On a day when Osaka had 1,161 infections, it’s fifth day in a row over 1,000, skaters from six nations competed in that city at the Maruzen Intec Arena.
On April 15, 2021, the first day of the four-day ISU World Team Trophy in Figure Skating, 48 skaters from six nations, along with coaches, team staff, referees and tournament staff all tested negative for coronavirus, allowing them to enter the competition bubble and perform in front of a live audience.
On Saturday night April 17, Team Russia won the competition, with Team USA and Team Japan finishing second and third. As the International Skating Union (ISU) determined that this event would have Beijing Olympic implications, some of the world’s best figure skaters came to Osaka, including potential 2022 individual gold medalists, Nathan Chen of the USA and Anna Shcherbakova of Russia.
In November 2020, Skate Canada expressed concern about competing in Japan as they wondered if COVID-19 protocols were sufficient enough. In the end, teams from Canada, Italy and France joined Russia, America and Japan in the ISU bubble.
The Maruzen Intec Arena seats about 10,000 people. Watching the event on TV Asahi one could estimate that attendance was probably less than a thousand, with spectators sitting every other seat, with no one in front or behind.
With fewer than 100 days to go, this is the first major example of an international sporting event taking place this year in Japan with spectators, more evidence that Tokyo2020 will likely happen this summer.
Tokyo2020 taketh, and Tokyo2020 giveth. My prayers were answered.
On March 20, the Japanese government announced that it would strictly limit overseas spectators to Tokyo2020. The authorized ticket reseller, CoSport USA, immediately informed paid customers that they would refund all tickets.
All my Tokyo2020 Olympic tickets were purchased through CoSport. Even though I live in Japan, my tickets were suddenly gone, as I wrote earlier.
But then, on April 6, I woke up to this surprising email message from Co-Sport: “We have recently received confirmation from the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee that we can allow you to keep your tickets if you so choose.”
“Please note that we cannot be responsible for your travel to/from Japan as a result of the foreign spectator ban but we would also like to help accommodate your needs/plans based on your previous purchase(s).”
Well, I’m already in Tokyo. And I suppose there was feedback to Tokyo2020 of many others who were already in Japan, or who would be able to transfer them to people they know in Japan.
Then on April 9, I was informed by Tokyo2020 that the tickets I had won in the Paralympic ticket lottery would be delivered in late June.
Anything can happen. The 4th wave of the pandemic hitting the world, including Japan, could turn into a tsunami that alarms the most tunnel-visioned Olympians, and the Games could still end up cancelled.
But as of today, the political will to stage the Olympics and Paralympics is strong.
And I don’t mind.
I’ve got tickets. And if all is reasonably safe and sound, I will be there cheering (silently), smiling (behind a mask), and high fiving (the air).
The men’s and women’s 10,000 meter finals! The men’s 100 meter sprint finals! The women’s 100m hurdles final! The men’s long jump final! The men’s 4X100 relay sprint finals!
The debut of karate! The women’s basketball gold medal game! The men’s basketball gold medal game!
Volleyball! 3X3 basketball! Wrestling!
And tickets to the coveted Closing Ceremonies!
Despite Covid, Tokyo2020 was going to happen and I had tickets to some of the most anticipated moments of these Games.
And then, suddenly, I didn’t.
When the IOC and Tokyo2020 organizers announced on March 20 that overseas spectators would not be allowed to attend the Games, I was immediately saddened, of course for the parents and supporters of athletes who could not witness the accomplishments of their Olympians, but also because I might not be able to either.
I was unable to secure tickets to the Olympics during the lotteries held in Japan, but I was able to purchase them through the American authorized ticket reseller (ATR), Co-Sport. I held out hope that as a foreigner already living in Japan that I would be given the option to use my tickets.
But alas, that would not be possible. As I was informed this morning in an email from Co-Sport, my ticket order will be made invalid automatically. “Whether you choose to complete and submit the refund form, all ticket orders will be cancelled as a result of the international spectator ban imposed by the Japanese Government.”
To make matters worse, I likely won’t see a refund for many months, and I will not be reimbursed for the Co-Sport handling fees, which total about a thousand dollars in my case.
Any More Tickets?
So, I wondered, will any more tickets be sold to people living in Japan. At the Tokyo2020 lotteries in 2019, about 4.45 million tickets were sold to residents of Japan for the Olympiad, while an additional 600,000 were sold overseas through ATRs, which is how I got my tickets.
When Tokyo 2020 was postponed, residents in Japan were given the opportunity to ask for refunds, and 18% of tickets were cancelled as a result. Thus, there are now 3.6 million seats for the Olympics reserved for those in Japan.
As I understand it, organizers estimated a couple of years ago that approximately 7.8 million tickets would be made available for the Tokyo Olympics, although that could be closer to 9 million.
Based on those numbers, there should be another 3 to 4 million tickets that need to be accounted for. A chunk of that was likely targeted for sponsors, organizers, sports federations and other assorted affiliated support groups. But since now there is a mandate to limit the number of overseas visitors to people essential to the operations of the Games, many of those people will not be coming.
So what will happen to all those tickets? It’s not clear yet.
Under the current conditions of the pandemic in Japan, it is unlikely that spectators will be banned from the Olympic and Paralympic venues, but it is likely they will be limited. The organizers will probably want to avoid disappointing ticket holders in Japan as much as possible. Ideally, they honor all 3.6 million tickets already purchased in Japan, which is about 45% of the total number of tickets expected to be available.
Currently, Japan has a restriction of a maximum of 10,000 spectators for baseball games in the coming Nippon Professional Baseball season. Will organizers be willing to relax restrictions for the Olympics and allow upwards of 45% attendance?
If they don’t relax those restrictions, then the organizers will also have to cancel and refund a certain number of tickets, maybe millions of tickets if they need to get to 20 or 30% of venue capacity.
This is an educated guess, and not one I like to make, but it’s likely that new tickets will not be issued.
B-29s were buzzing above as fire fell from the sky. Kikujima Koji, 13, was holding the hand of his 8-year-old sister, Harue, his parents standing paralyzed as panicked residents crossed the bridge from both directions trying to escape the fires all around them. Koji decided he needed to act, and continued to cross the Sumida River to Mukojima.
That was the last time Koji saw his parents as he dragged his sister over other people to cross the bridge. It was past midnight on Saturday, March 10, 1945, and the temperature before the American bombers appeared was icy cold. But when the hundreds of B-29 Superfortress bombers began their two-and-a-half hour campaign on the Eastern part of Tokyo between the Sumida and Arakawa rivers, the air was searingly hot, as Koji relayed to the writer, Saotome Katsumoto in his book “The Great Tokyo Air Raid (東京大空襲―昭和20年3月10日の記録).”
In the intense heat, my clothes quickly became bone dry and my eyes were burning. Drenching ourselves again and again with water from the roadside and crouching low, we crawled forward until we reached Kinshi Park. We made our way to a water storage tank in the park.
I soaked my gloves in the water and used them to beat off the sparks on our clothes. Brushing off the sparks, warding off smoke, and covering our hands and mouth with the wet gloves, we somehow made it through to the morning. Many of the trees around us were burned, but Harue and I had survived. We looked at each other and breathed a sigh of relief. My school coat was full of holes made by the sparks, my trousers were in shreds, and Harue’s feet were bare.
Kinshi Park in Kinshicho
As night turned to early morning, Koji and Harue saw charred bodies everywhere, “naked mannequins painted with black ink.” Over the next few days, bodies from all over the neighborhood were carted to Kinshi Park, where over 13,000 bodies were buried in mass graves (until they were moved to more formal burial plots later that year). In fact, parks all over that part of Tokyo were suddenly requisitioned for the immediate burial of the dead.
I know Kinshi Park. When I joined a company in 2016, my office was in Olinas Tower, which is situated across the street from Kinshi Park. I’ve taken many pictures of cherry blossoms there. Families descend on Kinshi Park on the weekends. On any given day, Kinshi Park is a celebration of family and friends.
I never suspected its past was cloaked in unspeakable tragedy.
In fact, Kinshicho was at the center of what is commonly called the single most destructive bombing raid in human history. It is estimated that about 100,000 people died that day in Tokyo.
In 1945, Olinas Tower and the Olinas Mall next to it did not exist. At that time, the watchmaker Seiko had a factory, a solid three-story cement structure that stretched the length of Kinshi Park across the street. This factory was built after the one before it was felled by the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923, and was torn down in 1997.
In 1945, Seiko was making munition parts, and because of its prominent size, may have been a target of the B-29 bombers. But that entire area, today lovingly called “shita-machi,” (a nostalgic way of calling the area “downtown”), was filled with small family-run shops that were making parts for the larger manufacturers feeding the war effort.
Trying to discriminate between civilian areas and war industry in the midst of downtown Tokyo was a challenge from 20,000 feet in the sky. So Major General Curtis LeMay asked the simple question – why try?
LeMay and the Perfect Storm
In the summer of 1944, the United States Navy won critical battles against the Japanese Navy to control three islands in the Marianas: Saipan, Tinian and Guam. The strategic importance of these islands was huge as they immediately put Japan in range of a new American bomber. The B-29 Super Fortress could fly for about 3,500 miles, which was just right since the Marianas were about 1,500 miles south of Tokyo. A B-29 could carry 4 tons of bombs to Tokyo and still have enough fuel to make the return back.
In late 1944, after the American military very quickly built massive air bases and runways on the three islands, the B-29s started to make sorties to knock out factories and disrupt Japan’s war production. But as Malcolm Gladwell explains in this fascinating podcast about napalm, LeMay and the firebomb attacks on Tokyo, the initial attempts to knock out Japan’s war production failed.
The philosophy at that time was to use precision bombing to blow up military targets and Major General Haywood Hansell stuck to that philosophy. In order to hit a military target, you had to see it. That meant his bombers flew during the day time. But to avoid Japanese fighters and anti-aircraft artillery, that also meant flying high in the sky, at least 20,000 feet in the air.
At the end of 1944, a major target was Nakajima Aircraft, which built fighter planes (but today builds Subaru cars). But no matter how hard the pilots tried, they did little damage to the factory in Western Tokyo.
When LeMay replaced Hansell, the philosophy was flipped. We’re simply too high up in the sky for precision bombing, reasoned LeMay. And the goal is to win the war, which can be accelerated by increasing the level of intimidation through indiscriminate bombing. LeMay decided to fly lower, around 7,000 feet. But since that was within range of anti-military craft and fighter planes, he decided also to fly at night.
He targeted the eastern part of Tokyo – shitamachi – as it was the most densely populated area speckled with small to medium size manufactures. And he decided to drop incendiary bombs, the napalm bomb, freshly developed in the research halls of Harvard University, to maximize its destructive impact. Tokyo homes and buildings were composed primarily of wood. And because March was known as the windiest month in Japan, the expectations were that the wind would spread the fires ignited by the napalm bombs and thus widen the destruction beyond the drop areas.
If ever a plan came to fruition, it was on March 10, 1945. Two hundred and seventy nine B-29s dropped 609,000 pounds of incendiary bombs, burning to the ground fifteen square miles of Tokyo. As historian Edward E Gordon explained in his talk entitled “Fireball in the Night: The Bombing of Japan, 1944-45,”
The Red Wind (as it was called in Japanese) drove temperatures upwards of 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, creating a super-heated vapor that advanced ahead of the flames, and killed or incapacitated the victims. The mechanisms of death were multiple and simultaneous: oxygen deprivation, carbon monoxide poisoning, radiant heat, direct flames and debris, and trampling crowds.
Saotome Katsumoto wrote these words as an adult, remembering the feelings of helplessness he had as a 12-year-old boy.
In every direction – east, west, south and north – the dark sky was scorched with crimson flames. The steady roar of the B-29s’ engines overhead was punctuated by piercing screeches followed by cascading sounds like sudden showers. With each explosion, a flash of light darted behind my eyelids. The ground shook. Flames appeared one after another. As our neighbors looked outside their air raid shelters defiantly holding their bamboo fire brooms, they cursed when they saw how fiercely the fires were burning. They were helpless against the raging flames. Fire trucks, sirens wailing, were already speeding toward the fires, but what could they do in this gusting wind and intensive bombardment? Even in the eyes of a child, the situation seemed hopeless.
Saotome Katsumoto and The Center of the Tokyo Raids and War Damage
It was June 13,1967 and Katsumoto read an article in the Mainichi Shimbun that brought back a flood of memories of that horrible morning of March 10, 1945. In the midst of repair work to tracks of the subway station Monzen-nakacho, construction workers uncovered the grisly remains of an air raid shelter 15 meters below the surface. The workers found the huddled remains of four adults and two children, evidence of burn marks on the bones.
A man named Tszuzuki Shizuo identified the deceased as his wife, daughter, mother in law, her two other daughters and a grandchild. An established author who had already penned 7 books, Katsumoto felt compelled to interview Tsuzuki, who declined. Undeterred, Katsumoto went on to interview victims of the Tokyo firebombings and publish in 1971 the book, “The Great Tokyo Air Raid.” In the introduction, he wrote:
I was turned away at the door many times, and not one of those who agreed to be interviewed was calm or composed. As if on cue, they all broke down during their accounts and, sitting there with my pen in hand, I was unable to look up at them. The scars are still deep. These wounds will never heal as long as they live. For them the “postwar” period will never end.
Katsumoto understood that despite the pain of remembrances past, revisiting this time and place was critical to our future. “However painful it might be, confronting people’s actual experience of war will surely help to build a firm foothold for peace.”
On March 9, 2002, The Center of the Tokyo Air Raids and War Damage opened, its location in Koto-ku very much a part of flattened, rubble-strewn aftermath of March 10, 1945, its appointed director, Mr Saotome Katsumoto, a keeper of memories.
Take a walk along the Yokojikken River from Sumiyoshi Station and visit The Center.
It was June 26, 2003 and Seiko Hashimoto, a junior member of Japan’s leading political party, was on a panel with then former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who said this, according to AP:
Welfare is supposed to take care of and reward those women who have lots of children. It is truly strange to say we have to use tax money to take care of women who don’t even give birth once, who grow old living their lives selfishly and singing the praises of freedom.
Eighteen years later, Mori made another derogatory statement about women, but this time it led to his reluctant resignation from the presidency of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee.
His successor is Seiko Hashimoto.
An independent succession committee made up primarily of former Japanese Olympians and Paralympians and led by the well-respected chairman and CEO of Canon, Fujio Mitarai honed very quickly on one candidate – the Olympic speedskater and cyclist from Hayakita, Hokkaido. It’s hard to argue that anyone else in Japan has had more Olympic experience or embodies the Olympic spirit than Hashimoto.
Born on October 5, 1964, 5 days before the start of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Hashimoto was given the name Seiko, a play on the Japanese characters for the word “seika,” or Olympic flame. Hashimoto started her Olympic career at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics, and competed as a speed skater in the 1988, 1992 and 1994 Winter Games, winning a bronze medal in the 1500 meter speedskating finals in Albertville. More incredibly, Hashimoto competed as a cyclist at the 1988, 1992 and 1996 Summer Olympics.
That’s 7 Olympiads in 12 years! If there is one reason the Japanese press have started calling her the Iron Lady, it was her ability to persistently and intensely train at high performance levels. Her Olympic run is unprecedented and frankly, astounding.
Hashimoto would go on to become the head of the Japanese Olympic team delegation, or the chef de mission at the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics, and then the first female to lead a Japan delegation at a Summer Olympics when she was appointed chef de mission at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
There is no rest in Hashimoto. Following her appearance in the 1994 Albertville Olympics, bronze medal in hand, she competed for a seat in the upper house of the Japanese Parliament in 1995, and won. While learning the ropes as a rookie politician, every day she trained for her final Olympics from 3am and worked at the Diet building from 8am. She was likely the only elected official competing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and certainly a first such double-hatter for Japan.
When Hashimoto gave birth to a daughter in 2000, she was first upper house legislator in Japan to give birth to a child while in office. As Hashimoto would have to rely on staff to watch over her daughter, she saw that others had a similar need, and would go on to establish a child care facility in the basement of a then newly built Second House of the House of Representatives. Not only lawmakers and staff could use the facilities, but also residents in the neighborhood of Nagatacho’s newest nursery.
Upon accepting the request of the selection committee to assume the role of President of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee, Hashimoto resigned from her cabinet level position as Minister of State for Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. She had to resign from her government role for legal as well as ethical reasons. But there will likely be whispers of undue influence by the former president of the committee, Yoshiro Mori.
Mori, who was Japan’s prime minister from April 2000 to April 2001, has been for a long time a mentor and supporter of Hashimoto’s political career. Hashimoto has often publicly referred to Mori as “father,” and likewise, Mori has referred to Hashimoto as “daughter.”
Additionally, Hashimoto has been, ironically, accused of sexual harassment, primarily due to a public incident where Hashimoto may have had too much to drink at a celebration one evening at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and where, on camera, Hashimoto repeatedly kissed Japan figure skater Daisuke Takahashi.
But clearly, the biggest challenge is leading the organization that is expected to successfully run the Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics, amidst the uncertainty of a global pandemic, with only 5 months to go. The day before Hashimoto assumed leadership, the governor of Shimane prefecture, explained with emotion in his voice about the frustration with the response to the COVID-19 crisis by the Japanese central government as well as the Tokyo2020 organizers. He even expressed the possibility of cancelling the Shimane portion of the Olympic torch relay, scheduled for mid May.
“It’s difficult to cooperate with the holding of the Tokyo Olympics and the torch relay,” said governor Tatsuya Maruyama. “I want to make the decision (to cancel the torch relay) based on whether or not the response of the central government and the Tokyo government to the coronavirus improves.”
So Hashimoto has a mountain to climb. But if anyone has the energy and determination needed, the Iron Lady from Hokkaido does.
On February 12, 2021, the president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee, Yoshiro Mori, announced his resignation, after making sexist comments during a board meeting of the Japan Olympic Committee. Since that day, the press has been speculating about who the best successor would be. After Mori attempted to appoint Saburo Kawabuchi, a man similar in age and temperament to the post, the criticism was immediate. The CEO of Tokyo 2020 quickly announced that the president of the organizing committee had not been selected, and that a selection committee would be formed to pick the best person.
The television news shows have had a field day throwing out names, based on such criteria as gender, age, Olympic experience, sports administration experience, political savvy or even business savvy. Here is a list of candidates compiled from news programs from two Japanese television stations: TBS and TV Asahi.
Shizuka Arakawa: Thanks to Shizuka Arakawa, all of Japan knows what an “Ina Bauer” is, a signature form that Arakawa displayed in the free program that led to her winning the gold medal in the Ladies’ Singles figure skating competition at the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics. The TV Asahi remarked that she has a sharp sports mind, has strong recognition overseas, and has no connections to Japanese politics. Young and female, Arakawa represents the opposite of Mori and Kawabuchi.
Seiko Hashimoto: An Olympian’s Olympian, Seiko Hashimoto appeared in 7 Olympiads, both Winter and Summer, as a speed skater and cyclist, from 1988 to 1996. That alone is a WOW! The native from Hokkaido, Hashimoto entered the world of politics when she was elected to the House of Councillors of Japan’s National Diet in 1995. She now serves in the cabinet of the current prime minister, Suga Yoshihide, as Minister of State for Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics. Can she leverage her compelling credentials as an Olympian, a woman in her prime, and as a politician to succeed Mori?
Mikako Kotani: Mikako Kotani took home two bronze medals in synchronized swimming at the 1988 Summer Olympics. Since then she has served on the Japanese Olympic Committee, and the IOC Athletes’ Commission, as well as the Association of the National Olympic Committees, among several local and international committees related to the Olympics. Kotani was Japan’s first female flag bearer at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Can you she become the first female head of the Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee?
Koji Murofushi: His mother was a Romanian javelin champion. His father was an Olympic hammer thrower for Japan. His sister competed in the discus and hammer as well. Koji Murofushi is from a family of powerful athletes, and won gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics, as well as bronze at the 2012 London Olympics in the hammer throw. He currently has one of the most challenging roles in the Tokyo Olympics organizing committee: Sports Director. He is also the current commission of the Japan Sports Agency. He’s got the build of Thor and the experience of Oden. Is he ready to step up?
Daichi Suzuki : Coming from behind in the final strokes, Daichi Suzuki won the gold medal in the 100 meter backstroke and became a legend in Japan sports swimming. Suzuki would go on to become a sports administrator, leading the Japan Swimming Federation before becoming the first commissioner of a new national sports government organization, called Japan Sports Agency. Suzuki was famous for swimming 20 or 30 meters underwater before breaking the water’s surface with his powerful backstrokes. Will he emerge from this vast talent pool as the winner of the Mori Sweepstakes?
Yasuhiro Yamashita: After tearing his right calf muscle in a semifinal judo match at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Yasuhiro Yamashita went on to win the gold medal in dramatic fashion, after being denied the opportunity when Japan chose to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Yamashita was appointed chairman of the Japanese Olympic Committee, replacing Tsunekazu Takeda, who became ensnarled in an alleged bribery scandal related to Tokyo’s winning bid for 2020. Will history repeat and Yamashita replace another leader embroiled in controversy?
Shinzo Abe: He appeared at the 2016 Rio Olympics dressed as one of the Mario Brothers. The two-time prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, left the leadership of Japan in August 2020, citing the need to recover from a recurring illness. If the role is more figure head than operations head, is it reasonable for one prime minister to succeed Yoshiro Mori, another former prime minister?
Tamayo Marukawa: Tamayo Marukawa is a former announcer for TV Asahi who started her political life after being elected to the House of Councillors of the Japanese National Diet in 2007. She served at the cabinet level as Minister in charge of the Toyo Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2016.
Hisako, Princess Takamado: She is the widow of Prince Takamado of Mikasa, who is the son of Prince Mikasa, the youngest of Emperor Taisho’s four sons. As members of the Japanese Royal Family, Prince Mikasa and Princess Takamado travelled the world extensively. They represented the government of Japan at the opening ceremony and games of the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea-Japan, which was the first time members of the Japanese Imperial Family set foot in South Korea since the Second World War. Princess Takamado has been a tireless supporter of sports organizations. Will she become the ultimate supporter of the ultimate sports organization in Japan?
Akio Toyoda: Akio Toyoda is the president of Toyota, one of the world’s biggest car companies and most famous brands. The grandson of Kiichiro Toyoda, the founder of Toyota Motors, Toyoda is perceived as an excellent communicator and resilient leader. Toyota is also one of the IOC’s biggest global sponsors, so he certainly understands the internal workings and governance of the Olympic and Paralympic eco-system. Will Toyoda take the driver’s seat in this lumbering sports vehicle lurching to the finish line?
February 12 Update: Less than 24 hours after the news of Saburo Kawabuchi’s expected succession to president of the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee, it was announced that no successor had been identified. According to the Japan Times, “Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto said during a news conference Friday evening that a ‘gender project team’ as well as a selection committee to pick Mori’s successor will be formed, though it’s unclear when a selection will be made. ‘We need to select a replacement as quickly as possible,’ Muto said.”
At an online meeting of the Japan Olympic Committee, Mori made a sexist comment in regards to the goal of increasing the JOC’s board directors to 40%. According to Asahi Shimbun, Mori said
A meeting of an executive board that includes many women would take time. Women are competitive. When someone raises his or her hand and speaks, they probably think they should speak, too. That is why they all end up making comments.
The protest was immediate and global. A former prime minister of Japan, Mori was criticized in the twitterverse for being out of step, too old, too domineering. A former member of the JOC called him the “don” of the Japan sports world because what he says, goes. So one might expect that Mori’s successor would appear markedly different.
In tandem with the news of Mori’s resignation, it was revealed that his successor would be Saburo Kawabuchi.
Kawabuchi is indeed a legend in the world of Japan sports. The Osaka native and Waseda University graduate, Kawabuchi, played football at Furukawa Electric from 1965 to 1970 in the early days of the Japan Soccer League. He was a member of the national soccer team representing Japan at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, where he scored the go-ahead goal that led to the defeat of Argentina at Komazawa Stadium, and advanced Team Japan to the quarter finals.
He went on to become the head coach of the Japan national football team in 1980. But more significantly, he established the Japan Soccer League, aka J-League, Japan’s first professional soccer league, and was the first chairman of the league, where he served until 2002.
And when FIBA, the international governing board of basketball, expressed great displeasure that the two basketball leagues in Japan, the National Basketball League and the BJ-League, were at each other’s throats and refused to come together, they called on Kawabuchi to head the taskforce that would lead to the creation of a single league – the B. League.
In other words, Kawabuchi was the leader at the birth of not one, but two professional sports leagues in Japan.
It’s hard to argue with his qualifications to run the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee. It’s the optics that may be a bit concerning.
Kawabuchi is 84, a year older than Mori. And Kawabuchi’s leadership style may appear to be similar to Mori’s – autocratic.
When FIBA barred Japan’s basketball governing association, the Japan Basketball Association, from allowing its team to participate in any international competition in November, 2014, there was great concern that Japan would not be able to get its act together so that a national team could compete at the Tokyo2020 Olympics, even with a free pass as the host country.
Kawabuchi entered the scene and essentially manhandled the relevant parties into an agreement to merge and create the B. League. As this 2015 Japan Times article explained, Kawabuchi doesn’t mind that telling people it’s my way or the highway.
Kawabuchi is often described as an autocrat for arbitrarily making decisions for the J. League and JFA, but he doesn’t care. He does what he believes is right.
“I’m fine being called that,” Kawabuchi said with a grin. “If I’m called an autocrat, I tell them I am. I’m like, ‘What’s wrong with that? Tell me if I’ve done anything wrong being an autocrat.’ ”
To Kawabuchi, an autocracy is equivalent to strong leadership, and Japanese sports needs more of that. He added that proposals supported by the majority tend to be accepted as the best ideas in Japan, but he strongly disagrees with this viewpoint.
“If you think you’ll have the best idea by gathering more opinions, that’s a big mistake. That’s not my way,” Kawabuchi said. “Regarding (Japan’s basketball reform), if they say that Kawabuchi set the vision by himself, let them say so.”
To be fair, it is unclear what Kawabuchi’s attitude is towards women. And as the head of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee, he certainly has a challenge in front of him, with only a little over 5 months to go before the opening ceremonies on July 23.
But people will be watching him, perhaps unfairly, with a cynical eye.
Meet the new boss. Hopefully, not the same as the old boss.
Organizers of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics, scheduled to commence on July 23 and August 24, 2021 respectively, are working, not under the question of “whether,” but “how” the Olympics will take place.
There are four basic scenarios:
The Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics are cancelled because the pandemic continues to create unsafe conditions for athletes and organizers alike.
Tokyo2020 takes place without spectators so that the Games can be broadcasted globally.
Tokyo2020 takes place with spectators in limited numbers.
Tokyo2020 takes place to capacity crowds.
In a recent survey by Kyodo News, 80% of people in Japan believe the first scenario is the likeliest, responding that the Olympics and Paralympics should be postponed again or cancelled.
In contrast, 60% of Japanese firms in an NHK survey showed support for holding the Tokyo Olympics. They believe that the Games can help the Japanese economy recover from the devastating effects of COVID-19.
The IOC and IPC are also betting on the Games. And their plans are taking into account the second and third scenarios.
If testing is considered reliable, then athletes who test negative will be allowed to come to Japan, and at a bare minimum, the Olympics and Paralympics can be broadcasted around the world. As a result, billions of dollars in global broadcasting rights will be paid to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which in turn will financially support the Olympic ecosystem of national Olympic committees and international sports federations.
Money makes the world go round. With so much investment already sunk, not just by the IOC, the Japanese government and businesses but also athletes, the political will to hold Tokyo2020 is immensely strong.
“We will do whatever is needed to organize a safe Olympic Games,” said Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee.
“We definitely should push forward as that is the only option for us,” said Yoshiro Mori, president of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee.
Former IOC Vice President, Dick Pound, recently said “nobody can guarantee the Olympics will open on July 23. But I think there’s a very, very, good chance that they can, and that they will.” While Pound said that the Games will likely happen, having fans in the stands is a choice. “The question is — is this a `must-have’ or `nice-to-have.’ It’s nice to have spectators. But it’s not a must-have,” Pound said.
And yet, even if the conditions of the pandemic around the world remain the same, and especially if the vaccine has an impact on the spread of COVID-19, I believe the likelihood of spectators in the stands is high.
Orgy of Evidence
In what may have seemed surreal to many, we saw images of 4,000 people – without masks – packing a stadium in Adelaide, Australia on January 29 to watch exhibition tennis matches with Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal, a week prior to the start of the Australian Open.
But the truth of the matter is, sports is big business around the world, and we have seen seasons and championships take place across the biggest professional leagues last year.
In the midst of the pandemic in 2020, Europe crowned football champions in the Bundesliga, La Liga, Premier League, and Serie A. In tennis, Naomi Osaka won the US Open and Rafael Nadal won the French Open, while in golf, Dustin Johnson won the Masters. The Los Angeles Lakers were crowned NBA champions while the Tampa Bay Lightning won the NHL Stanley Cup.
And little by little, fans have been allowed to watch events in person in America, the country with the world’s highest coronavirus infection numbers.
Thousands of spectators watched the Los Angeles Dodgers win the 2020 World Series in Texas. American football fans were allowed into the stadiums of 19 NFL teams, including an average of around 15,000 for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jacksonville Jaguars, while the Dallas Cowboys hosted an average of 28,000 fans every home game. There will be over 20,000 fans attending the Super Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida on February 7. And a limited number of fans have been able to attend the games of 8 NBA teams this season.
At the end of November, 2020 in Japan, nearly 70,000 fans watched in person the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks defeat the Yomiuri Giants to win the Japan Series over four games, averaging over 17,000 fans per game.
And on November 8, Japan held an international competition at Yoyogi National Stadium. Gymnasts from four nations competed, including Japan, the US, China and Russia. The 30 gymnasts were joined by 2000 spectators, and the day went without incident. This was the first experiment with a mini-bubble for an international competition in Japan, as athletes were isolated on different floors in hotels.
The above is some of the orgy of evidence regarding the ability of sports organizations to hold events safely despite the ravages of the coronavirus. These cases and many others are providing mountains of data of how and how not to organize a live sporting event, data that will be used to create the protocols and processes to ensure a safe environment for Tokyo2020.
And with the hope and promise of the vaccines, the path to a safe Olympics and Paralympics becomes clearer.
Learning to Live with Coronavirus in Japan
It was Saturday, January 30. It was a beautiful day in Tokyo – blue skies, crisp air and loads of people out and about. In my walk through Rinshi no Mori Park that day, hundreds of parents and kids, all wearing masks, were enjoying the day, kids running soccer or baseball drills, parents throwing or kicking balls with their children, and many others running and strolling.
And they were also going to the movie theaters. I was surprised to learn last year that an animated film called “Demon Slayer,” broke the box office record for films in Japan. I hadn’t realized that movie theaters were letting people in. In fact, theaters were filled to capacity to see this film. Even as the popularity of the film begins to fade, I went online to see if people were still buying tickets for this film. I looked at the ticket purchase page for the movie theater near me: 109 Cinemas in Futago Tamagawa.
And as you can see in the image of theater seating, where the gray indicates a seat sold, Demon Slayer was still filling seats. In fact, there were several films that were showing good ticket sales that Saturday morning. Attendees must wear masks, but they are allowed to sit elbow to elbow with others. And if you’re on a date, that’s ideal. As you can see, the January 30, 2:45 PM showing of the film “Hanabata Mitai na Koi o Shita,” a story of young romance featuring two popular actors, was nearly filled 3 hours before the start of the film.
Despite the constant talk of concern about the virus in Japan, the Japanese themselves are learning to live with it. Many may not think that the Olympics and Paralympics should be held now, but as we approach the summer, and the inevitability sinks in, and the stories of the Japanese athletes preparing for the Games become more frequent, a buzz of excitement will build.
As it turned out, Harada (whose family name changed to Ikeda after marriage) simply didn’t have the athletic gifts to excel in track and field. And yet, the flame of high performance can be sparked in unexpected ways. Ikeda would go on to represent Japan at the 2004 Athens Olympics and the 2008 Beijing Olympics in individual épée fencing. Her life as an Olympian was 5 parts luck, and 5 parts determination.
Yamagata is as far from the world of fencing as you can get. But one day, a teacher in her high school came up to her and said, “You’re a tall one! You should try fencing!” Ikeda knew nothing about fencing. But she thought she’d give it a try, and so joined 19 other boys and girls on the school fencing team. And when one of the boys a couple of years ahead of her won a national high school tournament, she knew that her teacher could get results.
Ikeda, whom I interviewed on Zoom, is such a pleasant person, all smiles and joy. She put on her full fencing uniform to surprise me. She giggles as she explains the amount of gear a fencer has to wear. But the story she tells in such a lighthearted fashion is one of pure determination.
When Ikeda was in her final year of high school, she told her parents she wanted to move to Tokyo, continue to fence, and then compete in the Olympics. Her parents were bewildered. She had to go to university and get a real job, not waste money on fencing. Going to the Olympics is “impossible,” they told her.
Ikeda always had the support of her parents, but when she was told her dream was impossible, the high school girl stood her ground. She had developed such a powerful image of making the Olympics that giving up on the dream so quickly was hurtful. Giving up without trying was unthinkable.
She pushed back. She fought with her parents for two months until she decided to lay out her plan and her vision of the Olympics in a formal presentation to her parents: what goals she would have to achieve in her four years in university, including making the national team, and becoming national champion by her junior year.
The eighteen year old closed the presentation by saying that if she did not achieve those goals, she’d return home to Yamagata and pursue a normal life. But if she did make those goals, she would try to make the Olympics, and then go on to graduate school. Her parents finally gave in, and allowed their daughter to move to Tokyo to pursue her dream.
Ikeda moved to Tokyo and made the national team by her junior year. Unfortunately she suffered a knee injury, upending any chance of going to the 2000 Sydney Olympics. In 2002, she graduated from university, and then began a second push for the Olympics.
If you’re a world-class volleyball, basketball or baseball player in Japan, you are likely in a corporate or professional team. If you’re in a prominent sport like swimming, track and field, wrestling or judo in Japan, your sports association likely funds the training of the best athletes. But if you’re an adult in a lesser known sport, you are not going to get all that much financial support. According to Ikeda, the Japan Fencing Federation at the time was not financially strong, and provided no support.
In fact, Ikeda worked a variety of part-time jobs – at restaurants, bookstores, printing factories, delivery companies – so she could fund her dream. With no support from anyone, she planned to move to Europe where she could train at one of the meccas of fencing – Budapest, Hungary – so that she could travel easily to many of the épée world cups scheduled in Europe.
She knew the reigning Olympic champion in women’s individual épée, Timea Nagy, was based in Budapest.
Did Ikeda know her? No.
Did she know anyone in Hungary? No.
Ikeda took to the internet, identified a Japanese person living in Budapest, and convinced her to help. With the help of her new friend, a detailed plan emerged. On a budget of 2 million yen (or about USD18,700 in 2003), Ikeda was going to rent an apartment in Budapest, train at a nearby fencing club and compete at tournaments in Europe.
Thanks to her Japanese friend in Budapest, she was able to train at the club where Nagy trained. “To get really good, really quickly, it’s better to train with the champion, right,” she told me.
During the weekdays, she trained with the best fencers in Hungary. Then she took the night train to Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Russia, to compete in épée world cups on the weekend. Ikeda got better. She accumulated points. And at the 2004 World Cup in Thessaloniki, Greece she had enough points to qualify for the 2004 Athens Olympics and represent Japan.
Her parents, who objected so fiercely to her “impossible” dream, sat proudly in the stands when their daughter entered the stadium in Athens at the opening ceremony, as an Olympian.
Ikeda would lose in the second round to the Italian Cristiana Cascioli, who nearly toppled eventual champion, Nagy in the third round. And Ikeda represented Japan again in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, only to fall to silver medalist Ana Brânză of Romania in the second round.
Today, Ikeda supports the Olympic movement with her work in the Japan Anti-Doping Association (JADA) educating athletes and the parents of athletes on the issues of doping, how to prepare for drug testing, and what medication and supplements to avoid. She also believes it’s important to get these messages across to the top athletes, the “influencers” of the next generation of athletes.
In the end, it is always about influencing and inspiring the next generation.
In 1964, Ikeda’s father was a teenager when the torch relay passed through her hometown of Nanyo. He didn’t carry the torch, but he was part of a team of kids who would jog behind the torchbearer as they brought the sacred Olympic flame closer to Tokyo.
This year, the Olympian Ikeda was scheduled to run in the Tokyo2020 torch relay on March 24 this year, if not for the CoronaVirus pandemic. But she hopes that the torch relay is revived in 2021. And she hopes she can convince her father to run with her.
When coronavirus body slammed the world, the IOC and the government of Japan postponed the Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics as the global economy stood punch drunk in the corner, tagged with constant jabs and body blows.
As we approach the end of the year, as infection rates continue to soar, a ray of hope has appeared in the form of newly developed vaccines. Will that ray of hope grow into that light at the end of the tunnel IOC president Thomas Bach desperately wants to see?
I hope so.
As a footnote, my own 2020 was not a total bust – the Japanese version of my book was published, and I appeared in A&E History Channel’s documentary, Tokyo Legacy, which is about the history of Tokyo from 1945 to 2020. While I was not so prolific this year in my blog, I did write a number of original articles I am proud of.
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