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Olympics provide golden opportunity for change


Special To The Japan Times

While there are many reasons why a city would want to host the Olympic Games, most have to do with money and prestige: The Olympics bring international attention to the host city for two weeks.

Consequently, the city has to look its best, but preparations for the spotlight go beyond the cosmetic and often entail the adoption of social values shared by the international community, or, at least, that part of the international community with power and influence. Conversely, when Sochi hosted the Winter Olympics last year, the Russian government undermined the games’ image by passing a law beforehand prohibiting the “promotion” of gay lifestyles, a move that offended many people. Some European officials ended up boycotting the opening ceremony in protest.

But social engineering isn’t as straightforward as civil engineering. Ever since Tokyo won the right to host the 2020 Games, various groups have been talking about what the city, and Japan as a whole, needs to do before all these foreign visitors show up. Infrastructure-wise, there is talk about speeding up the renovation of train lines and expressways to facilitate transportation in and around Tokyo, expanding wireless broadband service and programming more ATMs to accept foreign credit cards. One group even wants to remove the expressway that was built above Nihonbashi prior to the last Tokyo Olympics in 1964 to make the area more attractive.

In this regard, efforts must be made to create a barrier-free environment for disabled visitors, especially since the Paralympic Games follow the Olympics. According to an article in the March 16 Yomiuri Shimbun, the Tokyo municipal government, using typically convoluted syntax, “plans to make a policy to establish a conference group” in partnership with local railways “to study what needs to be done” to make it easier for people with disabilities to get around the city. In particular, Tokyo and Shinjuku, the two busiest train stations in the capital, are considered difficult to access for wheelchairs.

The Yomiuri seems confident that it isn’t too late to make the necessary changes, but mainly because the work being addressed is limited to “areas surrounding the main sports venues” and certain transportation hubs. The next priority would be tourist destinations such as Ueno, Asakusa and Roppongi.

In other words, making Tokyo barrier-free for the Olympics will be a piecemeal, contingent endeavor, which begs a bigger question, and one the media isn’t asking: Why does it take an Olympics to bring about changes — in this case an environment more amenable to people with disabilities — that the authorities should be facilitating as a matter of course? Or, taken at face value, if the authorities are really going to bring about changes for the sake of the Olympics, why not take advantage of the opportunity and do it right?

This would involve not just building a few wheelchair ramps and installing some elevators, but creating an integrated physical and social environment where everyone — abled and disabled alike — can be more comfortable. As covered by the press, these changes are not being carried out for the greater good, but only because Tokyo doesn’t want to be embarrassed when all these guests show up.

In some cases, the will to implement necessary changes has proved to be insufficient. The Tokyo prefectural assembly understands that the city is behind the global curve in terms of legally enforced smoking prohibitions, and at the urging of Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe has been trying to pass a regulation that would ban indoor smoking in buildings open to the public. But what has happened is that opponents of the measure demanded a compromise: Restaurants and bars should only be compelled to offer separate sections for smokers, which, as every non-smoker knows, has no effect at all since, unlike people with lit cigarettes, smoke cannot be prevented from crossing imaginary boundaries.

Reportedly, hotel and restaurant associations have appealed to the libertarian proclivities of the assembly’s Liberal Democratic Party members, who insist that individual businesses should be allowed to decide whether or not they ban smoking on their premises.

Such political posturing violates the spirit of the International Olympic Committee, which stipulates that the Games be “smoke-free,” a situation that extends to the overall host city and not just to venues. According to the World Health Organization, 48 countries in the world have complete bans on indoor smoking in public places. Rio de Janeiro passed a non-smoking law in 2009 to comply with the IOC guidelines, and South Korea implemented a national smoking ban in public places last January specifically because of the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang.

“We have to get this done in time for the Olympics” has become a kind of mantra, and this is being used by activists to draw the attention of media and officialdom to certain social issues, including hate speech and even the treatment of abandoned pets. Sexual minorities in Japan do not face the kind of overt discrimination they do in Russia, but there are no laws guaranteeing against such discrimination. On March 17, the Mainichi Shimbun reported that a group of Diet lawmakers wants to pass a resolution “defending the rights of LGBT people” as advocated by the IOC organizing committee, but so far they’ve only gotten as far as “planning to talk to members of the LGBT community.”

Sometimes the aims of these groups are progressive, and sometimes they’re parochially self-serving, even if their ultimate goals are laudable. The city of Inzai in Chiba Prefecture is trying to get the Japan Olympic Committee to move some of the canoe races to nearby Inba-numa, explaining to residents that if the races are approved they will be forced to clean up the lake, the second filthiest in Japan. Given that reasoning, it’s natural to conclude that if it weren’t for the Olympics they probably wouldn’t do anything.

  • Katie Adler

    When looking at what takes to get me to make positive changes in my life I understand why it takes a monumental event for changes of the magnitude discussed here to get the ball rolling!

  • Stephen Kent

    Personally I really hope that the Olympics brings some kind of improvement in the situation regarding passive smoking, which in my opinion is a national embarrassment for Japan – not least because consideration for others is supposed to be a major source of national pride. Laws to stop people from smoking indoors in public places have long been in place in most rich countries, and in my experience visitors to Japan tend to be quite taken aback by the intensely smokey air they get blasted with whenever they go into an izakaya or bar here so when people start arriving for the Olympics, smoky atmospheres will presumably become a topic of conversation in media of one kind of another if there is no change.

    However, Japan Tobacco enjoys a government ensured monopoly and is apparently a common destination for officials retiring from the Finance Ministry (which also happens to have a 33% stake in JT and is responsible for tobacco related legislation) so no matter what happens there are going to be some pretty powerful forces resisting any change that might lead to people smoking less, which means that it is always going to be hard for any kind of passive smoking legislation to have a chance of getting off the ground in Japan. Hopefully the thought of visitors realising that Japan is lagging well behind the rest of the world when it comes to protecting non-smokers and is not the modern country that it claims to be will spur someone in a position of power to take action, but what would be much better would be for people in Japan to demand the change for themselves. That, however, would involve standing up, organizing, and speaking out – something that is sadly lacking in Japan I feel – and it would have to be done in the face of a propaganda and disinformation onslaught from Japan Tobacco which aims to keep people ignorant and paint a picture of a responsible company that is concerned for people’s health.

    • Sabrina Surovec

      Well said! I am 100% in agreement. Having lived here for over 14 years now, this is still my biggest pet peeve when venturing out of my house.

      The others would be lack of barrier-free availability and ATMs that close at 8pm (or randomly, for no discernible reason at all).