National / Science & Health

Safety-minded Tokyo bracing for Olympic contingencies of all kinds


Cyberattacks, terrorism, earthquakes and heat waves: Tokyo’s Olympic organizers are hoping for the best but bracing for the worst as they make contingency plans for potential catastrophes during the games.

Clean and orderly Tokyo has been spared from the terror attacks seen in many Western cities in recent years and is considered a relatively safe bet for the games: It is often ranked as low-risk by insurance and risk-management firms.

But that security goes out of the window when it comes to hosting the Greatest Show on Earth, says Shiro Kawamoto, a counterterrorism expert and professor of risk management at Nihon University.

“Tokyo’s safeness in normal times cannot be taken for granted during the Olympics when the world’s attention is on it,” Kawamoto said.

So Tokyo is pulling out all the technological stops to bolster safety. In an Olympic first, for example, it is introducing a facial recognition system for games volunteers.

Organizers are also bracing for a cyberattack similar to the one that blighted the opening ceremony of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, where internet and Wi-Fi access were brought down.

“We are preparing on the assumption there will be a cyberattack,” said senior government official Kenji Endo, one the people in charge of Tokyo 2020 preparations.

The government has set up an elite unit of police and Defense Ministry experts to counter possible threats.

As far as terror attacks go, Tokyo has not experienced a major event since the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult released sarin on the Tokyo subway system in 1995, killing 13 people and injuring thousands.

But an attack on New Year’s Eve — where a Japanese man deliberately drove a minicar down one of Tokyo’s best-known streets and ran over nine people — jolted Tokyo out of its complacency.

Counterterrorism drills are being conducted regularly and officials are urging the public to be vigilant.

With petty crime much lower than in other major capitals, people generally pay little attention to abandoned baggage, for example. “To prevent a suspicious object in a train from suddenly exploding, someone has to spot it and call the police or station staff,” Kawamoto said.

The ever-present threat of natural disasters is also keeping officials up at night, with Tokyo being one of the world’s most seismically active capitals and memories of last year’s deadly typhoons, flooding and heat waves still fresh.

“As for natural disasters, we think the biggest challenge is to prepare for a big quake that is impossible to predict,” said Akio Sato, a senior official in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

Rigid building codes mean even strong tremors often do little damage, but the government estimates up to 23,000 could die if a magnitude 7 quake hit Tokyo directly.

Panic and a lack of preparation could cause more unnecessary damage, experts warn.

Mindful that hundreds of thousands will be coming from overseas, the Japan Tourism Agency has upgraded its “safety tips” app with information on disasters, evacuation shelters and medical organizations.

The 2020 Games will take place “during the most dangerous period — in the middle of typhoon season,” said Nobuyuki Tsuchiya, head of a Tokyo environmental organization.

Typhoon Jebi pummeled Japan last year, lashing the country with ferocious winds and driving rain that killed 11 people.

If a similar typhoon generates high tides that hit Tokyo, the water “will not be gone for about two weeks,” said Tsuchiya.

Tokyo’s eastern lowlands, where roughly 2.5 million people live, will host the Olympic volleyball and swimming venues. Any floodwater could drain into the city’s massive subway system and inundate not only transport, but also underground malls in other parts of the city, Tsuchiya warned.

In response, Tokyo Metro, the capital’s largest subway, has been scrambling to set up watertight doors at some 400 entrances to the system in case of flooding.

Organizers have had to take expensive measures to combat the heat during the games, which will take place at the height of Tokyo’s sweltering summer. The start time for the marathon was moved to early morning and organizers plan to install heat-busting measures such as water-sprinklers along the route, swelling the event’s budget.

Authorities should also study “contingency plans including a decision to suspend the event,” said Toshitaka Katada, a disaster prevention professor at the University of Tokyo.

“That kind of decision-making tends to be delayed” if not discussed in advance, especially regarding who decides the cancellation and in which circumstances, he said.

Any such decision would be taken by the IOC, while “the Japanese government will give necessary advice over important security issues,” said government official Endo.

Tokyo 2020 official Kaho Akiyama said organizers were prepared to deal with a crisis if it arises.

“To help deal with any emergencies, we are preparing evacuation plans for each venue, and are considering the offer of multilingual support to facilitate prompt and smooth evacuations,” she said.