Tokyo: A safe city?

Olympics4On Sunday mornings I have a very early start, and am regularly awake by 5am, so this morning I was already up and watching the news when Tokyo was announced as the winning bid to host the 2020 Olympics. I watched the Japanese delegation in Buenos Aires jumping up and down, the scenes of jubilation from the arena in Komazawa Park, built for the 1964 Olympics, and I thought . . . well, I thought a few things. I have quite mixed feelings about it.

The Japanese bid had focused on being a safe choice: ‘the Olympics will be safe in our hands’. But what does ‘safe’ really mean?

First of all, the statement that I think most people would agree with, that Tokyo is generally a safe city for tourists and for residents. There are clichéd stories of people losing valuable items and getting them back, but it really does happen. Wallets, purses, mobile phones – drop something in the street, leave it on a train and if you go to the police box or station office there is a high chance that you’ll get it back. Not every time, but a lot of the time.

A few years ago, a group of people from a small company I knew in Tokyo went to the UK on what was termed a ‘study trip’ (= junket). On their return they told me that a woman in their group had had her handbag snatched one day. She had been shocked but also infuriated and so had given chase. She had managed to retrieve her handbag (Japanese company employee 1, Petty Criminal 0) but when she wrote a report about their trip she included an account of the incident (which I wholly understand) and concluded with this statement:

‘Japan is safe. Abroad is dangerous.’ (日本は安全、海外は危険) Cut and dried, black and white. No more to say. Of course, it’s not that simple, but with the exception of a few places, I would go anywhere in Tokyo at any time of day or night, on my own, and I would feel safe. I often walk home from the station at ten or eleven o’clock, listening to my iPod, and I don’t worry about being safe. I wouldn’t do the same in the UK. I go out and leave my windows open, and in fact left them open while I was away all summer. I leave windows open at my mother’s house in the UK, but she lives in a village and even that is against recent police advice and know friends and family in cities who lock everything before they go out. I have friends in rural parts of Japan and even Tokyo who never lock their doors.

Japan is safer than many, if not most other countries. Japanese citizens and residents who have got used to life here need to remember that when they travel and be more cautious, but the idea that someone is imperilled the moment they step off the plane in another country is not true.

So, Tokyo will be a safe place to hold the Olympics. Visitors can be generally assured of their personal safety. Yes, I will give them that. Generally, that is a truthful statement.

Next, the Tokyo bid claimed to be a safe (reliable) city which could be counted on to complete construction on time, to have a mass transit system capable of moving huge numbers of people from A to B. Again, I would give them that, but the way it was highlighted left a bad taste on one memorable occasion. At the end of April, Tokyo Governor Naoki Inose cast aspersions on Istanbul’s bid in the most general and unpleasant terms, when he criticised Islamic countries (yes, all of them), saying, “The only thing they share in common is Allah and they are fighting with each other, and they have classes.” He was slapped down by the International Olympic Committee, who said that cities bidding for the Olympics should not make negative comments about rival bids. Governor Inose apologised, first claiming that he had been taken out of context (that old chestnut) but then acknowledging that his remarks had been ‘inappropriate’. That was the end of the story.

But while that was the end of Governor Inose’s mouthing off, he was following in a long tradition of Japanese politicians saying offensive things, and then trying to wriggle out of it by saying their words had been taken out of context. Gov. Inose’s immediate predecessor, Shintaro Ishihara, was of course well-known for his offensive remarks, but he seemed to enjoy the upset he caused and unlike other politicians never seemed apologetic. However, Deputy Prime Minister Aso was true to form in July when he made remarks regarding the government’s desire to change the constitution, specifically to remove Article 9, in which Japan renounces war and the means of war. He suggested that Japan’s government copy Nazi tactics to push through constitutional changes: “The German Weimar constitution changed, without being noticed, to the Nazi German constitution. Why don’t we learn from their tactics?” You can read the full article here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-23527300

This is probably the subject for a separate blog post, but it does seem to me that Japan doesn’t ping the international radar with its unsavoury behaviour, and I wonder why. Maybe Japan seems non-threatening, not a country that could pose a threat, but anyone who knows about the rise of militarism here in the 1930s knows that’s not true.

But back to the second idea that Japan is safe, meaning reliable, will have everything ready on time, and be able to move everyone around the city efficiently. Yes, I will give them that too, but how much will it cost? The Japanese economy has been stagnating since the bubble burst in 1990, and the gamble seems to be that massive construction will boost the economy and a fat profit will be made. In the meantime, the taxpayers of Tokyo will be picking up the bill.

Finally, the aspect of Japanese safety that has been in the news a lot in recent weeks: Fukushima. The Godzilla in the room.

Two and a half years ago, a tsunami slammed into Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, and three of the six reactors went into varying degrees of meltdown. The hapless, incompetent and arrogant Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company) has been trying ever since to get on top of the situation, while running rings round the government and anyone else trying to get an accurate picture of what is going on. Now it seems they never really got their act together and since last month the facts and figures finally emerging have painted a very scary picture. Water contaminated with radioactivity is leaking into the Pacific, and into the ground around the plant. It has reached such high levels that anyone exposed to it would die within hours.

This was the issue which threatened to derail the Tokyo bid, and Prime Minister Abe addressed it personally when he spoke in Buenos Aires before the final vote. According to the BBC, “He allayed fears over the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant 150 miles (240km) from the city by saying: ‘It has never done, and will never do, any damage to Tokyo.’ ”

Yes, well, boo to that, Mr. Abe. That’s not so far away from Tokyo, and while I know it’s Tokyo which will host the Games, I don’t think that’s totally the point. 150 miles (or 240km) away from Tokyo there is a serious, ongoing nuclear incident. The most serious since Chernobyl. There is an exclusion zone around the plant, a dead zone, and who knows if people will ever be able to live there again? The spent fuel rods were, last time I saw any information about them, 4 storeys up in a damaged building, in a tank of water, exposed to the elements, covered with blue tarpaulin. The plans to sort out this mess are measured in terms of years, apparently lacking any sense of urgency. What would happen if a typhoon hit the area? Or another earthquake and tsunami? It seems to me there is a lot of gambling on what probably won’t happen, and politicians making statements about scenarios that will ‘never’ happen. But can they really give such absolute guarantees?

After the earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, the number of tourists visiting Japan fell dramatically. Despite assurances, people didn’t want to risk it. There are some words which people react to on a very instinctive level. I would suggest that those words would include ‘earthquake’, ‘tsunami’, ‘nuclear meltdown’, ‘radiation’ . . .

150 miles or 240km. Does that sound like a great distance? In the UK that is the equivalent of London to Chesterfield or Cardiff, and in the US, Washington DC to Philadelphia PA, or Baltimore MD to Richmond VA.

Do you still feel safe? Would you still feel confident that people will travel here and happily ignore the risks? We’re not talking about vast distances here.

Underneath the declaration that Tokyo is safe there is so much more information, so many more aspects to this. Facebook has lit up today with a wide range of opinions. This is in no way anything other than anecdotal, but from what I have seen, opinions range from a straightforward, ‘Yay for Tokyo, that’s great!’, to ‘Oh no, Tokyo shouldn’t have got it’. There are a lot of mixed feelings, and that is where I find myself.

I am proud of this city, I love so much about it, and I’m excited that Tokyo will have an opportunity to showcase what’s great about it, that people will come and have an amazing time. That certainly happened when Japan co-hosted the 2002 Football World Cup. But, but, but . . . how much will it cost? Will it make an already emboldened, aggressive and increasingly xenophobic government even bolder? Some have pointed out that Mr. Abe probably won’t be the Prime Minister, that this current crop of unpleasant fellows will not be in power. True. But the LDP has been in power for most of the last seventy years, do you think that’s going to change? It won’t be Abe & Co. in power, but in the tradition of generations of political families here it will probably be their younger brothers or sons.

I do hope that the 2020 Olympics will be a wonderful opportunity for Tokyo. I really do. But I also hope that for the next seven years, there is a spotlight on Japan, that the rest of the world watches what Japan’s leaders say and do, that they are held to account, and that they deal with the situation in Fukushima sooner rather than later, not just for the Olympics, but for all the people in Tohoku who have already endured two and a half years of Tepco lies and government ineptitude.

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