Photo:t-mizo on Flickr

Beyond 2020: What the Olympics Means for Japan’s Future

It is now almost 1 year since Tokyo was named the host for the 2020 Olympic Games. For the first time since 1964, the “Greatest Show on Earth” will return to the Japanese capital. Unfortunately, as I have mentioned previously, not everyone in Japan was happy about it.

Photo : Stuart Rankin on Flickr

In a previous post, I spoke of my hopes for the games and their long term impact on Japan, however recent events have prompted me to revisit this issue again, and look at it, perhaps in a bit more detail.
Tokyo’s biggest problem, may simply be the fact that, it is Tokyo!

Much like other prominent capital cities across the world, such as London in England and Beijing in China, there is sometimes a perception of favouritism being shown to the capital city to the detriment of other large cities in the country.

Indeed, I have, in the months since the initial announcement, heard many people in Osaka complain along the lines of “Oh, why Tokyo again? Tokyo gets everything. When will it be Osaka’s turn?!”

Such frustration is, I suppose understandable, especially in a place like Osaka with such widely publicized public finance problems.

In recent weeks however, there has also been something of a revolt among Tokyoites themselves. Angered and frustrated at what they see as little more than a vanity project in the wake of ongoing government cutbacks to education and other frontline public services, not to mention Japan’s ongoing budget deficit.

In an attempt to quell public anger, and perhaps deflect from some of his governments more sinister motives in recent times, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced recently that the already grossly over-budget plan for a new national stadium to be built in Tokyo should be sent back to the drawing board and scaled back considerably.

This has left many commentators and ordinary members of the public to ponder, what exactly will the legacy of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games be for Japan and in what way will it benefit the future of the people of Japan?

As it turns out, the Olympics will pave the way for a number of legacy projects that will benefit future generations of Japanese considerably.

First up, there are the numerous transport and infrastructure upgrades. While the plans to finally bring Tokyo’s Yamanote Line, the city’s central loop train line, into line with similar train lines across the world and run a 24 hour service have already been well documented, the transport upgrades won’t stop there. Whilst the new generation of Maglev trains to replace the Shinkansen, which last year celebrated its 50th anniversary, won’t be completed until around 2030, in the interim new trains and upgraded electronics along the lines should reduce the travel time considerably. Whilst the maglev-fueled 1 hour journeys between Tokyo and Osaka are still a couple of decades away, plans are afoot to bring the current journey time of around two and a half to three hours down to just over 2 hours. It may not sound like much, but suddenly this makes cities like Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto much more viable locations for Tokyo based multinational companies to base their satellite offices. Indeed if all goes according to plan we may even see an eventual decentralization, where a number of prominent firms may consider relocating their headquarters in order to save costs and also make better use of a more diverse labour force. This is already happening in the UK, where sky high rates in London have prompted large firms like the BBC to relocate to cities further north like Liverpool and Manchester. Not only will this help to relieve congestion and over-population in Tokyo and the greater Kanto region, it will also go some way to tackling Japan’s rural depopulation problem.

Photo : SenYuan on Flickr

Robotics are also expected to play a greater role in the future of Japan’s work force. As the population continues to age, artificial intelligence will take on more and more of the menial jobs currently reserved for humans.

We have already seen the much trumpeted recent unveiling of a hotel in Tokyo ran almost entirely by robotic staff. Although quite why anyone would want to be greeted by a talking velociraptor when checking in to a hotel for a romantic break is beyond me! Only in Japan, as the old saying goes!

Such uniquely Japanese quirks aside, automation is the future, and it looks like it’s here to stay. The role that robots could potentially play as guides and hospitality staff for visitors to Tokyo come the time of the Olympics is a fascinating story that continues to develop in new and exciting ways as we move closer to the big event.

Perhaps the greatest triumph of the Tokyo Olympics will be one of frugality. In the wake of such bloated basket cases as the Brazil 2014 FIFA World Cup and the impending financial disaster that will almost inevitably befall Rio’s 2016 Olympics, it could fall to Japan to show the world how to do a sporting spectacle on a budget.

It will be interesting to see what the scaled-back plans for the new national stadium look like when the organizing committee reports back to the government after the summer recess. If there is one thing Japanese people are never lacking, it is ingenuity. New sources of energy, better uses of human and environmental resources and a renewed sense of national pride will all, hopefully be future fringe benefits to come out of Tokyo 2020.

Photo : EFFIE YANG on Flickr

In the meantime, the biggest challenge facing the government is in convincing the numerous detractors of Tokyo’s Olympic dream, both amongst the public and in the vernacular press that this is indeed a worthwhile venture. Far more so than any doomed notions of militarization or unpopular constitutional reforms, setting the groundwork for a big, bold but nonetheless cost effective Olympic Games in 2020 may come to be the defining aspect of Shinzo Abe’s second stint as Prime Minister. Whilst I may not agree with a number of his views on a great many issues, you have to respect the man for even attempting such a monumental task. For the sake of all my friends in Tokyo and all around Japan, here’s hoping Mr Abe and his Olympic organizing committee can get the job done, and give us all a games to be proud of for many decades to come.

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