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.

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Hotel New Otani 1964
Hotel New Otani, 1964

 

The novel, Olympic Ransom, (Orinpikku no Minoshirokin) by Hideo Okuda, weaves a story about the imagining of an attempted terrorist attack during the Opening Ceremony of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. (See previous two posts for details.)

Inspector Masao Ochiai is searching for clues regarding a series of small explosions in Tokyo. The start of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics is only weeks away, and the explosions are concerning to the authorities overseeing security of Tokyo and the Olympics, wondering if this is the start of something more sinister.

Tadashi Suga is the son of the head of security for the Tokyo Olympics, and since his red sports car was seen near one of the explosions, he was targeted as a potential witness. Ochiai tracks Suga down at the poolside of the Hotel New Otani, one of the most remarkable new structures on the flat landscape of Tokyo. In fact, in 1964, the Hotel New Otani was the tallest and flashiest building in Japan.

As Bruce Suttmeier wrote in his essay, Held Hostage to History: Okuda Hideo’s Olympic Ransom:

The Hotel New Otani was built in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics, requested by the government in response to the perceived shortage of hotel space for visitors. As James Kirkup wrote after his visit to Japan in 1965, “From the monorail or the expressway, one’s first overall view of Tokyo is of a sprawling, squat city. There were no skyscrapers until the Hotel New Otani, with its revolving circular restaurant sixteen floors up, was opened just in time for the Olympics in September, 1964. Kirkup’s comments highlight that, until building height codes were lifted in 1963, all buildings in Tokyo were restricted to under thirty-one meters. The first major structure to exceed that limit was the Hotel New Otani at five times this limit – one hundred fifty-six meters (seventeen stories, the top floor housing the revolving restaurant.

The New Otani broke the mould, setting the precedence for taller buildings across Tokyo, as well as quickly becoming a photogenic symbol of Tokyo’s transformation to a city of the future. Watch the 1967 James Bond film, You Only Live Twice, and you’ll learn that SPECTRE’s headquarters in Japan was actually the New Otani.

Okuda wrote about the shiniest objects in the Tokyo landscape to create sharp contrast with the poorest parts of Japan. But he did so also to bring to life that feeling of optimism people in Tokyo felt at the time. He expresses this sense of marvel through the eyes of Suga and his girlfriend Midori, who wend their way through Tokyo in a red Honda S600, approaching the newly constructed elevated expressway that passes by the New Otani, as well as the Akasaka Prince Hotel.

Miyake Slope (Miyake-zaka) was up ahead, along with the newly finished elevated interchange. And perched high above was Metropolitan Expressway 4, like the Milky Way itself, sublimely stretching out across the sky. How beautiful were all these roads, winding in all directions. This is a city of the future, he thought.

The Akasaka Prince Hotel is no longer there – it has been replaced by a mixed-use office-hotel complex called Tokyo Garden Terrace Kioicho, where I work today. But the New Otani still stands, accompanied by taller companions developed over the decades, a legacy of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Hotel New Otani from old to new

 

Shimazaki on Yumenoshima
Shimazaki hiding from the police on Dream Island, in the Asahi Television produced film, Olympic Ransom

The phone rings. It’s Kunio Shimazaki, and he’s asking for police inspector Masao Ochiai, to inform him where to deliver the ransom money. If the police do not comply with his demand for 80 million yen, then he will set off another bomb in Tokyo, one that will certainly derail the good-feel bandwagon of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. (See part 1.)

Shimazaki hangs up, but the police notice in the recording of the call that seagulls could be heard in the background. The Tokyo University student, Shinozaki, as created by Hideo Okuda, in his 1984 novel “Olympic Ransom” (Orinpikku no Minoshirokin), is keeping out of sight.

IMG_0686
Yumenoshima today. The area behind the white fence will be the archery venue for Tokyo 2020. You can see the chimney for the incinerator that get rids of waste and provides heat for the greenhouse.

The police, of the possible hundreds of seaside spots along Tokyo Bay, wonder where Shinozaki, and his partner in crime, Tomekichi Murata, could be.

As it turns out, they are hiding on Dream Island, a landfill in Tokyo Bay off of the mouth of the Arakawa River. First planned in the 1930s as the possible site to replace Haneda Airport, it was opened to the public as a beach called Yumenoshima, the island of dreams. Alas, dreams don’t last forever. The beach was closed, re-opening as a garbage dump in 1957, an out-of-the way destination for the increasing amount of waste generated by a fast-growing economy.

IMG_0689
The map of Yumenoshima, the white box in the middle is where the archery venue will be.

Unfortunately, the ten million tons of garbage accumulated over a ten-year period, was left to fester. And only 8 months after the end of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, it was reported that massive number of flies, that literally blackened the sky, made their way from Yumenoshima across the Sumida River into the heart of Tokyo. As famed translator, Edward Seidensticker wrote in his book, Tokyo Rising, the Japan Self-Defense forces were brought into the fight off the plague of flies.

Initial efforts of the Self-Defense Force (the Japanese army by another name) to exterminate the flies seem initially to have had only the effect of spreading them. Finally a scorched-earth policy worked. Dream Island was for a time a cinder on which not even flies could live.

Today, Yumenoshima is a nice weekend outing, where you can hold a barbecue, sail away from the Marina, walk through a tropical greenhouse, visit the museum of the famed Daigo Fukuryu Maru, a symbol of the horrors of the nuclear age in the 1950s, or play baseball by the seaside on one of 12 fields.

Tokyo 2020 archery field yumenoshima
An illustration of the planned archery venue for Tokyo 2020.

It will also be the site for the archery competition during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. A grassy field across the street from the greenhouse, the area is fenced off as construction continues.

From an idea to a dream to a nightmare, Yumenoshima has settled into middle age as a family outing. And in 2020, the world of archery will descend on the man-made island, dreaming of gold.

IMG_0700
If you look closely, you can see Tokyo Skytree in the distance.

 

Orinpikku_no_Minoshirokin_Ochiai and Shimazaki
Inspector Ochiai faces off with Shimazaki in the film, Olympic Ransom.

It’s October 10, 1964, past 2pm and 70,000 people who filled the National Stadium for the Opening Ceremony of the XVIII Olympiad in Tokyo are buzzing with excitement. Kunio Shimazaki, a student of the prestigious Tokyo University, has entered the stands, making his way towards the top of the east facing part of the stadium and the Olympic cauldron.

As Emperor Hirohito’s high-pitched voice declares the Olympic Games open, Shimazaki holds explosives in one hand and a lighter in the other, approaching the yet-to-be lit cauldron with deadly intent. The police surround Shimazaki, and up steps Inspector Masao Ochiai, his grip on his gun tightening.

olympic ransom book coverThis is a scene from the novel, Olympic Ransom (Orinppiku Minoshirokin) by Hideo Okuda, highlighting the national urgency of the time, to ensure that the 1964 Tokyo Olympics begin and end successfully, thus re-establishing Japan’s re-integration to the world community. A terrorist attack like the one Shimazaki hoped to carry out did not come to pass in the novel, but he, through the writing of Okuda, brought attention to the challenges of the Japanese economic miracle and the sacrifices made at the time.

While the Japanese economy was steaming ahead on the eve of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, GDP growing from 8.8% in1963 to an incredible 11.2% in 1964, there were sacrifices, and omissions of prosperity. In the novel, Shimazaki is from an impoverished town in the Northern part of Japan, Akita. Although he was able to break the cycle of poverty by gaining admission to the best university in the country, his older brother had to work long days on punishing schedules in Tokyo to help the city complete all of its infrastructure projects in time for the Olympic Games. And one day, his brother was dead, a result of an exhausting workload and a dependency on drugs.

Days before Inspector Ochiai stops would-be terrorist Shimazaki at the National Stadium, they meet at Tokyo University. In the film produced by Asahi Television in 2013 based on Okuda’s book, Shimazaki explains to the inspector why he is looking to make the authorities in Japan pay.

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.

As Bruce Suttmeier in his essay, “Held Hostage to History – Okuda Hideo’s Olympic Ransom” writes that Okuda’s re-imagining of history is “a thought experiment in narrative form”…with an intent to “expose political and social certainties to speculative inquiry.”

For example, Shimazaki explained in the encounter with Ochiai that his brother was sacrificed to help build an underpass under the National Stadium, and that it was not used despite the pain and labor that went into its construction. While such a tunnel was indeed constructed, the reality is the tunnel was actually used by athletes and officials alike during the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, as noted in this previous post.

Regardless, the point being made in the novel is that economic progress made in the lead up to the 1964 Olympics, while impressive, was not necessarily true for all of Japan. The widening gap between haves and have nots was an uncomfortable social reality, and the 1963 Akira Kurosawa film, High and Low, projects the anxiety many felt at the time.

But it’s the head of security for the Tokyo Olympics, Shuichiro Suga, who explains to Ochiai that Shimazaki is not a hero of the people, but a terrorist.

Suga: The permission to shoot to kill Shimazaki Kunio has been issued. If you find Shimazaki this time around, shoot him without hesitation. Are you okay with the Olympics ending in failure due to your sentimentality? From the ashes of defeat , are you okay with wasting what the Japanese people have gritted their teeth over and rebuilt with great effort?

Ochiai: However, for those people struggling in poverty in rural regions, They have been rewarded with nothing.

Suga: Is there something wrong with Tokyo becoming enriched? First off, Tokyo, the center of the country, should prosper, and then the other regions will gradually become richer. Don’t forget. Shimazaki is a brutal criminal, and the lives of hundreds of thousands of people are still exposed by this crisis. In order to protect their lives you’ll have to pull the trigger too.

Shimazaki in the stadium
Shimazaki in the Olympic crowd on opening day.

In the end, Ochia does indeed pull the trigger, bringing Shimazaki down, with nary a soul outside the police knowing that a deadly threat was thwarted. And so, the novel ends as the actual 1964 Tokyo Olympic opening ceremony ends – without incident.

In the essay, Held Hostage to History: Okuda Hideo’s Olympic Ransom, the author, Bruce Suttmeier, explains that while Okuda’s book is a novel, the author may be suggesting that so many things of significance may have happened, but that in the end, historians, authorities and society may have selective memories.

After the unnoticed shooting in the stadium and the brisk removal of Shimazaki’s injured body, the story quickly returns in its final pages to a sanctioned historical narrative, free from the destabilizing presence of a past encumbered by contingency and potential and by the weight of epistemic uncertainty.

As Suttmeier writes, when the head of security, Suga, is asked by his son whether the threat is over, Suga replies “what bomber?” In other words, why worry the public, the overjoyed and proud public with such distractions. Let the Games be the glowing symbol of Japan’s resurrection and triumphant return to the international community.

Perhaps what Okuda is saying in a way – no great triumph comes without sacrifice, and that we should peer a bit deeper into our own understandings of the past.