Tokyo's zombie Olympics march on
The Tokyo Olympics and Japan's maglev Shinkansen are relics of a 20th century growth mindset
Welcome to my new weekly (dare I promise!) newsletter, Dispatches from Post-growth Japan. I have not written as much as I would have liked over the past few years, so setting a weekly routine should help me better share my ideas, no matter how polished or rough. Topics will vary—from the social dimensions of Japan’s post-growth era to cultural and media commentary, architectural and urban criticism, thoughts on trains, space, geography, and capitalism, reviews of related books in English and Japanese, as well as windows into my personal experiences fixing up vacant houses and preserving public baths in Tokyo—we’ll see where it goes! At some point soon I’ll also try to properly introduce who I am and how I came to do the things I’m doing now. My hope is to keep it accessible and interesting to non-Japan and non-academic people. It’s always hard to know where to start, so in the spirit of spontaneity, this morning I vented some steam on two of my (least) favorite bones to pick—the 2020 Olympics and the maglev Shinkansen.
The games—and growth—must go on
In the final months leading up to the rescheduled July 24 start of the Tokyo Olympics, the Japanese government’s heedless plan to welcome as many as 90,000 visitors from overseas is now slamming into a fourth wave of COVID-19. If people were not dying in large numbers in Osaka, Tokyo, and elsewhere as the government’s vaccine rollout reveals itself to be a total flop; if the city had not been raked over by hotel developers in search of easy profit and road builders with their heads stuck in the 20th century in the name of Olympic preparation over the past eight years; if Japan and the world had not wasted enormous amounts of energy and time thinking about a giant corporate branding frenzy masquerading as an athletic meet when they could have been focused on climate change or depopulation or inequality, then I would be tempted to tip my hat to the good sense of comedic timing on the part of those who have coordinated this massive clusterfuck. At a press conference last week expected to focus on the outbreaks now spreading from Tokyo and Osaka to the rest of the country, the Prime Minister reassured worried citizens that the games would indeed go on. Thank goodness!
Since the spring, Tokyo’s pandemic Olympics have assumed a thoroughly absurdist quality. The Olympic torch relay began on March 26 in Fukushima, intended as a gesture symbolic of the northeast’s recovery from the 2011 disaster. Local officials discouraged spectators from lining the route or cheering, and as the nationwide outbreak has grown worse through April and May, other regions have cancelled their relays outright. The evening news still obediently relays the images of runners passing through empty streets. Are we supposed to be cheering in our heads? Are we supposed to be excited? Are we supposed to feel hopeful for the future? (apparently, given the relay’s slogan of “Hope Lights our Way”). In any case, with vaccinations lagging far behind expectations, only a fraction of the elderly will be vaccinated in time for the games, and events are increasingly likely to be held without spectators. Come July, we might as well be watching the events take place in Paris or Los Angeles. The $15 billion and change (or is it more like $30 billion? Who knows!) spent on the empty stands of the Olympic stadia and venues may end up as the world’s most expensive television backdrop. “It’s like the Battle of Imphal all over again,” a friend recently said, trotting out a reference to the disastrous Japanese invasion of India in 1944. “Nothing changes! No matter what, they’ll go through with it.”
It’s no surprise that a large majority of the public has turned against staging these zombie Games. Anger is directed mainly at the hapless prime minister and government, and the fabulously corrupt villans at the IOC, who are said to be raising the threat of a breach of contract lawsuit if Japan has the gall to cancel the games altogether. There are plenty of obvious places to lay blame for the way the rescheduling has been handled. Why did they reschedule exactly one year later, rather than allow more time for vaccination and avoid the scorching heat of summer by shifting to a October-November timeline? (short answer: the IOC’s profits from US TV broadcasts). How could the government have flubbed its vaccine rollout so badly when their prized event was clearly on the line? (short answer: probably sheer incompetence). At this point, the best that skeptics like me can hope for is that the Olympics prove to be such a pointless exercise for Tokyo that no city is ever inclined to be fleeced by the IOC’s racket again. But the recriminations about how the postponement has been handled ought to take a back seat to a more basic question: just what did the world’s biggest and richest city, and arguably the world’s first post-growth megapolis, want to prove by hosting the Olympics in the first place?
Sadly, the Olympics are not the only place Japan’s anachronistically minded leaders have found to burn $15 billion in recent days. Late last month, train operator JR Central announced that the magnetically-levitated Chuo Shinkansen bullet train it is currently constructing through super-deep tunnels under Japan’s central spine would cost at least 1.5 trillion yen ($15 billion) more than anticipated, likely topping $100 billion. What a surprise! I’ve long railed against this misguided super-train, which began construction in 2014, the year after Tokyo secured the Olympics. JR Central had originally avoided sharper public scrutiny for its mega-project by confidently promising to build the line with their own profits. Once holes were being drilled, it then went hat-in-hand to the government to accept more than $30 billion in long-term government financing. As the cost spirals upward, the expense of this unnecessary boondoggle is sure to find its way onto the ledger of Japan’s enormous public debt.
Both the Olympics and the Chuo Shinkansen have proven to be money-wasting quagmires because they are lazy attempts to recycle the playbook of Japan’s 1960s economic boom to squeeze more growth out of the country’s now-mature economy. In one sense, they are monuments to the challenge of transforming our mental frameworks in the post-growth era. In the demographic and technological context of the 20th century—a historical anomaly if there ever was one—growth was self-reinforcing, and throwing money at physical infrastructure tended to pay itself back over time by sparking new economic activity. Thus, the Tokaido Shinkansen and Tokyo Olympics of 1964 are credited as the linchpins of the 15-year spurt of high growth in Japan in the 1960s and 1970s.
Yet what good does a new, faster bullet train do when there is an already-existing bullet train on the same route and the population of potential passengers will be dropping precipitously by the time its finished? What use is a bunch of new sports venues for a city where the physical infrastructure of subways, expressways, and sewers is already complete? The answer is not much, besides lining the pockets of the well-connected construction, real estate, and media industries. The dinosaurs who run the country still think this is what is needed, and the public has yet to learn otherwise. For $15 billion, Tokyo could have rebuilt its streetcar network, become a world-class cycling city, or dealt with its persistent childcare problem. For $100 billion, the country’s existing rail network could be optimized and made more affordable in order to reduce emissions and help distribute population away from Tokyo. But with a post-growth politics yet to coalesce in Japan, the promises of growth and progress remain an all-too-easy sell, even if they only offer solutions to problems that no longer exist.
Well—that wasn’t too hard! See you next week 👋