural concern, the 18th Olympiad in Japan was the first time that pictograms were specifically designed for the Games.

Over 50 years later, the symbols have become de rigeur for presentation in Olympic collaterols and signage.

Karate symbol_asahi shimbun Karate competitor Kiyou Shimizu poses in a similar manner as the karate kata pictogram in Tokyo’s Koto Ward on March 12. (Takuya Isayama)

On March 12, 2019, the day when officials announced that there were only 500 days to go to the commemcementof the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, they introduced the pictograms designed for the 2020 Games.

“I was thrilled with being able to participate in the history of Olympics,” said Masaaki Hiromura in this Asahi Shimbun article, a Tokyo graphic designer who designed the pictograms for the 2020 Games. “I was able to make them in which we can be proud of as the country of origin that first made pictograms for the Games.”

At the top of the post is a comparison of the symbols designed by Yoshiro Yamashita in 1964 (in gray), and the symbols designed by Himomura (in blue).

For 2020, as you can see below, there are far more sporting events…which means far more tickets. Those tickets go on sale in April.

Tokyo 2020 pictograms 2019-03-12-pictograms-tokyo-thumbnail
Masaaki Hiromura: Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games pictograms

Answers to caption question: 1 – athletics; 2 – fencing; 3 – wrestling; 4 – volleyball; 5 – canoeing; 6 – soccer; 7 – aquatics; 8 – weightlifting; 9 – artistic gymnastics; 10 – modern pentathlon; 11 – sailing; 12 – boxing; 13 – basketball; 14 – equestrian; 15 – rowing; 16 – hockey; 17 – archery; 18 – cycling; 19 – judo; 20 – shooting

Barkley and Wang on TNT set
Lin Wang and Charles Barkley on the TNT set

One of the best sports stories of 2018 is a story of an Odd Couple.

Gentler than the relationship of Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, more real than the bond between Melvin Dummar and Howard Hughes, was the friendship between a cat litter scientist in Muscatine, Iowa named Lin Wang, and one of the most famous basketball players on the planet, Charles Barkley.

The story told by Wang’s daughter, a journalist named Shirley Wang, set the internet world abuzz a few weeks ago with her feel-good story of how her father was in a hotel in Sacramento in 2014 when he spied Barkley at the empty bar, and then went up to say hi. What ensued was 6 hours of drinks and dinner, and a friendship that lasted four years, much to the mystery of Shirley’s family, and the bemusement of Barkley’s jet-setting friends.

Shirley Wang tells the story eloquently in this audio report for public radio called “My Dad’s Friendship with Charles Barkley.” Wang and Barkley texted each other. Wang would get invited onto the TNT set when Barkley was broadcasting. Barkley would sign Air Jordan and Air Max sneakers for Wang, which Wang would then send to his close friends on their birthdays.

Charles Barkley and Lin Wang selfie
Charles Barkley and Lin Wang selfie

But when Barkley’s mother passed away, Wang dropped everything, got on a plane, made his way to Leeds, Alabama, and attended the funeral. Here’s how Barkley explained the scene to Shirley on the phone last year: “You know, it was obviously a very difficult time. And the next thing I know, he shows up. Everybody’s like, ‘Who’s the Asian dude over there?’ I just started laughing. I said, ‘That’s my boy, Lin.’

Wang’s daughter, Shirley, had no idea who Barkley was, and humored her father who said he was friends with a big celebrity. To her, Barkley was not one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History, as her father would fondly note. No, at best he was a B-List celebrity. And as she learned when she was interviewed on a Slate sports podcast, Barkley did not have the best of reputations as a player.

In his hey day, the “Round Mound of Rebound,” as he was known, the 6ft 6 (198cm) and 250 lb (113 kg) Charles Barkley was a loud-mouth, elbow-swinging, rim-shaking Mack Truck on the basketball court, who was an 11-time NBA All Star for the Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns and Houston Rockets.

A member of the US men’s basketball team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, aka The Dream Team, he was labeled the Ugly American for elbowing a slight Angolan player in the chest for little apparent reason. “Next time, maybe I should pick on a fat guy,” he said flippantly after the game.

In defense of friends sitting with him at a bar, he stood up to a guy who was said to throw ice at him and his friends. Barkley chased the 20-year-old man down, picked him up and threw him through the window of the Orlando, Florida bar.  “For all I care, you can lay there and die,” Barkley was quoted as saying as he left the scene.

And in his current role as commentator on the NBA, TNT and their viewers love the unfiltered opinions and clownish antics of Charles Barkley.

Wang, on the other hand, was a quiet cheerful guy, “everybody’s suburban dad”, as his daughter would put it. But Barkley and Wang found a deep common bond, as she explained on the Slate podcast.

To me, they were kindred spirits. They had a chance encounter and they decided to act and follow through on that friendship to exchange numbers and continue talking. I don’t think a lot of people would sense that connection with other people. They wouldn’t go out of their way for other people. I think my dad could feel the gravity of a moment and he could be very convicted about what he needed to do. He felt really convicted about his feelings and his friendships so I guess that’s why he jetted off. It was confusing to us at the time. We didn’t really understand why.”

It really surprised me that he thought about our similar racialized experiences in the US. And of course they were very different. My dad came  with a visa to study for a PhD. He was already on a path set for success, or financial stability. Whereas Charley comes from a lower income family in the South of the US. It was really interesting that they made that connection. But I do think that they come from a very specific generation where that is the belief – the American dream. They can both build themselves up. Anyone can succeed if they work hard enough.

Shirley Wang and Lin Wang
Shirley Wang and Lin Wang

In May of 2016, Lin Wang was diagnosed with cancer, a fact he hid for a long time from friends, including Barkley. And in June of 2018, Wang passed away. And as the guests began to settle in to the funeral taking place in Iowa City, Iowa, Shirley looked behind her. “Standing there — drenched in sweat from the Iowa summer, towering over everyone in the room at 6 feet, 6 inches tall — was Charles Barkley.”

Alone, slightly panicked, disoriented in a town he had never been with people at a funeral he had never met, but gracious and humble, Barkley was true to the spirit of his friendship with Wang – authentic.

In her phone interview, Shirley asked Barkley what they talked about. He replied they talked primarily about their kids, and that Wang talked about his son and daughter a lot. And Barkley, to the surprise of the world, dispensed insight into the parental mind that melted hearts:

“Hey, listen. You stay in touch. Please tell your mom I said hello. Give her a big kiss. Tell your brother I said hello. And listen: Just keep doing you. It’s your time now. Don’t forget that. That’s the most important thing. Your dad prepared you to take care of yourself. He prepared you for that. I was blessed to know him — and know you, too.”

“Thank you for your time,” I said.

“You’re welcome, baby. You take it easy, you hear?”

“You too.”

I know how much his friendship with Charles Barkley meant to my dad. It was not just a relationship with a celebrity — it shed light on the possibilities of this world. A world where someone like him could just say something cool, something charming, and befriend someone like Charles Barkley.