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What we talk about when we talk about the Olympics

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

If you’re lamenting the number of kōji (工事, construction works) clogging Tokyo streets and coating your lungs with toxic fumes, you can lump at least part of the blame on the Olympics, slated to happen in the summer of 2020. And take comfort in the fact that in the years leading up to the last time Tokyo hosted the games, in 1964, the kōji-genba (工事現場, construction sites) were much noisier and more obnoxious and poisonous than they are today, with zilch regard for safety or environmental measures. “Ano koro wa hidokatta” (「あの頃はひどかった」, “Things were awful back then”), reminisces my 76-year old neighbor Yamazaki-san. “Demo yatto sengo ga owatta kanji ga shita” (「でもやっと戦後が終わった感じがした」, “But I got the feeling the postwar years of hardship were finally over”).

Yamazaki-san has a point. Nineteen sixty-four is branded in the collective Japanese memory as the turnaround year — when the nation showed the world its miraculous resurrection from the ashes of World War II by hosting an international event. Landmark kōkyōjigyō(公共事業, public works) projects were embarked on in the runup to that year, such as the shutokō (首都高, metropolitan highway), shutoken suidōsetsubi (首都圏水道設備, metropolitan plumbing works) and the shinkansen (新幹線, bullet train). Haneda Airport was revamped in time for the games, and the Hotel New Otani opened its doors for the benefit of the 30,000 foreign guests set to pour into the city. Architectural feats of wonder such as the Kokuritsu Kyōgijyō (国立競技場, National Stadium) and the Yoyogi Taiikukan (代々木体育館, Yoyogi National Gymnasium) and the Nippon Budokan (日本武道館) demonstrated the skill and scale of Japanese architecture.

It was hard to believe that the nation had come so far a mere 19 years from its surrender in 1945. Never mind that in order to pull off the whole shebang the majority of Tokyoites had to work like maniacs, or that mass-construction projects set the tone for contractors to swoop down on the metropolis and kaihatsu (開発, develop) it to death for decades afterward. Keizai (経済, economy) and kōritsu (効率, efficiency) headed off the national agenda and ushered in the kōdoseichōkeizai (高度成長経済, rapid growth economy) with a vengeance.

And now that same logic is being utilized once again, via the personally selected slogan of the shushō (首相, prime minister): “Tsuyoi Nippon wo torimodosō” (「強い日本を取り戻そう」, “Let’s regain a strong Japan”). The prime minister — or “Abe-chan” as he’s supposedly called over at LDP headquarters — is showing himself to be a tradition-entrenched Japanese male, convinced that what worked once is bound to work again. For the first time in a very long while, Tokyo streets are buzzing with businessmen shouting into their smartphones, cutting deals and talking cash.

In the media, 半沢直樹 (“Hanzawa Naoki”) is all the rage — the mega-hit Sunday night TV ドラマ (dorama, TV drama) adapted from a series of novels by Jun Ikeido. Ikeido rescued Japanese fiction from the swamps of serial killings and plonked it into the world of kigyō entame (企業エンタメ, the entertainment world of corporate dealings). The TV series featured the titular Hanzawa as an atsui (アツい, passionate) and seigikan no tsuyoi (正義感の強い, a strong sense of justice) banker with a nose for shady in-house maneuverings. Because of this, his jōshi (上司, bosses) seek to quash him in the mud — but Hanzawa’s life principle of yararetara baigaeshi (やられたら倍返し, repaying wrongdoings twofold) empowers him with the guts and energy to pull through. With zero romantic subplots and visuals that consist mostly of work-addicted banker salarymen in dark suits, you’d think such a series would have been shot down at the get-go. Instead, “baigaeshi” (「倍返し」, “double-vengeance”) is slated to be the No. 1 ryūkōgo (流行語, trendy phrase) of 2013, and the series wound up with an average rating of 25 percent. Apparently, nothing brings more joy to the Japanese heart and mind than the thought of overwork.

And now with the Olympics just seven years away we have the perfect excuse to work ourselves silly. Could this be the mega adrenaline shot that will finally revive the economy? Or is it — as so many tabloids are warning — a smokescreen to hide a corpse or several? One thing is for certain, the sudden and enforced kōkeiki (好景気, economic boom) of Tokyo isn’t helping matters in the Tohoku region, which is still riddled with problems. Fifty years ago the scenario was the same — millions of laborers left Tohoku for Olympic-related construction jobs in Tokyo, and the metropolis got rich while the region was left more or less stranded. The hōshanō more (放射能漏れ, radiation leak) in Fukushima is unresolved and over 310,000 people in the northeast continue to live in shelters. With a PM who has openly declared “hito yorimo conkurīto” (「人よりもコンクリート」, “concrete over people”), it’s probably no use expecting much in the way of a little kindness.

  • Thaddeus Stone

    Ahhh, Kaori Shoji and her magical grandparents who seem to live forever