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Robert Whiting: Remembering Tokyo's other scandal-plagued Olympics

2020 is looking a lot like 1964 as venues run over budget and behind schedule

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Despite many delays leading up to the 1964 Games, the Tokyo Olympics turned out to be a success.   © Kyodo

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are nearly four years away, but already Japan has suffered huge embarrassments.

First there was a decision to scrap the National Stadium design and replace it, setting construction behind schedule. Then there was a scandal about a plagiarized logo for the games, followed by the discovery that the replacement design for the stadium did not include an Olympic cauldron.

More recently, there has been a revision of the cost estimate, which has ballooned to 3 trillion yen ($25.7 billion) from the original 2013 estimate of $9 billion, according to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. That prompted emergency discussions on paring back or abandoning some plans -- including those for a new aquatic center and a customized volleyball stadium.

Shinichi Ueyama, head of Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike's cost-cutting panel, complained at a recent press conference that Japan's Olympic organizing committee was not cooperating on recommendations to reduce the spiraling expenses. He also criticized the lack of financial accountability in the organizing committee, comparing it to a company with no chief executive or chief financial officer.

"There is nobody in charge, no chief executive officer," Ueyama said, recommending that the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which will contribute most of the money required, should serve as chief financial officer. He expressed incredulity that there was no central government budget for the games, urging the organizing committee to establish one as soon as possible.

Overall, Japan's preparations for 2020 are in chaos. But memories are short, and it is worth remembering that this is roughly the same thing that happened in the run-up to the previous Tokyo Olympic Games, held in 1964.

REPEAT OF HISTORY As the countdown to the 1964 Olympics progressed, there were serious doubts about whether preparations would be completed in time. Two new subway lines had opened -- the Toei Asakusa (1960) and Hibiya (1961) lines, joining the older Ginza (1927) and Marunouchi (1954) lines.

But as late as January 1963, none of the deadlines for road construction had been met. Shojiro Kawashima, the cabinet minister in charge of the Olympics, was forced to concede publicly that preparations were "regrettably" behind in all aspects. Tokyo's Mainichi Shimbun newspaper was moved to editorialize: "At the rate preparations are moving, we must be gravely concerned."

It was not until Feb. 11, 1963, an annual holiday to mark Japan's National Foundation Day, some 600 days before the planned opening ceremony, and four years after the decision to award the games to Tokyo, that Japan finally found someone willing to accept the presidency of the Olympic Organizing Committee.

A utilities magnate named Daigoro Yasukawa agreed to take on the job, but only because, as he put it, he was "severely pressured by the government." No one had wanted the job for fear of screwing it up and losing face.

Japan's <i>shinkansen</i> is launched at Tokyo Station in October 1964, days before the start of the 1964 Games. Japan rushed to build roads, subways and other infrastructure ahead of the Olympics.

Costs spiraled, tripling the original estimate, in part because of the rapidly escalating price tag for the new shinkansen, or bullet train -- the world's first truly high-speed train service. The government was forced to build highways and a monorail over water because the land beneath them was too expensive to purchase.

Among other consequences, this resulted in the monorail ending at inconveniently situated Hamamatsucho instead of the more central business and entertainment district of Shimbashi, as originally intended. Tokyo's traditional Nihonbashi river culture was obliterated by giant overhead expressways and their supporting pillars. In recent years, local citizens have petitioned the government to move this infrastructure underground.

FRANTIC RUSH Tokyo may eventually get its act together, just as it did in 1964. As the deadline for those games approached there was a frantic rush to finish on time. Construction continued around the clock, seven days a week. Tokyoites used black curtains to shut out the glare of the construction lights -- burning brightly all night around the city -- and ear plugs to exclude the noise of pile drivers.

I was a young American soldier in Tokyo at the time, and witnessed all this. I remember clearly the case of a college student who was unable to study because of the constant pounding near his rooming house. He became so agitated that he went down to the construction site and put his head underneath the offending pile driver to end his misery.

Then there was the water shortage caused by an abnormal lack of rainfall in the months preceding the games. As the summer of 1964 began, the municipal government instituted water rationing. Bathhouse hours were restricted, swimming pools closed and police water trucks, usually employed to quell leftist riots, filled housewives' buckets with water hauled in from nearby rivers. Tokyo bars urged thirsty patrons to drink their whiskey without water to help save the city.

Drilling crews dug emergency artesian wells, while other work crews excavated canals to bring in water from nearby rivers. Japan Self-Defense Force planes dumped dry ice on overhead clouds to try to trigger rain. I kept an article from Time magazine about a Shinto priest in the mask of a scarlet lion writhing through a ceremonial rain dance on the shore of the Ogochi reservoir, outside the city. The priest warned the townspeople not to expect miracles, explaining, "It will take two days for the message to get through to the dragon god."

Olympic rings drawn by jet planes hang in the sky over the National Stadium in Tokyo during the opening ceremonies of the 1964 Games.

In the end, the games went ahead as scheduled and were deemed a great success, even though half the planned highways and a subway line were not completed. Tokyo's metamorphosis from a crime-ridden, dirty backwater to a leading high technology megalopolis was regarded as the greatest urban transformation in history -- one that included 10,000 new buildings and was so impressive that it was selected as the backdrop for the 1967 James Bond movie "You Only Live Twice."

LACK OF CONFIDENCE Can something similar happen again? One major issue now is a lack of public confidence in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, as well as in Japan's Olympic organizing committee.

The city's image took a serious knock when it emerged that the metropolitan government gave the International Olympic Committee a false estimate for the cost of construction work on a rowing and canoe-kayak (sprint) venue for the 2020 Olympics to obtain its approval to hold the events there. The initial reported cost was 9.8 billion yen; the actual cost was 49.1 billion yen, including building and maintenance expenses.

But that is not the only current scandal. I live in Toyosu, on the north side of Tokyo Bay -- the area designated to host the famous Tokyo fish market when it relocates from Tsukiji, where it occupies valuable land close to the city center that is to be redeveloped. Every morning when I walk by the waterfront at the north end of Tokyo Bay, I inspect the continuing construction work on the new market -- as well as the progress of the Olympic Village on the other side of the water.

It was a shock to learn earlier of the existence of benzene, arsenic and other toxins in water lying in underground chambers directly beneath the site. The chambers, which also contain airborne mercury, were part of a Tokyo Gas manufacturing plant that used to operate there. They were supposed to have been filled with fresh soil, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government had assured Tokyoites for years that the site was perfectly safe.

Then we learned that because of the empty chambers, the proposed market area would not be able to withstand a strong earthquake -- an ever-present danger in Tokyo. The result, according to environmental campaigners, is that the area is useless for the proposed fish market. "The Toyosu brand is dead for eating fish," a prominent architect told me the other day. "Better keep the market in Tsukiji until 2020, then move it into the Olympic Village after the games are finished in midsummer," the architect said. A report is pending, but the prospects for the site being used for a vital food supply are not good.

I can only hope that no further surprises await the Olympic venue construction in Tokyo Bay. If the Olympic effort turns out to be as much of a travesty as the Toyosu venture, the second Tokyo Olympics will not turn out well. But this kind of drama has happened before. The U.S. put on one of the most successful Olympics in history with the Los Angeles Games of 1984. Then it put on one of the worst in Atlanta in 1996. Japan can only step up its game and hope that things will turn out as successfully as they did in 1964.

Robert Whiting is a Japan-based author whose books include "Tokyo Underworld: The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan" and "You Gotta Have Wa."

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