Tokyo Warms to the Olympics

People in Tokyo never were wildly enthusiastic about hosting the Olympic Games for a second time. Been there, done that, might have best described their attitude in two recent bids to host the games, a losing bid in 2009 but a surprisingly strong comeback this Sept. 7 won Japan the right to host the 2020 games.

"Lack of public passion," along with a strong sense that it was time for South America to have a chance combined to sink Tokyo's 2009 bid. Moreover, the Olympic quest was closely identified with Tokyo's polarizing former governor, Shintaro Ishihara.

As recently as last May a public survey by the International Olympics Committee (IOC) found fewer than 50 percent of Tokyoites favoring the return of the Olympic games. A poll by the municipal government showed 65 percent endorsing the move - better perhaps, but still far short of the 85 percent plus recorded in Istanbul and Madrid. It was feared that apathy might sink the bid again.

Strong fundamentals combined with a more focused presentation were enough to win against fairly weak competition. The Japanese delegation to Buenos Aires, headed by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe himself, included an Imperial princess, former medal winners and residents of the earthquake- and tsunami- devastated Tohoku region. All played a role.

And now that the venue has been chosen, many Tokyo residents suddenly discovered that they really wanted the games after all. Newspapers are full of proposed new projects timed to coincide with the opening of the games in July 2020 such as new subways, additional runways at airports and other infrastructure.

Japanese were never quite so blas? about the games. Tokyoites cheered the record haul of ther medal winners at the London Olympics and Japan is probably the only host country that still commemorates the opening day of its first Olympiad as a national holiday - technically Health and Sports Day - although it was moved from October 10 to the second Monday in the month to create a three-day holiday.

The 1964 Olympics utterly transformed the landscape of Tokyo and to an extent Japan. New expressways crisscrossed the capital. The bullet train, which would become almost a national icon, made its first commercial run from Tokyo to Osaka on Oct. 1, 1964, 10 days before the opening ceremony.

The games also sparked the building of world-class luxury hotels in downtown Tokyo, such as the Hotel New Otani - opened one month before the games began. There will be no lack of accommodations for the 10.1 million tourists the Tokyo government says will descend on the capital (although how they come up with such a precise figure for an event seven years in the future is remarkable).

One thing that might keep visitors away would, of course, be fear of radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster. It was thought to be an obstacle to Tokyo's selection, especially as the final decision happened to coincide with fresh and embarrassing reports of contaminated groundwater leaking from temporary storage tanks.

Such concerns prompted Abe to go out on a limb. "Let me assure you that the situation is under control," he told the committee, opening himself up for criticism in Japan from people who argue that the leaking tanks show that the situation is not fully under control. However, Gov. Naoki Inose noted that radiation levels in Tokyo are no higher than in London, or Paris or either of the other two contenders.

Fifty years ago, the games, the first ever held in Asia, were a symbol of Japan's rise from the disaster of defeat in World War II. The 2020 Olympiad, too, is a psychological boost for a country that hasn't had much to boast about during the recent "lost decades" of stagnation capped by the horrendous "triple disaster" of March 11, 2011.

The games thus fit in well with Abe's favorite slogan: "Japan is Back!" More than that, it dovetails neatly with his plan to rejuvenate the Japanese economy, in his program commonly called "Abenomics" Indeed, it might be considered the "fourth arrow" in his economic quiver which already contains special appropriations for spending on public infrastructure.

It is not likely that all of the projects bruited will come about. With about a dozen subway lines in Tokyo, not to mention deep levels of office space below ground, there isn't much room for many new tunnels. And Yoshiomi Yamada, president of the Central Japan Railway Co., threw cold water on the idea that Japan could show off its new Maglev trains as they did the bullet train 50 years ago. They won't be ready until 2027.

Still, there are numerous projects that might come into fruition over the next seven years. The expressway system, built for the 1964 games, could use a facelift. There are Olympic venues to be built. Of the projected 33 Olympic venues, 28 will be built from scratch, including a waterfront Olympic village.

However, Japan plans to use the distinctive National Stadium built for 1964 for the track and field competition and opening ceremonies. It will be enlarged, refurbished and given a retractable roof that makes it look sort of like the caps that bicycle riders wear, all under the supervision of Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid.

The games will be held in a Japan that is much different from what it was in 1964. Just to cite one statistic: In 1964 it was estimated that about 6 percent of the total population was over 65 years of age; in 2020 it is predicted that nearly 30 percent of the population will be so.