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Tea Leaves

The politics of summer time blues

Can Japan find a cure in time for the 2020 Olympics?

The sun sets behind Mount Fuji as seen from Tokyo's Jingu Gaien district, where the new National Stadium for the Summer Games is being constructed. (Photo by Tomoki Mera)

The 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo are due to take place in the rice-cooker heat and humidity of late July and early August. With the mercury topping 39C this year, the risk to athletes is obvious. Marathon runners dropping like flies would not be a good look for this much-anticipated demonstration of Japanese soft power.

In 1964, the Tokyo Olympics were held in temperate October. The schedules of multi-billion dollar televised sports -- such as the English Premier League -- now make that impossible. Instead, a partial fix has been proposed in the form of daylight saving time, which would advance Japan's clocks by either one or two hours, allowing for events to take place earlier in the day. Yoshiro Mori, president of the Organizing Committee for the Olympics and a former prime minister, recently recommended the idea to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

At first sight, the prospect appears attractive. In midsummer the sun rises in Tokyo at 4:30 a.m. and sets at 7 p.m. By the time the working day starts, the heat is punishing and sweat glands are in overdrive. Surely there has to be a better way. After all, of the 36 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a club of mainly rich countries, only four -- Japan, South Korea, Turkey and Iceland -- have not implemented DST, sometimes known as summer time.

But putting the clock forward is no simple matter. DST has been highly political from the start, when Germany, Britain and the U.S. implemented it during World War I. As noted by Vanessa Ogle, a scholar who has written extensively on global time reform, DST was originally promoted in Britain "as a way to curb unhealthy behavior such as rising late in the morning or idling in pubs after sunset."

Today the justifications have changed, but the spirit of moral improvement remains. It would help the fight against global warming by reducing energy consumption, say DST proponents. Traffic accidents and crime would decline. There would be more time for sightseeing and outdoor activities, boosting the economy.

The trouble is that research in countries that have introduced DST has found smaller benefits than the moral improvers advertise. Worse, there is evidence of higher rates of depression, heart attacks and suicide in the weeks following clock changes. According to one American study, judges tend to hand out longer sentences too -- presumably after sleeping poorly.

Japan endured a four-year experiment with DST during the American occupation after World War II. When the Americans left, the Japanese government abolished it. This was not a nationalistic reflex. DST always creates winners and losers, with agricultural communities among the latter. That is why some largely rural states in Australia have rejected it while more urbanized states have gone ahead.

The number of Japanese engaged in agriculture has declined to a tiny proportion of the population, but the booming alcoholic drinks and night-time entertainment industries could suffer. Carousing in Tokyo's Roppongi or Ginza would not be the same in daylight.

DST makes most sense for countries distant from the equator, because they experience significant seasonal variation in daylight hours. That includes much of the OECD, but excludes most of the world's population, including most Asians and Africans. Tokyo, which is at about the same latitude as Tunis and Tehran, is not a natural candidate for DST. If Japan wants the sun to rise and set later, the best solution would be to adopt permanent summer time, effectively changing the time zone, as the European Union is considering. 

As Ogle points out, DST was just a small part of the global standardization of calendar time required by the modernizing world of factories, trains and schools. In post-industrial economies, synchronization is less essential; many service businesses have adopted flextime. Furthermore, in today's more pluralistic world, many conceptions of time exist simultaneously -- for example, Japan's system of imperial eras, the Chinese 60-year cycle, lunar New Year and the daily solar time of Islamic rituals.

Tokyo already operates on "multi-time," with its 24/7 convenience stores and nocturnal workers of all sorts, from bankers closing deals with New York to ramen noodle cooks. Perhaps what Tokyo 2020 needs is a special "Olympic time zone" that would apply to athletes, officials and media, but not to uninvolved Japanese, who would not need to put their watches forward. The marathon could start at 7 a.m. Olympic time, which might be 5 a.m. Japan time. And 12 hours later, office workers could be celebrating Japanese medals in their favorite neon-lit drinking spots.

Peter Tasker is an analyst with Tokyo-based Arcus Research.

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