Tokyo’s Catastrophe Games

August 8, 2021   •   By Sam Holden

FROM THE MOMENT when Tokyo’s Olympic organizers abandoned their hopes of allowing spectators into the stands, there was no ceremonial spectacle, no athletic feat, that could alter the fate of these Games being recorded in the history books as a footnote to pandemic. The sight of the Olympic flame being lit amid a sea of empty seats will remain as an indelible image of our time.


Denied the opportunity to set foot inside its own stadiums or see the world on its streets, much of Tokyo reacted to the Games with a mix of irritation, sadness, indifference, and anger. Pandemic life goes on, and Tokyo’s fourth state of emergency no longer packs the potency to empty the Shibuya Scramble Crossing or Shinjuku Station, even as infections reach all-time highs — many people have long since stopped heeding the government’s advice. But around the Olympic venues, barriers and a heavy police presence kept onlookers away from the action, producing the scenery of urban desertion appropriate for the marquee event of a year of global catastrophe. “TOKYO 2020” read the banners plastered across this empty Olympic city, trapping us in a cursed year that seems to stretch on interminably.


Separated from and unseen by the city, athletes and dignitaries were shuttled to and from the Olympic Village in exclusive lanes, many of which followed the city’s network of emergency-response roads that are closed during major disasters. This seemed a fitting transport route for IOC bigwigs who preside over an event that now passes through host cities like a typhoon, leaving behind the wreckage of high-maintenance stadiums, tattered municipal budgets, and dismembered neighborhoods strewn in its wake. Yet the most nightmarish scenarios for the Games were avoided — the surging virus did not cause the cancellation of events, and Tokyo’s midsummer heat, though debilitating and oppressive for athletes, did not prove deadly. The IOC and its allies will surely declare success as they jet off to their next rendezvous with Paris.


Like all catastrophes, the Olympics’ damage falls unequally. The IOC, NBC, advertising conglomerate Dentsu, and others most responsible for the calamity are profitably ensconced within the legal guarantees of their contracts. Of more than $20 billion believed to have been spent on the Games, the heaviest burden has fallen on Tokyo, with the national government covering much of the rest.


Yet these common Olympic injuries pale in comparison to the incalculable economic losses — hotel reservations, food, tours, travel — incurred as a result of the misfortune of hosting the Olympics in a year of pandemic. Untold billions of dollars invested, careers planned, business ventures launched based on surefire assumptions that proved catastrophically wrong — this is what we waited eight years for?


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Of course, the 2020 Olympics were always intended to come after, not amid, catastrophe. The 9.1 magnitude earthquake that shook northeast Japan on March 11, 2011, was the most acute catastrophe to strike the country since World War II, triggering a tsunami that killed roughly 20,000 people and a nuclear meltdown in Fukushima that displaced 160,000 residents. In Tokyo, skyscrapers swayed like reeds in the wind, and millions of stranded workers walked for hours through the darkened streets to return home. Liberal intellectuals talked of a collective trauma that would shake postwar Japan’s faith in technology and progress and reorient the culture in an era of economic and population decline. Instead, the pendulum swung back toward conservative populists who saw it as a wake-up call to restore the strength of a nation that had lost its way.


It was the former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara who had the clever idea of reframing his failed bid for the 2016 Games as a “Recovery Olympics” just a month after the disaster, when the capital was still anxious over radiation concerns, and many of its billboards and escalators were shut off amid electricity rationing. Two and a half years later, Prime Minister Shinzō Abe stood before the IOC and assured them the Fukushima problem was “under control.” He thanked the world for its outpouring of support in Japan’s moment of need and promised that the Games would be a “symbol of Japan’s recovery.” In practice, hosting a global spectacle in Tokyo had little to do with the reconstruction of the Northeast — the recovery Ishihara and Abe had in mind was more about stoking optimism and economic growth to reverse Japan’s gloomy demographic outlook and withering national strength. The domestic media had cultivated a mood of nostalgia for Japan’s go-go days of growth and 1964 Olympic glory, and the foreign press, perhaps tired after two decades of writing melancholy dispatches on Japan’s stagnation and malaise, cheerily embraced the “Japan is back” narrative.


For most of the past decade, this narrative seemed to hold up, at least superficially. The economy grew at a modest clip despite a shrinking population, albeit never at the government’s fanciful targets. A new real estate bubble began to inflate as investors rushed to erect new hotels, offices, and shopping malls before Tokyo’s turn in the spotlight. The government declared Japan to be a tourist nation, boosting inbound arrivals from six million in 2011, the year of the disaster, to almost 32 million in 2019. As the nouveau riche of Shanghai and Kuala Lumpur emptied their wallets in the department stores of Ginza, Los Angeles foodies spelunked through the city’s alleys in search of the perfect bowl of ramen. Tokyo became the world’s playground, its famed indecipherability finally unlocked by smartphones full of travel listicles and YouTubers, Google transit directions and automatic translation. The city basked in the attention, growing more confident than ever in the brilliance of its urbanism and the global allure of its cultural products.


Before it was dashed by the virus, the dream of Tokyo 2020 as a “Recovery Olympics” was simply the latest iteration of what sociologist Shunya Yoshimi has termed postwar Japan’s “festival doctrine of recovery.” More or less every five years since the 1964 Games, the country has staged the Olympics, submitted failed bids, or held world’s fairs as a means to propel its economic development. As sure as clockwork, a redux of the 1970 Osaka Expo is now slated for 2025. Once a symbol of progress, the Olympics have now revealed Japan to be trapped in the past.


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While the media and politicians spoke of the Olympics as a form of recovery, the specter of catastrophe always loomed in the background — and not because the 1988 anime Akira famously imagined Neo-Tokyo circa 2019 preparing to host the 2020 Games as a symbol of rebirth after nuclear annihilation. In recent years, the world has seen a relay of Olympic-sized catastrophes: Brazil burns; Australia burns; California burns. Canada bakes; Germany drowns. Our sense of living in normal times, neatly structured by the quadrennial cycle of the Olympics, seems to unspool into a linear progression of calamity toward an onrushing apocalypse. Perhaps, had we been able to truly imagine our present catastrophe in 1988, when James Hansen first warned the United States Congress of climate change, we might have done something about it.


Torrential rains have become to Japan what wildfires are to California: a now constant and inescapable menace that ravages one region after another, most recently washing away a hillside full of houses south of Tokyo last month. Tokyo is also highly vulnerable to flooding — as the Olympics approached, the 2019 blockbuster film Weathering with You depicted the city as a rain-drenched metropolis, before envisioning a near-future in which its eastern half has slipped beneath the sea. This scenario is now frighteningly realistic. Twentieth-century Tokyo sprawled outward across the floodplain on the city’s eastern flank, pumping out so much ground water that most of the area now sits below sea level. It constructed an elaborate network of channelized rivers, levees, floodgates, pumps, and Akira-esqe cisterns to avoid inundation. If this system were to fail, the resulting floods would displace some 2.5 million people and cause close to a trillion dollars in damage.


In October 2019, a few months after the film’s release, a super-typhoon bore down on the city. Newscasters spoke in increasingly frantic tones as they pointed at flood gauges rising past red lines, imploring the residents of eastern Tokyo to flee or move to higher floors. I filled my bathtub and other containers with water, certain that refugees would soon be streaming up the hill where I lived.


The levees held, even as the city’s rivers swelled to Amazonian girth. The next afternoon, the blue skies still testy with the lingering spell of low pressure, I found myself sitting dumbfounded in a sidewalk café in Roppongi as glamorous shoppers streamed in and out of the shopping mall next door as always. I struggled to wrap my head around what separates our blissful present from the catastrophic future. The gap cannot be spanned, so we block out the possibility, go shopping, and turn on the Olympics instead.


As the Games opened in Tokyo, the IOC press machine ramped up its self-congratulatory praise for the “greenest Olympics ever.” Chief among the Games’ eco-friendly gestures is the Olympic Stadium designed by architect Kengo Kuma, known for his ample use of domestically harvested wood. In a revelation that was quickly forgotten beneath the torrent of other scandals, it was discovered that the construction used thousands of panels of wood clear-cut from East Kalimantan on Borneo, which suffers from some of the highest rates of deforestation on earth and where Indonesia is now carving a new national capital out of the jungle to replace steadily sinking Jakarta. Here was evidence of the obvious unsustainability of the Olympics in their current form, dependent upon the very global integration and environmental destruction that fuel the pandemic and climate change.


As much as we struggle to comprehend and prepare for the possibility of Tokyo being submerged, it may happen sooner than the 31 years that separated Akira from its dystopian vision of Neo-Tokyo. The same imaginative leap from 2019 takes us to 2050 — we rarely dare to speculate beyond this event horizon of climate change, but we know megacities across Asia will be sinking into the sea by then. Perhaps the heat waves of Paris or the wildfires of Los Angeles will teach us the lessons we may not fully learn from Tokyo.


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The jetliners mothballed on Haneda Airport’s tarmacs, the empty business hotels and posh luxury resorts heedlessly plowed into the cityscape, and the hundreds of thousands of new tourism jobs speak to how growth in the past eight years has helped yoke Tokyo and Japan to economic activity that is both unsustainable and vulnerable to disruption. In the coming decade, the city will follow the rest of Japan into an increasingly rapid population decline. When the music stops, Tokyo will be forced to contend with the hangover of its adherence to its 20th-century faith in growth well past when it should have been preparing for its post-growth future. The nearly 6,000 apartments built for the Olympic Village will only hasten vacancy and real estate decline somewhere else, in a process that will move gradually closer to the city’s gilded core.


Perhaps this is the true catastrophe of these Olympics: to have squandered pivotal years in which big ideas about Japan’s post-growth transition could have been posed, and the catastrophes of the future could have been mitigated. Instead, the city was enlisted by Japan’s postwar political machine and the IOC in one last hurrah of growth mythology. The questions left in the wake remain the same as 57 years ago: “Walking around Tokyo today, people’s expressions and the autumn wind are already tinged with the emptiness that ensues after a festival,” novelist Shūsaku Endō wrote in the Asahi Shimbun on the last day of the 1964 Olympics.


“Tokyo — until now you carried everyone along in a commotion towards your goal of the Olympics, but how do you intend to go on living now that it is over?”


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Sam Holden writes about post-growth Japan from Tokyo, where he co-founded Tokyo Little House and Sento & Neighborhood. You can follow him on Substack and Twitter @samuholden.