Concern rises in ‘Land of the Blazing Sun’ as Olympics loom
Amid a deadly heatwave, authorities in Tokyo scramble for heat-busting solutions as they gear up for the 2020 Olympics
At Osaka’s famous samurai castle, tourists are sprayed with mist-like water as they wait to enter. Even for visitors who live on the equator, that relief is welcome.
“We knew it would be hot but had no idea of how hot, really,” said Gerald Chong, a visitor from Singapore. “If you are outside from mid-morning then you have the sun beating down, the humidity, and then you just feel the heat rising from the pavements.”
“It is worse than anything in Singapore,” he added. “And you just can’t escape it.”
You could – but only by seeking refuge in an air-conditioned interior. Taking the subway to indoor attractions such as museums and galleries is preferable for many tourists than traveling to external locations, such as the ancient cities and the cultural treasure troves of Kyoto and Nara. The idea of climbing up to the famous Fushimi-Inari shrine or the Kiyomizu-dera Temple with temperatures around 40C would only appeal to the most determined visitors.
But at least sweating tourists have a choice. That will not be the case for thousands who will arrive in the “Land of the Blazing Sun” in 2020. Japan is not the only country broiling in the global heatwave, but authorities here had more reason than most to be anxious when the mercury hit 41.1C in July.
Summer Olympics: Dates set, timings flexible?
Two years from now, in these same summer months, Tokyo will host the Summer Olympics. It is hard to imagine even the world’s fittest athletes exerting themselves to the max with temperatures so high. So intense is the heat this year that plastic models of food dishes on display in the front windows of Nagoya restaurants melted.
The Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) has called the heatwave “life-threatening” and a natural disaster after the death of 120 people. Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike summed it up in July when she said that the city was “like living in a sauna.” She also admitted that addressing the heat issue would be a major part of whether the games would be successful.
The last time Japan hosted the Summer Olympics was 1964. Then, they took place in the relatively cool and pleasant month of October. More than half a century later, things have changed.
The Olympics are big business, meaning a date change is out of the question. Broadcasting deals are already done with media companies around the world, ready to flood their schedules in July and August – a time when there is little competition from other sports. Global football bosses had the sense to move the 2022 World Cup in Qatar from the summer months to winter, but that was done years in advance. And it only occurred after considerable difficulty and expense.
But if the dates of the Olympics really are fixed, event timings may have to be more flexible. The government is mulling a plan to move clocks forward two hours, from nine hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time to eleven. That would mean earlier nights and longer, cooler mornings, meaning organizers could fit in events before the temperatures – and the athletes – start to sizzle.
The marathon has already been rescheduled to a 7am start. But another suggestion is being mulled – to move the grueling event to the northernmost, and cooler, island of Hokkaido. Organizers are in favor of the time switch, but the reaction to the proposal is not uniformly positive.
Heated debates to come
Concerns have been aired that it would mean more time spent in offices and factories, which was why daylight summer time was scrapped almost 60 years ago. “If people start working two hours early and finish two hours early, consumer spending is expected to rise,” said Toshihiro Nagahama, executive chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute. “But given the labor shortage, the end of working time may not change and people may still work longer hours.”
It is uncertain at this point how the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and international broadcasters would react to any shifting of the clocks.
Should Tokyo suddenly jump forward two hours, then the lucrative European and US markets would fall even further behind. Late morning in Tokyo would be late at night in London, Paris and Berlin. Any afternoon or evening events during prime time in Asia, would likely become harder for western audiences to watch.
On Monday August 6, Yoshiro Modi, head of the Tokyo Games’ Organizing Committee, said that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had instructed the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to look into this idea. With time of the essence, approval could come as early as September or October. And there is likely to be a test next summer of the solutions that are proposed, in order to look at teething issues.
But a whole range of issues is being looked at. Other creative solutions are also being investigated. “We plan broad measures such as earlier start times, more greenery and heat-inhibiting pavements,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference.
This year’s summer heat will – hopefully – fade soon. But in Tokyo, concerns will not. Preparing to host an Olympics is stressful enough without having to worry about whether something beyond human control may prove dangerous to spectators and participants.
Yet, as sweat-soaked tourists all over the country would probably agree, drastic times call for drastic measures. The 2020 Olympics may leave a legacy in Japan that extends far beyond the sporting arena.