The blog post discusses the negative impacts of the preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games on specific segments of society. It discusses in particular how the preparations for the mega-event negatively affects the homeless, the Fukushima evacuees, Fukushima decontamination workers and construction workers, writes Carla K.N. Batista.

On September 7, 2013, at the 125th IOC Session in Buenos Aires, Tokyo won their bid to host the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics. Well-known Japanese politicians and celebrities were celebrating the announcement on TV in wild enthusiasm. However, just as I remember the euphoria from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics announcement coming loudly from my TV, I also remember reading about protests in Brazil against the 2016 Rio Olympics. Tokyo was not an exception, with protests sparkling up after Tokyo became a candidate city to host the 2020 Olympics and growing further as preparations for the Games proceeded.

Tokyo. Photo by Louie Martinez on Unsplash

Protesters around the world oppose the Olympics for a number of different reasons. In the case of Japan, Fukushima evacuees, decontamination workers, and construction workers are some of the most visibly affected groups and to a certain extent specific to the Japanese case, when considering the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis in 2011 and the country’s controversial working culture. Another affected group is the homeless population, as has been the case in all hosting countries as they are evicted from public spaces.

The Hangorin No Kai (反五輪の会) is an anti-Olympics movement formed in 2013 before Tokyo won the bid. They organise themselves for protests through Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. The Japanese anti-Olympics movement seems to have also created ties with other similar movements around the world, such as with Korean activists and the No Olympics campaign in Los Angeles. In February, an article of 7 reasons why you should oppose the PyeongChang Winter Olympics was posted in three languages. The reasons posed ranged from the destruction of the ecosystem to the rise of nationalism and use of such events as a way of diverting population’s attention from emergent corruption scandals.

In a separate statement, the Hangorin No Kai expressed similar reasons as to why they opposed the 2020 Tokyo Games. According to one of their most recent reports, at least 10 public housing units have been demolished, homeless people have been evicted from parks, and construction workers have been experiencing worsening working conditions as they try to meet construction deadlines for the Olympics. Other problems specific to  Japan’s recent history include the case of Fukushima evacuees and decontamination workers in the Fukushima region. Each of these groups is discussed below.

As Peter Eisinger once pointed out, not many would say that the construction of new stadiums, malls and cultural centres is bad. After all, such facilities bring about high mass culture, sports and recreational opportunities to a city. The issue is a matter of balance or proportionality. When building a city for visitors takes priority over the needs of the local residents, that means that priorities have become unbalanced. This certainly reflects the situation of the homeless in Tokyo. In March 2017, three people were removed from the Miyashita Park in Shibuya amidst the protests by homeless people against new construction projects for the Games. The incident happened following the approval for the construction of four new skyscrapers in the surrounding areas of Miyashita Park and Shibuya Station. Japan could barely be said to have a homeless problem, with the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare estimating the number to be 6,235 in the whole country. However, most houses in Japan are built by private companies, with a limited number of affordable public housing units. The question then becomes: Why not build more affordable homes or homeless shelters instead of four new skyscrapers?

Kevin Gotham, Professor of Sociology at Tulane University (USA), argues that the hosting of a mega-events can be exclusionary, but may also provide a way of bringing international attention to said issues. However, Fukushima evacuees fear that their on-going struggle will be forgotten or downplayed by the Olympic Games. Fukushima evacuees moved to other parts of Japan following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant meltdown in 2011. Having had subsidies withdrawn in March of 2017, they are now having to choose whether to move back to a place they do not believe is safe, or to face financial hardship.  In addition to that, it had also been decided that baseball and softball games are to be hosted in Fukushima, as the government has been attempting to revive the region and show it is safe. This fact itself is worrying not only because it diminishes the real scale of the nuclear disaster, but also because it means worsening working conditions for decontamination workers, as the decontamination process is sped-up. In order to do so in time, the state has raised the daily radiation exposure limit for decontamination workers.

Furthermore, many talk about the creation of more jobs as one of the benefits of the Olympics, especially in the construction sector as more capital is invested into the built environment. But, preparations for mega-events would increase concerns about working conditions. Such concerns can run deeper in a country where even a term for “death by overwork” (過労死) exists. A 23-year-old construction worker committed suicide last year after clocking 190 hours of overtime while working in the construction of the new National Stadium, where workers are racing against time to meet deadlines. Design proposals for this project had been rejected a number of times in attempts to reduce costs, resulting in a delayed start and a tighter deadline.

Now that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are happening, the real question is at what and whose cost?

About the author

Carla K.N. Batista earned a Liberal Studies degree at the Hosei University (Bachelors) in Tokyo, Japan, and is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Development Studies at the London School of Economics.