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Tea Leaves

As world's leading metropolis, Tokyo goes for gold

But will Olympics spoil its pristine image?

As the 2020 Olympics draw near, Tokyo's global reputation has reached new heights. (Photo by Ken Kobayashi)

The world is gradually beginning to realize that Tokyo is enjoying a golden age. The city is one of the world's largest, with about 38 million inhabitants in the greater metro region. Yet in terms of living standards, Tokyo is one of the world's cleanest, safest and most efficient cities. Its transportation system is unparalleled. Its citizens have the highest literacy rates and life expectancies among competing global cities. It is also one of the richest cities, with a gross domestic product amounting to more than $1.5 trillion in recent years, and hosts more global corporate headquarters including of Fortune 500 companies than anywhere else.

Tokyoites also set standards for politeness as well as fashion consciousness and love of good food. The city has proportionately more Michelin-starred restaurants than in Paris or elsewhere. The energy of the people and urban activity gives the city an inimitable buzz.

Users of TripAdvisor, the world's largest travel website, ranked Tokyo in 2017 as the "most satisfying" destination to visit, citing local friendliness, cleanliness and excellent transport systems.

The late Anthony Bourdain, the renowned celebrity chef, TV presenter and globetrotter, named Tokyo as his favorite city. "If I had to agree to live in one country, or even one city, for the rest of my life, never leaving it, I'd pick Tokyo in a second," he told Maxim magazine, noting that excellent food was available at "virtually every level and price point." Bourdain described his first visit to Tokyo as an "explosive, life-changing event," comparing it to the first time he took a psychedelic drug in terms of the way it changed every subsequent experience. "Nothing was ever the same for me," he said, "I just wanted more of it."

I understood, because I felt the same way when I first visited Tokyo in the early 1960s. Back then, I witnessed a city undergoing one history's greatest urban transformations as it emerged from postwar devastation and prepared for the 1964 Olympics. Around 10,000 buildings were being developed along with dazzling sports stadiums and arenas as well as five-star hotels like the Okura and the New Otani. New expressways, subways and a monorail were designed to connect the city, while the brand new bullet train was seen as a transportation wonder.

Now, as preparations progress for the 2020 Olympic Games, I'm watching another transmogrification. From my home in Toyosu, in central Tokyo, I see an awe-inspiring metropolitan skyline, with 45 new skyscrapers rising up ahead of the opening ceremony on July 24. 2020. Nearby, an Olympic Village and new sports venues are sprouting.

There have been media reports about a slew of technological marvels: an army of robots to help with language translation and transportation directions, driverless taxis, 8K TV broadcasts, algae and hydrogen as clean energy sources, demonstration of Maglev trains running about 500 kph, and manmade meteors streaming across the sky from satellites for the opening ceremony.

An iconic image: The lighting of the cauldron for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics   © Kyodo

This glitzy fanfare could represent the pinnacle of Tokyo's golden age and highlight its reputation as the world's best city for a long time to come.

But I also worry that things could go wrong. For openers, the ungodly heat of the Tokyo summer means athletes and spectators could suffer heatstroke. There are concerns about water safety in Tokyo Bay. If the simultaneous artificial interpretation devices I've seen are any indication, human-robot dialogues could degenerate into low comedy. The driverless taxis could run amok and cause accidents.

As for Olympic organization, we've seen the recent resignation of the president of the Japanese Olympic Committee over an alleged vote-buying scandal that helped Tokyo land the Olympics potentially cause reputational damage to the city.

But Tokyo has a history of pulling off such events, and overcame similarly daunting obstacles to stage the 1964 Games, which LIFE magazine called "the best Olympics ever." Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged in 2016 to triple tourist arrivals to Japan to 60 million by 2030. The betting here is that by the time the 2020 Games are over, Tokyo will be closer to topping another list: that of the world's most popular travel destinations. But that is not an accolade that Tokyoites may want -- nor need.

Robert Whiting is a Tokyo-based writer and author of "You Gotta have Wa" and "Tokyo Underworld."

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