The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan


JULY 2014
Dark Side of the Games

By Robert Whiting

Most people in this country are happy that Tokyo won the bid to host the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The city needs an emotional lift that hosting the Games will provide. Moreover, the Tokyo government projects the Games will generate $30 billion in economic benefits for the country.

The hope is that Tokyo, stuck in an economic morass for decades, can be rejuvenated in a way that is similar to the effect the 1964 Tokyo Olympics had on the capital.

But there is a price to be paid for undertaking a venture like this, and as someone who was here in 1964, let me remind you of what it can entail.

The 1964 Olympics changed Tokyo in a big way. The aesthetically impressive structures built for the Olympics—like the National Gymnasium, which won the Pritzker Architecture Prize—helped define the city, as did the new overhead expressways and the bullet train.

Tokyo went from a war-ravaged city to a major international capital, seemingly overnight.

But the run-up to the Games also caused great waste, environmental destruction, and human misery along the way.

Consider, for example, the costs of getting the bullet train ready for the Olympics. There was absolutely no reason to have a high-speed train connecting Tokyo to Osaka just for the Games, since no events were taking place in Japan’s second city.

Yet the Shinkansen project was rushed under the guise of “urban improvement” and the desire to impress the rest of the world with the high level of Japanese technological achievement.

The project wound up costing twice what the original budget called for.


Robbed of waterways
Funds diverted to the expanding costs of the Shinkansen took money away from other projects, like the Monorail, which was originally intended to link Haneda airport to the city center. Instead it wound up terminating in Hammatsucho, an inconvenient station.

Moreover, to avoid buying expensive privately owned land for the Monorail, builders constructed it over water, on a route provided gratis by the municipal government, covering the rivers, canals and sea areas below with landfill and concrete in the process.

Fishing permits held by local fishing cooperatives in these districts were revoked by city hall, and many local fishing jobs were lost.

A seaweed field in Omori, Shinagawa-ku, from which the prized delicacy Omori no nori had been harvested since the Edo era, simply disappeared.

The lack of funds also affected highway construction, as it became necessary to build overhead expressways above the existing rivers and canals, also to avoid purchasing land.

Among the many eyesores that resulted from this arrangement is that of the iconic Meiji-era bridge at Nihonbashi, its once charming appearance ruined by the massive thundering highway passing just a few feet overhead.

Water stagnated, fish died and biochemical sludge formed. Tokyo’s estuaries, many of them already polluted with raw sewage, increasingly became cesspools.


Forced from their homes
Yet another adverse effect of the 1964 Olympic effort was the depopulation of residential areas.

Although laws on lack of eminent domain in Japan supposedly protected residents, authorities nonetheless found ways to compel people out of their homes to facilitate construction, a practice known as jiage.

They did this by offering small sums of money and appealing to a recalcitrant tenant’s sense of patriotism to get him to move; or, failing that, they would turn to intimidation in the form of tax harassment, public shaming, or the investigation of violations of minor city codes.

Among the hardest-hit areas were Bunkyo-ku and Chiyoda-ku. Because of the decrease in population in these areas, several primary and secondary schools closed down.

Massive new Soviet-style New Town developments called danchi became the destinations for many of the displaced people.


Trolleys and corruption
Another casualty of the 1964 Olympics was the trolley lines, which had been a cheap, reliable, and pleasant way of getting around the city.

The elimination of two major streetcar lines caused a corresponding increase in vehicular traffic and a worsening of the air quality in Tokyo.

Corruption, in the form of bid rigging (dango) and price collusion, reared its ugly head during the pre-Olympic years. Many construction firms were fronts for organized crime, while yakuza gangs were a fixture at most construction sites.

With taxpayer money siphoned off to line the pockets of corrupt politicians and underworld bosses, the subsequent cost-cutting resulted in shoddy construction work.

The use of sand from the sea when mixing concrete, for example, caused the internal rebar and steel beams used in highways to rust prematurely. It also caused parts of the supporting pillars of the Hanshin Meishin Expressway to collapse in the 1995 Hanshin earthquake.


Let’s do better in 2020
We can expect to see similar goings-on in the run-up to the 2020 Games.

Already the people living in public housing near Sendagaya, for example, are being forced out and relocated to more remote areas. Tokyo Metro owns the housing and has condemned it to create a larger stadium in the Yoyogi area.

Ironically, some of the people living there now came to dwell there as a result of being forced out of their original housing during the 1964 Games. Lightning did indeed strike twice for them.

Jiage, a well-known practice in Tokyo real estate during the economic bubble era, will rear its ugly head again.

For the ’64 Games, the US handover of Washington Heights to create Yoyogi Park and the National Stadium alleviated the need for jiage in central Tokyo. This time, however, there is no such large area to be conveniently handed over.

During the run-up to the 1964 Games, the Japanese media loudly fanned the Olympic flames, declaring them to be the best thing ever for the Japanese people.

Today, the media appears to be doing the same thing.

Citizens, already having to cope with an increase in the consumption tax from 5 percent to 8 percent and to a scheduled 10 percent a year later, will no doubt have to face even higher taxes to pay for the Games, at present estimated to cost at least $5 billion.

With a crippling debt of nearly $11 trillion, some 230 percent of GDP, the 2020 Olympics could be the hardest burden to bear.

Organized crime will likely participate.

The ’64 Games saw large numbers of Koreans brought into Japan as cheap, underpaid labor by various gangs. Many stayed after that.

These undocumented people suddenly got “Special Permanent Residence” status after working on their respective construction projects, and they chain-immigrated family to Japan as well.

There will likely be a repeat of this for the 2020 Games, although this time, expect to see more Chinese, Filipinos, Indonesians, and others in the mix.

Construction companies will want cheap labor, and they are already pressuring Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party to set up a massive “immigration” measure to bring in labor from various Asian nations.

The 2020 Olympics may lift the spirit of the Japanese people, but there will certainly be a price to pay for the privilege. Let’s hope it is not too much. •

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer, regarding events that occurred over half a century ago. The ACCJ remains committed to making positive contributions toward the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, to support the execution of the Games and the further development of Tokyo as an exemplary, world-class city.


Robert Whiting, 71, is an author and journalist who has written several books on modern Japanese culture, including You Gotta Have Wa and Tokyo Underworld.

Whiting first came to Japan in 1962 with the US Air Force Intelligence, where he worked for the National Security Agency in the U-2 program. He graduated from Tokyo’s Sophia University in 1969 with a degree in Japanese politics.

He went on to became an informal advisor with the Higashi Nakano wing of Tokyo’s second-largest criminal gang, the Sumiyoshi-kai, and worked for Encyclopedia Britannica Japan as an editor until 1972.

His first book was The Chrysanthemum and the Bat.