Construction of the National Gymnasium_AP

It’s already a year behind schedule.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chinese Cultural Minister Luo Shugang Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and South Korean Culture, Sports, and Tourism Minister Do Jong-hwan
Chinese Cultural Minister Luo Shugang Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and South Korean Culture, Sports, and Tourism Minister Do Jong-hwan

Think about it. The next three Olympic Games will be held in Asia:

  • 2018 Winter Olympics: PyeongChang, South Korea
  • 2020 Summer Olympics: Tokyo, Japan
  • 2022 Winter Olympics: Beijing, China

In the history of the modern Olympiad, the majority of host cities selected for both Summer and Olympic Games have been in Europe. In the period of 1896 to 1952, only three of the first 20 Olympiads were held outside Europe, the others in the USA. From 1956 to 2016, the diversity of host cities improved, with only 50% of the Olympiads held in Europe.

But for the first time, three Olympiads in a row will be held in Asia. In the world of diplomacy, that smells like opportunity. So when the culture ministers of Japan, China and South Korea met in Kyoto for their annual meeting of minds in August, 2017, they announced that they will organize joint events to spread the depth and beauty of East Asian culture within the three countries in connection to the upcoming Olympiads in Asia.

While the specifics of the plan are to be determined by an “experts’ body” to be set up, it was agreed that five cities in each of the three countries would be identified as locales for these cultural exhibitions and exchanges. In fact, according to this Japan Today article, this is an expansion of an initiative called the Culture Cities of East Asia Program, that had started in 2014. China’s Changsha and South Korea’s Daegu are already hosting such events. Next year, Japan’s Kanazawa will be host.

Other areas of partnership cited in The Japan Times include:

  • Efforts to strengthen copyright protections for cultural products
  • Continued trilateral dialogue on preserving the intangible cultural heritage of all three countries.
  • Support of UNESCO’s International Research Center for Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Asia-Pacific Region, which works to protect, preserve and promote intangible culture such as traditional music, dance, performing arts and craftsmanship.

Examples of “intangible cultural heritage” in Japan would be noh, washoku (traditional Japanese food), and washi (traditional hand-made paper).

With so much geo-political tension in the region, exacerbated by the sabre-rattling of North Korea, there is a belief that diplomacy, through the promotion of the respective nations’ cultural heritage, can promote the cause of peace, according to Kyoto mayor, Daisaku Kadokawa.

The East Asian region shares a long history of exchanges. Here in Kyoto, you can see and feel the cultural elements of the region. The power of culture can help bring the region together, and lead to peace.

Isn’t it pretty to think so?

Ichinomiya Chiba Open
Ichinomiya Chiba Open

When surfing was selected as a new Olympic sport for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, enthusiasts wondered how organizers were going to keep score.

One of the challenges when organizing surfing competitions is to create the perception that everyone has a chance at similar size and types of waves. After all we can’t control the moon and the tides they create on the vast ocean waters. And so very quickly enthusiasts wondered whether the Olympics were going to introduce wave pools to the competition, large mechanical pools that create waves. In that manner, you can pretty much guarantee that competitors will get the same level of difficulty every time.

As it turns out, surfing at the Tokyo Olympics will be held out in the wild, on the waves of Tsurigasaki Beach in Chiba, Japan. Perhaps it’s because wave pools have not yet become a part of top-flight surfing competitions, that from a technological or even a surfing culture perspective, competitors are not yet ready for wave pools. But the president of the International Surfing Association (ISA), Fernando Aquerre, gave another, economic reason in this interview with Surfer.com:

The IOC does not want to build more “white elephants” – structures that have no use after the Olympics are over. The Olympics organizers want to focus on legacy, on building things that can be used by host cities after the games. As of now, there is no commercially sustainable wave pool. You can build a wave pool like Snowdonia, but nobody knows if that will be commercially sustainable over a period of time.

Snowdonia wave pool
Snowdonia wave pool

So how will the surfing competition be run in 2020?

  • First, there will be a total of 40 surfers allowed to compete, 20 men and 20 women.
  • Second, the event will be shortboarding only – no longboards or bodyboards.
  • Third, Aguerre said that they will be patient over the two-week Olympic competition to find the right two-day period to hold the surfing competition.

That last point is interesting because television will probably demand that surfing establish a set time in advance. But then again, the Olympics are also about putting “athletes first”.

“We’ll try to start it at the front end of the games, but we can wait to run it if the waves look better at the end,” Aguerre said. “We have ten years of wave history and wind conditions data to rely on. We’re very confident, and so are Tokyo and the IOC, that we’ll have reasonable waves of good quality.”

Additionally, Aguerre wants to make sure that the venue at Tsurigasaki Beach has the right vibe. “The IOC has asked us to to create a full-on beach scene at Chiba that will last the whole length of the Olympics,” he said. “It will include the surf events of course, but also organic food, yoga in the morning—it will be a place where you want to hang out. There might be a skate ramp — maybe it will be like what you see at the U.S. Open. It’s never been done before at the Olympics.”

Tsurigasaki Beach Aerial View
Aerial View of Tsurigasaki Beach

I’m not a surfer, but when I think of places to surf in Japan, I think of Shonan Beach in Kanagawa Prefecture, or the islands of Okinawa. After all, it was the American soldiers based in those areas since the Japanese occupation of the late 1940s and early 1950s who introduced surfing to the Japanese, sparking a fascination for Hawaii, the American beach culture, and how to ride the waves with a board.

But when the Olympics return to Tokyo in 2020, all surfing eyes will turn to Chiba. Last year, surfing was voted in as a new Olympic sport for 2020, and Tsurigasaki Beach in Chiba was selected as the venue. Located about 90 minutes east from Tokyo in the city of Ichinomiya, Tsurigasaki Beach has become the go-to place to catch waves in the Kanto region.

In this survey of the best surf spots in Japan, JapanSurf.com ranked Chiba as having the best quality waves in the country. “Consistent, powerful beach breaks and thundering reefs make this area a mecca among surfers in Japan.” The Mainichi Daily News explained that surfers enjoy a “consistent flow of waves toward the shore from three different directions, namely northeast, east and southeast.”

Ichinomiya surfing alamy

Even more interestingly, the Mainichi article states that surfing has been responsible for a phenomenon unseen for decades in Japan – a small town that is actually growing in population.

Ever since the 1980s, people wanting to surf all year round have been moving to the town, and since the 2000s, numerous surfing shops, restaurants and new homes have emerged along prefectural Route 30, which runs parallel to the Pacific coast. As a result, the area has taken on an atmosphere of a “tropical island” bustling with youngsters, attracting what is believed to be about 600,000 visitors a year.

According to the article, the town of Ichinomiya has grown to 12,400 at the beginning of 2017, in a country where both the rapidly aging population and the desire of the youth to work in the big cities has shrunk the populations of cities and towns that are not named Tokyo or Osaka.

The Japanese love for surfing has revitalized Ichinomiya. And as planning continues to bring the biggest beach party in the world to Tsurigasaki Beach, ambitions climb. “We want to spread the name and culture of Ichinomiya across the world,” said Ichinomiya mayor, Masaya Mabuchi.

Map to Ichinomiya Tsurigasaki Beach
Map to Ichinomiya Tsurigasaki Beach
Duke Kahanamoku
Duke Kahanamoku

Surfing is coming to the Olympics in 2020.

But the seed of the idea of surfing as an Olympic sport was planted, apparently, in 1912 by the Johnny Appleseed of surfing, Duke Kahanamoku.

According to the International Surfing Association (ISA), the swimming legend who won three golds and two silvers across three Olympics and 13 years, Kahanamoku “first presented his dream at the 1912 Summer Olympic Games in Stockholm, where he expressed his wish to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to see Surfing included in the Games.”

Fernando Aguerre

In fact, this little historical footnote was the inspiration for the current head of the ISA, president, Fernando Aquerre. The surfer from Argentina was newly elected to the ISA in 1994, and according to Olympic.org, he had a dream to get surfing into the Olympics. In fact, Aguerre met Juan Antonio Samaranch, in 1995, part of his pitch was to give the then 75-year-old president of the IOC a surfing lesson in his office.

Unfortunately for Aguerre, what was true in 1912 was also true in 1995 – the IOC was not ready to hang ten.

“We had paddled out but there were no waves,” Aguerre said (in reference to his meeting with the IOC). “We kind of figured out that waves were going to come at some point but we didn’t really know when they were going to come because they were out of our control.”

Still president of the ISA, and still hanging on to his dream, Aguerre opened up his options by connecting with Thomas Bach in 2013, who was a candidate to become the head of the IOC. And by this time, Aguerre was more able to lay out a vision for why surfing needed to be in the Olympics – the need to attract youth to the movement with the rise of action sports. Bach, who was elected to head the IOC that year, made the attraction and retention of youth to the Olympic Games part of his platform.

Surfing has grown significantly in popularity over the recent decades. There were only 32 member countries of the ISA in 1995, but now there 100. So when surfing was submitted to the IOC in September 2015 as a part of a shortlist of new events for Tokyo 2020, primarily driven by youth-oriented action sports like skateboarding and sport climbing, surfing finally caught a wave. In August, 2016, the IOC voted surfing into the Olympics.

Come July 2020, if you want to watch the first Olympians set Olympic records with every top score in surfing, then plan to bake on the hot sands of Tsurigasaki Beach in Chiba, Japan. That is where the surfing world, Barney and pro alike, will gather.

Surfing Hokusai waves olympic rings

japan ewaste
Japan’s Urban Mines – it’s electronic waste

It’s estimated that to make all of the gold, silver and bronze medals to provide to all the expected top three winners of all Olympic events, the manufacturer would need 9.6 kilograms of gold, 1,210 kilograms of silver, and another 700 kilograms of copper, which is the main component of bronze.

it is the goal of the Tokyo 2020 organizers to award athletes at the 2020 Games with medals created from 100% recycled materials. Instead of resource-poor Japan buying from the reserves and mines of other countries, the nation will mine its own growing stash of hidden resources – its urban mines.

An urban mine is a metaphor for all of the electronic goods a rich society buys, consumes and throws away, which also house a collectively massive amount of precious or rare elements. By that definition, Japan is loaded, according to this research from 2009:

A considerable amount of metal was estimated to be accumulated in Japan. The accumulation amount of gold and silver is 6,800 tons and 60,000 tons respectively. They are greater than the reserves of richest resource-possessing country, South Africa for gold and Poland for silver.

To uncover the riches stored in our electronic waste, Tokyo 2020, the Japanese Government and wireless provider NTT-DoCoMo, among a variety of public-private partners, kicked off a campaign in April to collect used and unneeded smartphones, PCs, displays, digital cameras, PC displays, MP3 players, handheld video game players, or calculators.

Takeshi Matsuda donating phone for recycling at an NTT-DoCoMo outlet
Olympic swimmer Takeshi Matsuda donating phone for recycling at an NTT-DoCoMo outlet

According to Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto, about 500,000 mobile phones have already been collected, which is a good start. “This is not enough to make all the medals,” he admitted, “but we still have a lot of leeway because some people outside Tokyo still are not aware of the program. There is a lack of recognition, so we have much more work to do in creating excitement and being even more creative to have wise ways to collect these metals.”

Japan can do this now because they had set up the process four years before, when the government passed The Act on Promotion of Recycling Small Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment. The government was then able to certify 45 recycling operators nationally to receive small electric and electronic devices collected by local governments and then to sort, dismantle and send them to smelters to recover metals. According to this report from Japan for Sustainability, in the first year of this project,

a total of 13,236 tons of small electric and electronic devices were sent to certified operators. Some had been collected by municipalities across the nation (9,772 tons) and others had been brought directly to the operators by citizens and companies. They broke the devices down into their parts and sorted them, sending 8,582 tons to the smelters. Among the metals extracted from them, iron accounted for the largest portion in weight (6,599 tons), followed by aluminum (505 tons) and copper (381 tons). Extracted precious metals including gold and silver amounted to 494 kilograms.

Amazing.

If you are interested in contributing to the production of the first Olympic medals molded from metals recycled from Japan’s massive urban mines, then gather those unneeded phones and small electronic devices and donate them to the cause. Take your mobile phones and tablets to your local NTT-DoCoMo store, or follow these instructions if you want to send your PC and other larger items for recycling. (Yes, this applies to people living in Japan only, and unfortunately the instructions are in Japanese only.)

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

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

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

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

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

The government is considering a few options:

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

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

National Holidays in Japan

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

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

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

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