A thousand words in one same language

As the Olympic and Paralympic Games are an international event that attract various people among the world, difficulty in communication and language barriers are a recurrent phenomenon. Sports illustrations and graphic images for providing general information have been used in early modern Games such as 1912 in Stockholm, 1924 in Paris and 1948 in London. However, they were quite complex, kept on a small scale and not universally recognised. 

Careful about the sense of hospitality and anticipating the influx of non-Japanese speaking visitors, it was in the run-up to Tōkyō 1964 that the Olympic pictograms officially made their debut. In the arise from a need to communicate visually to an increasingly international group of athletes and spectators, designer Yamashita Yoshiro and art critic Katsumi Masaru led a team of specialists who worked together on the development of icons reduced in shape and size to the minimum needed for understanding each message. The set included 20 figures for the different sports, as well as 39 additional icons for various kinds of information. They were used on venue maps and programmes, but also on building walls and inside airports and train stations. As the pictograms have proved successful at the Tōkyō 1964 Games, subsequent hosts followed the Japanese example. Furthermore, design critics have stated that these Olympic pictograms have permanently changed the idea of graphic design and consider it as one of the earliest steps on the way to replace words with images on the global stage. Indeed, the concept of using icons in the communication around everyday facilities and services spread widely, and so, for example, the now well-known toilet signage emerged in the context of 1964.

Olympic pictograms from the 1960s to the 1980s looked similar and were primarily supposed to be informative. Progressively, they then received an individual design. Thus, Lillehammer 1994 marked a turning point by developing a very unique type of icon, inspired by Norwegian rock paintings that are estimated several thousand years old. Creators wished thereby to incorporate the country’s history, and additionally made a commercial campaign out of it, leading to the production of t-shirts and various objects for sale. 

With almost all of the 128 million existing native Japanese speakers living on the archipelago, the ninth most practiced language in the world stands out with its strong geographical concentration. Although reaching a record of more than 31 million tourists who visited the Land of the Rising Sun last year, the country’s language remains rather isolated. Compared to 1964, much information in English and other foreign languages is available today. Nevertheless, communication is still seen as a difficulty in the context of the Olympic and Paralympic Games and the use of symbols seems to remain an efficient solution in the orientation of international visitors. 

Designed by a team led by Hiromura Masaaki over an almost 2-year period, the Tōkyō 2020 official sport pictograms of the Olympic Games got introduced on 12 March 2019. There are two sets (unframed and framed) of 50 designs representing the 33 sports that will feature next summer (some sports count individual pictograms per discipline). The unframed version will be used on posters, tickets and licensed products whereas the framed type will be figuring on maps, signage at competition venues, guidebooks and websites. The Paralympic pictograms were unveiled one month later, on 13 April 2019. They count a total of 23 designs for the 22 Paralympic sports (two different ones are used to express each of the cycling disciplines). 

The Tōkyō 2020 sport figures were created with the idea to combine the heritage of the past Games with innovation. The 1964 pictograms consisted of straight lines and precise circles. The 2020 version aims to add the vibrancy and athlete’s movements as a new dimension. The design has been developed in dialogue with various specialists and athletes who shared their perception and knowledge. However, when looking at the frozen images, this intention seems hard to discern and the mentioned vibrancy and motion are difficult to seize.

In the preparation of this report, I traced the 20 corresponding pictograms of the 1964 and 2020 Games on translucent paper. The immediate comparison of the pencil’s flow in my hand made me experience the motion in the figures. It showed me the refinement of each pictogram and made me understand the subtility of the new design. 

The following photograph shows the 20 pictograms used in both, the 1964 (left) and the 2020 (right) Games. Please note that the Olympic and Paralympic Games have not only grown in size but today also embrace a wider range of sports. Tōkyō 2020 therefore includes an additional 30 Olympic pictograms that I did not draw. As there were no Paralympic pictograms developed for 1964, the ones of 2020 do not figure in the following image.



Spread out, be around

It was at the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble that a mascot made its debut. Schuss was a little man on skis, painted in the colours of the French flag, created by Aline Lafargue. However, it was not called a mascot by then and an official one was used four years later at the Munich 1972 Summer Games. Waldi, a dachshund dog was designed by Elena Winschermann three years before the event. The Paralympic Games didn’t have an own mascot materialised until 1980 as they were not officially branded. The following years, each Games had different mascots and only from the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games on, they have been represented together. 

Olympic mascots are fictional characters, usually resembling an animal typical for the host city or region or human figures who represent the local culture. They are particularly important in the promotion of the Games and meant to please a wide range of people, including the younger generations. 

The Tōkyō 2020 Organising Committee began the selection of the mascots roughly three years prior to the Games. From 1 to 14 August 2017, design proposals could be made by principally everyone who was at least 18 years old as of 1 April 2017 and who either has Japanese nationality or is holder of a Japanese residence card. All in all, 2,042 applications were received; 1,753 of which answered the format criteria. In September 2017, specialists from different involved companies decided if the proposed designs and profiles would be suitable for elementary school children. 98 entries made it to the next stage. Then, members of the Mascot Selection Panel examined whether the remaining designs reflected the spirit of the Tōkyō 2020 Games Vision and the values of the Olympic and Paralympic movements. 16 proposals made it through. On 13 October 2017, the Mascot Selection Panel began the selection of the final three candidates. From 11 December 2017 to 22 February 2018, 205,755 classes from 16,769 elementary schools in Japan and Japanese schools abroad were asked to vote for their favourite set. The winning design, chosen by 109,041 classes was announced on 28 February 2018. It is to mention that the votes decreased proportionally to the order of the presentation: 109,041 for Pair A, 61,423 for Pair B and 35,291 for Pair C.

From the end of April to the end of May 2018, the mascot naming was developed based on questionnaires given to the children who had participated in the voting and an interview with the winning design creator Taniguchi Ryo. For each character, 30 proposals were made. Finally, the names Miraitowa (Olympics) and Someity (Paralympics) were unveiled on 22 July 2018. A special naming ceremony was held on the occasion. Although written in katakana, Miraitowa is based on the Japanese word mirai (future) and towa (eternity), whereas Someity comes from someiyoshino, a popular cherry blossom variety and echoes with the English “so mighty”.

One day after the announcement of the names, and two years and one day before the opening of the sporting event, the first official licensed 2020 Tōkyō Olympic and Paralympic Games shop opened inside major consumer electronics retailer BicCamera Shinjuku West. At that time, about 700 articles, such as pins, t-shirts, mugs, booklets, and stuffed toys were for sale. In summer 2019, another 445 officially licensed items got released, including products featuring the “1 Year to Go!” logo and sports pictograms.

At present, the Organising Committee of the 2020 Tōkyō Olympic and Paralympic Games has two further official retailers, one inside BicCamera Akasaka-Mitsuke and one at BicCamera Ikebukuro East, as well as an online shop. In addition, other merchandisers sell official licensed products. 

The recently launched Olympic and Paralympic Licca-chan has particularly been hailed. The Japanese version of Barbie made its debut eight years after her American counterpart and therefore missed the 1964 Games by three years. The Tōkyō 2020 doll comes in two types, one is a blond girl wearing a blue yukata kimono (Olympics) whereas the other is brunette with a pink yukata (Paralympics). Licca-chan has marked different generations and is popular among children and adults. Being particularly favoured articles, the two dolls may help the mascots generate the expected ¥14 billion from licensing and merchandising.


Work together, help one another

Last Thursday, 5 December, the International Volunteer Day for Economic and Social Development, commonly known as International Volunteer Day (IVD) was celebrated. Mandated by the UN General Assembly in 1985, its aim is to promote volunteerism, encourage governments to support volunteer efforts and recognise volunteer contributions at local, national and international levels. 

The term volunteer finds its origins in Latin voluntārius, meaning “of one’s free will” from voluntās “will”. Supposedly, it was first used in 1755 when it got derived from Middle French voluntaire, related to military service in the early 17th century. However, organised forms of volunteering occurred only in the 19th century. Gradually, it became an international concept, notably hailed by Western countries, where around 20-25% of the population yearly offer services for free. In the context of globalisation, those with disposable incomes frequently take advantage to visit new destinations with the motive of experiencing a place or event as a volunteer and so, the fusion of volunteering and tourism has led to the recently popular concept of “volunteer tourism” / “voluntourism”.

Over the past decades, the events industry has rapidly expanded and in the sport sector competitions have been growing in size. Given that mega-events such as the Olympic and Paralympic Games are time-bound and take place within a short period, they generate few permanent long-term employment. Considered to be economically and socially beneficial, volunteers have therefore become essential to the delivery of the Games. 

The Tōkyō 2020 Olympics and Paralympics are expected to count 80,000 Games and 30,000 City Volunteers. On 12 September 2018 the Tōkyō Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (TOCOG) announced the opening for the Games Volunteer application programme scheduled from 26 September to 21 December 2018, with an extended deadline for people with visual impairment. Candidates were to be born before 1 April 2002 and had to be Japanese nationals or persons with a valid (short- or long-term) visa. They were asked to assure devoting eight hours a day for a period of over ten days consecutively. The so-called Field Cast is supposed to mainly help at competition venues, the Olympic and Paralympic Village, support Games operations and provide services to spectators, media and others. As common, the volunteers are in charge of their accommodation and transportation to the host city. In return, they are to get meals, uniforms and ¥1,000 support for transportation per working day. 

In the beginning of the recruitment process, rather few applications were received. Therefore, conditions were lowered: the requested period of ten days got possibly adapted and the guidelines for consecutive volunteering were changed to five days. Also, Japanese companies were asked to encourage their employees to apply for the programme. In the end, the efforts were fruitful, as 204,680 people from Japan and overseas have applied. Interviews and orientation sessions for applicants who reside in Japan started in February 2019 and the general training commenced in October 2019, with a first one for English speakers the month after. Role-specific trainings are scheduled for April 2020, and from May 2020, uniforms will be handed out. Interviews and orientation for overseas applicants were held between March and September 2019 via video calls, and trainings will take place in June 2020. Twelve percent of the accepted volunteers are non-Japanese, coming from 120 countries.

In parallel, the Tōkyō Metropolitan Government (TMG) outlined a recruitment process of another 30,000 volunteers on 18 September 2018. The period for applications correlated with the one for the Tōkyō 2020 Games Volunteers. The City Cast is supposed to provide tourism and transport information for visitors at airports, train terminals and sightseeing spots. Their conditions differ from the Field Cast’s, demanding only five hours of activity per day for a period of at least five days, non-consecutively. However, candidates need to have conversational Japanese skills, and most of the recruitment and orientation is undertaken in Japanese language. Interviews and information sessions took place from February to May 2019. The selected candidates got notified in September the same year. Group trainings started on 4 October 2019 and are to be continued until late February 2020. From April 2020, role-specific trainings will take place, followed by location-specific trainings and the distribution of uniforms in June 2020 .

With all in all 110,000 event-related volunteers, Tōkyō 2020 reaches for slightly more than its Olympic and Paralympic predecessors Rio de Janeiro 2016 (56,000 Games and 1,700 City Volunteers) and London 2012 (70,000 Games and 8,000 City Volunteers). 

In anticipation of Tōkyō’s summer heat, the marathon and walking race have been relocated to Sapporo on Japan’s northern main island Hokkaido in October / early November this year. Now, concerns not only about athlete’s health and the convenience of spectators, but also about working conditions have been pronounced. Therefore, it was decided that all Olympic and Paralympic staff including volunteers will receive tablets for salt supplementation, wet wipes, instant coolants and… ice cream. A sweet surprise for the enthusiastic helpers.


A house is a home

When homes fall apart 

Initially, my field trip to Nagano was scheduled for mid-late October 2019. However, Hagibis thwarted this plan by strongly hitting central and eastern Japan. The heavy rainfall which came with the typhoon caused severe inundation in several prefectures of the archipelago, including my destination: the Hokuriku Shinkansen depot was flooded, leading to the destruction of ten out of thirty trains that serve the region. Houses, bridges and roads were devastated, and some parts of the landscape ravaged. 

When about one month and a half after, I finally undertook my journey, I was shown around the disaster area. The atmosphere was calm, sincere, snivelling. Seeing the still standing train cars, the damaged houses, empty restaurants and stores, the trees covered with mud, and the garbage spread on the ground, I was overcome with emotion. At some spots, poles had a 5-metre mark, illustrating the water level that was attended during the flood.

Since rescheduling, the programme for my stay was adapted and should not only comprise the visit of Nagano 1998 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games’ legacy, but also include one day of volunteering in the disaster area. The day after my arrival, we therefore headed out early to the Prefecture’s Northern Disaster Volunteer Centre. Dressed warmly, wearing gloves and rubber boots, equipped with a hat, goggles, a breathing mask, onigiri and tea, we arrived shortly before 9am at the centre. Together with about 30 other newcomers, we were kindly welcomed and briefed about safety precautions and the progression of the day. Also, the volunteers were asked were they came from. Most were from the region, yet some from various parts of Japan. The last ones were particularly acknowledged. Then, we registered, and wrote date, name and the assigned working sector on a sticker that was to be stuck on our jacket. 

Following, we got systematically divided into groups of five people. A volunteer staff member explained some organisational elements and a group leader (リーダーさん / leader san) was designated. リーダーさん was in charge to fill in and keep a paper with the names and phone numbers of the members. We introduced ourselves and got together on board of a shuttle bus that brought us to a Satellite Volunteer Centre. Our centre was settled in a former Nagano Prefecture Branch Office which had endured strong damage during the typhoon. Again, our group got some information, this time about the lot of land that we would be working at. We took five shovels and two wheelbarrows, without really knowing what we were going to use them for. About four groups of five people gathered around the same lot. The nearby small, empty and partly damaged house served as a storage room and shelter. The task was quickly explained and fairly easy to understand: pick up all the garbage you find, and dig if it is buried under the ground. Then, shift it to a pile. 

As far as I could see, there was definitely enough work for us… 

Enthusiastic, I reached for the first item I saw. It was a blue cloth that was half buried under the ground. After some minutes of digging, I pulled, and found myself with a big pair of trousers. { I knew that fortunately relatively few people had died in the district and therefore I could get rid of the thought that the owner of the clothing may not be alive anymore } However, the pants in my hands, I imaged where their possessor may be. I questioned if he (deducing from their shape and size) was with his family or friends, if he could rest in someone else’s house, and if he would come back to live here in some weeks or months. Also, I wondered if ever he would miss his blue pants or think about how his belongings got removed. { He may currently have other concerns though } Then, I found a blanket, and several small espresso cans. The blue pants owner must like coffee. Or were the cans someone else’s ? I felt disrespectful for my thoughts. So, I decided to henceforth focus on my physical activity. The mission turned out to be like a treasure hunt: the more items I found, the more satisfied I started to feel. 

As it was advised, every half an hour, we took a 10-minute break. After the first two shifts, when in-between mud, dust and delusional digging I slowly started to lose my sense of orientation, I realised how important these breaks were. Sometimes, I felt almost offended, when within only few minutes of absence, someone had dug out and removed my garbage. Of course, I was conscious about the absurdity of this thought, and did very much appreciate the cooperation. As a matter of fact, we frequently complimented one other’s exploit. 

At half past noon, we had a lunch break. At our Satellite Centre, there was everything one could need: mobile toilets, basins to clean the boots, soap, mouthwash, hand sanitiser, towels, spare goggles, gloves, food and drinks. 

The second half of the day, men should continue to remove garbage at the morning’s lot, whereas women were asked to “clean” houses. The house I was assigned to stood on a bare, wooden structure. Impressively, its first floor seemed to be in good condition. I wondered if the owner would rather live in a place with a half-damaged base, or if the house would soon be demolished. Therefore, I was concerned about the utility of my task. However, I did my best to remove the dust. 

At around 3pm, the mission was to be ended. Exhausted but satisfied, I joined the other members of my group. As they were all male, they had continued the morning’s task. リーダーさん handed in our group’s sheet, confirming that everyone got back safely. We went through the same cleaning procedure as at lunch time and headed off to the shuttle bus. Many volunteers stood in line, so we had to wait for about 20 minutes. When we arrived at the Northern Disaster Volunteer Centre, we found again basins to wash our boots, soap and mouthwash. Then, we were offered hot (delicious) tea, apples and onigiris as well as big smiles, warm お疲れ様でした / otsukaresamadeshita (meaning “thank you for your hard work”) and バイバイ / bye bye’s. 

That Saturday, all in all, an estimated 2,000 – 3,000 people volunteered in Nagano Prefecture; a mass that is certainly not easy to manage. Nevertheless, everything went very smoothly, and the centres were incredibly well organised. 

One day of volunteering is for sure not enough to reconstruct the house of blue pants’ owner, let alone to sincerely help the region. Though, more than I had imagined could be done within only few hours of cooperation. From my perspective, volunteering in a disaster area is an educational and essential experience for a researcher in urban studies, as it may be for any human being.


In the respect of all those who lost their home, I do not publish any photograph of inside the disaster area. 


Nagano 1998, a Look at Olympic Legacy

The history of the world’s biggest sporting event dates back to the year 1894, when Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s dream to revive the ancient Olympic Games in a modern form was realised in Paris. Held every four years, the Games first only staged the summer event. However, some of the early host cities like London 1908 and Antwerp 1920 included activities such as figure skating and ice hockey in their programmes. 

Following the success of a winter sports week held in Chamonix, France, in 1924, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided in 1925 to retroactively recognise this event as the first separate Winter Olympic Games. At the time, the both were held the same year. In order to maximise the profile of the event and its television revenue, the Summer and Winter Olympic Games got from 1992 on scheduled at two-year intervals. 

The Winter Olympics differ in several points from their aestival counterpart: they are usually staged on a smaller scale and take place in fragile landscapes. Until the 1952 Oslo Games, they were held in relatively few populated areas (often counting less than 13,000 residents) and attracted a small amount of people. Though like the Summer Games, the hibernal competition has over the years increased in size. From the 1960s, they were mostly assigned to centres surpassing a population of 100,000 people and were largely considered as a tool of regional development. So, the 1972 Sapporo Olympic Winter Games were seen by the Japanese government as an economic opportunity to vitalise the countries’ northern island of Hokkaido. As a matter of fact, less than 5% of the Games’ budget was invested in sports facilities, the rest finding its interest in the development of urban infrastructure, notably transportation. 

The Nagano 1998 Olympic Winter Games took place from 7th to 22nd February and resembled 2,167 athletes coming from 72 countries. The Winter Paralympic Games, for the first time held outside Europe, took place from 5th to 14th March and attracted 571 athletes from 32 nations. As that years’ winter was particularly warm, officials had feared a snowless Olympics leading to the creation of contingency plans, which included laying tatami mats across the melting cross-country course to shade it from the sun. However, the concerns were causeless, as two weeks before the opening ceremony a storm moved across the Sea of Japan and covered the region with a decent amount of snow. 

The Nagano 1998 Games played an important role in the development of the region: almost all of the 15 sports venues were new built, and the event was seized as an occasion to undertake major projects such as road development, facilities’ construction and the implementation of a new bullet train line in-between Tōkyō and Nagano that was inaugurated on 1st October 1997, roughly 4 months before the opening ceremony. The direct sports-related cost of the Nagano Games was around USD 2.2 billion and therefore ran over budget by 56%. The indirect cost, rather difficult to estimate, added an important sum. 

Although centred in Nagano City, the Games spread over a wide area, notably the mountain communities of Hakuba, Karuizawa, Nozawa Onsen and Shiga Kogen. The city itself counts 5 venues, including the Minami-Nagano Sports Park where the opening and closing ceremonies were held. The Olympic Village, new built, housed around 3,000 people, mostly athletes and officials. After the event, it was transformed into upper middle-class housing, nowadays still in good condition. Right next to a train station, it is easily accessible and rather a convenient place to live in. A Satellite Olympic Village, located in the Karuizawa Skate Center Hotel, hosted an additional 120 people for the Curling events. 

Most of the facilities that are located in the city’s centre were reconverted after the Games. So, the Minami-Nagano Stadium and the White Ring nowadays host different sporting events and competitions, such as baseball and basketball matches, and the second one mentioned above has also become a multipurpose municipal sports gymnasium.  The Aqua Wing, which originally served to host the secondary ice hockey matches, got reshaped into a year-round indoor swimming centre, containing a small gym and various training rooms. It is currently in good condition, well frequented, and seems appreciated by Nagano’s citizens. The Spiral, however, located at a 20-minutes car ride from Nagano City and difficult to access by public transportation, is a counterexample. Used for the bobsleigh and luge competitions, it was supposed to become a training site and host competitions in winter, and serve as a leisure facility in summer. Yet, its maintain is pricy and the venue is progressively degenerating. The M-Wave, which was Japan’s first indoor rink with a 400-meter standard double track, staged the speed skating competitions. Today, it offers Nagano’s citizens a big public ice skating rink from autumn to spring, and transforms into a multipurpose arena in the summer months. This venue is also Japan’s national training centre for figure skating. Likewise, the Big Hat, during the Games the primary ice hockey venue, today serves as a big event arena. 

Nagano seems to be a good example for a partially successful Olympic legacy; whereas some facilities have (thanks to the sufficient maintain by the city) become well-used and appreciated locations, others visibly lose popularity and little by little fall apart. It is to say, that in the 20 years which have passed since the Olympics, Nagano has established and kept the position as a popular winter sports destination.


This article is notably based on my recent field trip to Nagano. Due to their geographical dispersion (and the lack of time), it was not possible to visit the entity of the Olympic legacy. Nevertheless, I wish to express my sincere gratitude for having been incredibly well shown around within short time.

Minami-Nagano Stadium, November 2019 © Louise Claire Wagner

Nagano 1998 Olympic Torch, November 2019 © Louise Claire Wagner

White into White, White Ring © Louise Claire Wagner

Former Olympic Village, November 2019 © Louise Claire Wagner

Spiral, November 2019 © Louise Claire Wagner

Aqua Wing, November 2019 © Louise Claire Wagner

Big Hat (people attracted by a pop-event) November 2019 © Louise Claire Wagner


Shutdown, carry on

Amongst the privileges of being a researcher on a one-year field mission in Japan, counts the freedom to manage one’s own schedule. When people ask me if I have to work the next day, if I am free on weekends, and if I can take long vacation, I struggle to explain that there is rarely any specific obligation and that I could, theoretically, be off days and days in a row, just like I could spend every minute working. 

Being your own boss certainly requires an amount of self-discipline and motivation, and the rather solitary everyday life may not always be easy to handle. Indeed, by focusing on a specific field of study, it becomes difficult to share thoughts and theories with others. However, it is notably my research that introduces me to various individuals with different cultural backgrounds. Given that the Olympic and Paralympic Games are an international happening, they attract also in the academic field a wide range of people. In the run up to Tōkyō 2020, the more and more event-related conferences, seminars and meetings are taking place, and it sometimes feels as if this very particular research community scales down the globe and makes it more palpable. 

The sceptical looks when answering questions about where my working place is or who my colleagues are, sometimes become destabilising and make me feel illegitimate. When adding that I neither regularly attend classes, nor do any teaching, my vis-à-vis often abandons understanding. However, I highly appreciate the variety of my occupation and the fact of not having what commonly is considered as an office. As a matter of fact, besides symposiums, study sessions and meetings, I can not only choose at which moment I wish to advance on what topic, but also where I want to spend my day. Therefore, libraries, cafés, but also my home have become my office; practically, my laptop is my office. 

Announced as extraordinarily strong, typhoon Hagibis’ approach in October 2019 confronted me with the fact that in case of house damage or widespread flooding, an external hard disk (like any other material storage option) would not prevent my work from disappearing and although saving files in some unknown cloud is still abstract and scary to me, I considered it being the best option.  Ironically, exactly one month after, by the happening of unfortunate circumstances, my so-called office and business partner had to endure an internal shock. Perplex, I did not really know what to think or how to react, but I did know that the reparation would take some time and come at a cost. Abashed, I also had to confess to myself that my last backup dated from Hagibis’ landfall and that I could risk the loss of one-month collected / -and produced material. 

Although it was possible to make a new backup, knowing about the defect computer threw me off the trail. As if I was in a vacuum or having a handicap, it suddenly seemed impossible to write or read, to use my camera, or advance in any way on my research. When analysing what was going on in my mind, I felt foolish: shouldn’t, after all, my brain be my main tool 

The weather being incredibly nice, I took it as an opportunity to cycle around Tōkyō; to seize the atmosphere, to reflect upon my perception, to sit down and think. 

As the reparation was supposed to take around one week and as the substitute device was not equipped with the same software I work with, one of my preoccupations was the publication of this week’s report including a satisfactory photograph. 

In the end, I didn’t need to persevere for long and my concerns turned out to be causeless. Only two days later, my laptop was handed back to me, fully repaired, free of charge, accompanied by a generous smile. The consequences were by far less troublesome than imagined and the shutdown was rather instructive. It made me reconsider the use of technology and questioned me about the importance I give it in my research. It confronted me to its dependence, and to the fragility of my work as well as my office.

Last but not least, it made me grateful for other people’s help and gave me input in terms of methodology. Wherever we want, my computer and me can henceforth carry on working. 


Whiteness, the City

An Essay about Silence

In Japanese urban areas sound seems omnipresent. Cash machines speak, subway stations diffuse melodies, stores play repeatedly songs and at home my rice cooker tells me when the grains are ready to be eaten. 

Naming where in Tōkyō I live about, my surrounding often refers to high-rise buildings and offices, and points out the large avenue which connects the neighbourhood with Shinjuku and its famous train station, elected in 2011 by the Guinness World Records the busiest station in the world. With a current average of around 3.5 million passengers per day and over 200 exits, it tops Shibuya Station, second busiest in the world, counting about 2.4 million passers-by per day. 

The noise of Tōkyō’s main axes combined with the throng of people and permanently blinking light panels can be overwhelming and the abundance of information may provoke disorientation. However, is to mention that regardless the number of individuals, there is practically no (petty) crime, and I can hardly come up with any place on earth that handles human afflux in such a smooth way. 

In fact, these axes seem like magnets that bring people together, that assemble energy, that accumulate vitality, and that beat like the heart and breathe like the lungs of a human body. Next to this, there are small paths, empty alleys, trees, flowers, and singing crickets at night. 

Compared to Paris’s homogenous architecture, characterised by its rather uniform (beige) tint, Tōkyō is quite colourful. Though, ironically, I have always related white to the Japanese capital.

In many Western cities, noise is a rather violent element that interferes with silence. Perceived as a slap in the face, a slamming door or the crash of a car, its absence may however correlate with a feeling of anxiety in urban space. In Japan, noise invokes for me the image of a mumbling forest or a blanket of fog floating above the floor. Few people shout on the street, rarely cars horn, there are hardly loud motor engines and the uniform stream of human crowd is a rhythming element. 

The signification of silence is various: it is used to express remembrance or sadness, as much as it may be related to relief and calmness. Often, I would sense it as onerous and associate it with black. However, in the Land of the Rising Sun, I relate it to white. 

Again and again, I am intrigued and amazed by the whiteness of Tōkyō metropolis.


Sounds of a City, Chapter 3: prelude

Unlike sports competitions such as the FIFA - or the Rugby World Cup that are national events and therefore held in various regions of the host country, the Olympic and Paralympic Games are, in principle, assigned to one single city. 

The Rugby World Cup 2019 took place in 12 different stadiums throughout Japan, with the opening game between the host nation and Russia at the Tōkyō Stadium in Tōkyō on 20th September and the final at the International Stadium Yokohama in Yokohama yesterday evening. South Africa won 32 – 12 over England adding after 1995 and 2007 a third victory to its rugby history. At first, the New National Stadium, constructed for the Tōkyō 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, was supposed to be the primary venue of the event. However, as the initial design was scrapped in 2015, the stadium could not be completed in time. 

Traditional sports such as sumo, judo or karate and Western imports like baseball or soccer count among the most popular across the archipelago. Played and cheered by a comparatively small part of the population, rugby is a rather uncommon activity and the interest of holding its World Cup could therefore be questioned. As a matter of fact, the tournament has since its invention in 1987 been run in countries that are more familiar with the sport and Japan marked by hosting in 2019 its debut in Asia. 

The coordination of a World Cup is different from the one of the Olympic and Paralympic Games where the responsibility lies in the hands of one particular city. However, given that matches such as the opening game and the final are usually held in the same host countries’ main stadiums, the events eventually correlate.

In the run-up to the next Olympic and Paralympic Games, official test events are organised by International and National Federations as well as the Tōkyō 2020 Organising Committee. The Japanese capital has created READY STEADY TOKYO as an official brand name and logo. From September 2018 to May 2020, 56 competitions will be held, out of which more than half are on the occasion of events that happen to take place during the period, and 22 solely Olympic and Paralympic dedicated. They serve as a rehearsal to confirm and improve the venues in order to ensure a successful operation during the Games. Most of them are kept moderate and so far, there was no large-scale ticketing. Therefore, the management of an elevated amount of people and related factors like security or the orientation of foreign tourists are difficult to verify beforehand. 

By hosting the Rugby World Cup 2019, notably Tōkyō’s Olympic readiness got a test run and with the visit of some hundreds of thousands (sports) tourists over a short period of time, Japan could prove its capability to interact with international fans, as well as the efficiency of infrastructural elements such as signage in foreign languages. Furthermore, the management of the around 13,000 hired volunteers may be helpful in the preparation of the 80,000 Games and 30,000 City Volunteers. 

The next Rugby World Cup will be held in France from 8th September to 21st October 2023, roughly one year before the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The final will take place at the Stade de France located in the commune of Saint-Denis in the north of the capital, which will also host the opening and closing ceremonies and the athletics events in summer 2024.  

The correlation between the Olympic and Paralympic Games and other sports competitions or mega-events is not a 21st century phenomenon, but the same succession of the Rugby World Cup and the Games is yet a premiere. Thus, being its precursor, Japan may relay more than only the Olympic Torch to France. 


Sounds of a City, Chapter 2: animo

Compared to other Olympic and Paralympic host cities, there have been relatively few negative news about the Tōkyō 2020 Games and apart from some rumours about the scraped New National Stadium or the imitation of the initial logo, domestic as well as foreign media seemed to have little interest in bloating stories over the past years. Reasons may be the general tendency of Japanese prudent media culture, the difficulty to access information in other than Japanese language and the restrained amount of international journalists covering Tōkyō. For example the UK, who hosted the Games in London in 2012, counts about 1,700 foreign correspondents, whereas Japan has roughly 300. 

However, since the One Year To Go, discussions about Tōkyō’s preparation are multiplying and put the city progressively in a darker light. 

In the run up to the Olympic and Paralympic Games, common points of criticism are host cities’ rush in the construction of venues, the eviction of locals as well as costs and cost overruns. 

Looking at Tōkyō, the Olympic agenda has overall been respected, the various test events are being held as foreseen and even the change of the New National Stadium’s design has not prevented its accomplishment sufficient in advance. 

Beijing, displacing 1.5 million residents for the 2008 Games, but also Seoul in 1988 with 720,000 evictions and the last host city Rio de Janeiro with over 70,000 relocations have drawn media’s attention. By building most of the new venues it the quite unsettled bay area, rather than chasing, Tōkyō tries to attract people to its new artificial islands. However, in some parts of the Heritage Zone and specifically around the New National Stadium, a handful of homeless people have been asked to leave at the beginning of the construction works. As the renitency has been little and the number of concerned very moderate, the operation has for many passed unnoticed. Although this displacement may occur irrelevant, it is to mention that Japan counts amongst the lowest homeless rates in the world and that, as often, the most vulnerable part of the population got affected by the construction of the venues.

Currently estimated at about USD 12.5 billion, Tōkyō’s Olympic budget has already quadrupled. Hereby, the Japanese capital surpasses the 156% average cost overrun of the modern Olympiad, albeit undermatches the so far unbeaten 720% overrun of the Montreal 1976 Summer Games.  Nevertheless, recent concerns about the heat during the Games and the costs related to preventive measures have triggered a series of critical press articles. This has been accentuated by the most recent idea of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to move the 2020 Games marathon and race walking events to Sapporo on Japan’s northern main island Hokkaido and governor Koike Yuriko’s sarcastic counter proposal to hold the competitions somewhere on Russia-held Japan-claimed islands. In order to avoid the unendurable daytime heat, the marathons, scheduled for the 2nd and the 9th August, have already been advanced of 90 minutes and the streets have been paved with a special coating that reduces heat reflection from road surface. 

Even though competitions were partly held at night, the high temperatures during the IAAF World Athletics Championship held in Doha, Qatar from 27th September to 6th October 2019, put numerous athletes in bad condition, causing the drop out of about 40% of the runners in the women’s marathon. Since then, the IOC expressed its concerns over potential risk to the athletes’ lives. It is very uncommon to change the venues of major Olympic events only 10 months before they are held and although in Japan there have been relatively few manifestations from opponents of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the controversy between Tōkyō’s government and the IOC has drawn attention. 

For now, it looks as if the marathon and the walking race will be held in Sapporo, but the final decision will be announced around 31st October.

Following the statement, it is likely that both, national and international media will gain interest in Games-related scandals. Yet to see if the news will be treated with restraint or if they will set off an avalanche of numerous articles about the upcoming Tōkyō 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. 


Power, poles, utility and necessity

Among the heavy repercussions of typhoon Hagibis’ landfall on the weekend of 12th/13th October, thousands of utility poles were destroyed or damaged, leaving hundreds of thousands of households without electricity. Typhoon Faxai, which hit Japan in September 2019, dismantled about 2,000 utility poles in Chiba Prefecture, severing power lines and causing large-scale blackouts. Jebi, another fierce typhoon that targeted the Kansai region at about the same period last year, destroyed over 1,000 utility poles, leaving 2.2 million households for weeks without power. 

The Land of the Rising Sun has erected utility poles after the devastation of World War II, as it was a relatively cheap and fast option for reconstructing the country. However, they were exposed to wind and rain and so their vulnerability became quickly an issue. 

Today, Japan counts more than 35 million utility poles, a yearly still increasing number. In contrast to other global cities like London or Paris that have buried the entirety of their power cables underground and major Asian cities such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Taipei that are rapidly approaching this goal, its proportion reaches even in central Tōkyō only 8%. Across the country, the capital has yet made the most of efforts, and therefore the ratio in other regions is even lower. 

In case of downfall, utility poles can become a perilous item, threatening human lives, causing damages on facilities and blocking emergency vehicles. Yet not only for safety reasons, but also for their visual appearance, they have been denounced and since 1986 Tōkyō has made attempts of removal.

Some years ago, when I found in an official brochure a grey-sky picture showing an urban scenery with cables opposed to one without, where the sky was clear-blue and the sun shining, I started to be intrigued by the story behind the utility poles. After having read reports and listened to the opinion of numerous people, I understood that there was a major controversy about their existence.  Whereas some consider them as a main element which contributes to the charm of Japanese cities and regret the loss of a unique feature, others see them as an eyesore in urban landscape and as a factor which makes Tōkyō lag behind the standards of other world metropolises.  

After the Great East Japan Earthquake and the tsunami of March 2011 that damaged about 56,000 utility poles, legislation was enacted to facilitate their relocation underground and required the national government to make efforts to expedite and urge prefectures and municipalities to draw plans on their own. In 2017, governor Koike Yuriko expressed the wish to reduce the number of utility poles in the Japanese capital to zero. Indeed, moving electricity cables underground is an efficient measure to protect power lines from natural disasters. As a matter of fact, the governor has been passionate about the removal of utility poles since being a member of the House of Representatives. In the run up to the Tōkyō Olympic and Paralympic Games, the promotion of their elimination has become a preoccupation with the target to bury 1,400 km of power transmission lines until year 2020.

Howbeit, the biggest obstacle is the price that it comes at. The most used method, which consists in digging fosses where power and communication lines are run through pipes, costs about 530 million yen (approximatively USD 5 million) per kilometre, which is between 10 and 20 times more than constructing overhead. If Tōkyō’s project to bury 1,400 km was put into effect, the expense would be 742 billion yen, about USD 6.84 billion. 

The costs are to be shared between the national government, the municipalities, the power companies and communication firms that run the lines. In order to create landscapes befitting to a host city and to rise attractiveness for tourists, priority in the project has been given to Tōkyō’s central areas. Furthermore, as the most vulnerable parts of the region are still carrying out the damages from the last typhoons, they can hardly afford investments for the removal. 

As much as I believed in the on-time accomplishment of the New National Stadium, as much as I do not assume that the utility poles in Tōkyō will be eliminated by 2020. However, the recent promotion for their burying is an example of how Tōkyō, like other host cities, is using the Olympic and Paralympic Games as a leverage to accelerate urban projects.

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