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Tokyo 1964 and 2020: How the Olympics Have Transformed the City




It is something my wife and I look forward to: every morning we walk along the glimmering waterfront at the north end of Tokyo Bay and inspect progress on the newly-opened Toyosu Fish Market in the shadow of the Rainbow Bridge and the 2020 Olympic Village under construction on the opposite side of the water. 


There and all over town you can feel the buzz. This city is on a roll. There is no place on earth either of us would rather be, and we have both been in a lot of different places. 


In the spring of 2009, we moved to a new high-rise apartment building in the Toyosu area of eastern Tokyo — yet another bustling new quarter of commerce and leisure in the ever-expanding metropolis built on reclaimed land. The change here is remarkable.



Once a bustling shipyard site, the area had fallen into disrepair. Then it was rebuilt with towering new office buildings and condominiums, and a massive waterfront shopping mall called Urban Dock LaLaport.


An anti-pollution drive begun in the 1980s had cleaned up Tokyo’s waterways (as well as its air) enough so you could actually fish off the docks in Toyosu and in the connecting canals (although there were signs warning people not to swim in the bay because of high E. Coli levels). By the end of the 20th century, the Yurikamome overhead train line traversed the Tokyo waterfront area from Toyosu all the way to Shimbashi, while the Tokyo Waterbus line and assorted floating restaurants ferried people around the bay.


I remember the first time I visited the site back in the early 1960s as a gangly, wide-eyed post-adolescent still plagued with acne. Back then the area was full of heavy industry sites — the Ishikawajima-Harima shipyards and the problematic Tokyo Gas facility among them. It was also populated with an abundance of low-income residents, many of them ethnic Koreans who were employed at the aforementioned factories.


Now it looks like Century City in Los Angeles, multiplied by 10.



Toyosu is just the latest burgeoning quarter of Tokyo, the largest city in the world, with 38 million inhabitants in the Greater Metropolitan Area — 13 million of them in the city proper.


Tokyo is also the richest city in the world, with a GDP of USD1.5 trillion, ahead of New York City, Los Angeles, Seoul, London, and Paris. There are more Fortune 500 global headquarters in Tokyo than anywhere else in the world, except in Shanghai (#10 on the list of richest cities).


This city is something else.


‘Best Olympics in History’


The first Tokyo Olympic Games were held in 1964, dramatically transforming the city from a third world backwater to a hi-tech megalopolis and, in the process, holding what LIFE Magazine called the “Best Olympics in History.”



And as one who was there for the first Tokyo Olympics in ’64 and witnessed the astonishing transmogrification of the city it had triggered, I have more than a little interest in the outcome of this next one.


Preparations are moving forward for 2020. There are plans for an army of robots to help with language translation, directions and transportation, driverless cabs, 8K TV broadcasts, use of algae and hydrogen as clean alternative energy sources, Maglev trains running nearly 400 miles per hour, and manmade meteors streaming across the sky from satellites in space for the opening ceremony.


In many ways, Tokyo is already an ideal place to hold a modern Olympics., even before its latest massive facelift. Transportation runs like clockwork. The city has a newly-minted, awe-inspiring metropolitan skyline, even if it is not quite as well-known to the rest of the world as Tokyo Tower, the Asakusa Kannon Temple, and other famous city landmarks.


The streets are extremely clean and safe for a metropolis of Tokyo’s size. Moreover, Tokyoites in general are kind — certainly in comparison with New Yorkers and Parisians.  



By 2018, Tokyo had actually passed Paris as the world’s number one tourist destination. In 2017 the largest travel website in the world, Trip Advisor, asked its users to rank the 37 top cities in the world in terms of the “most satisfying” to visit. Tokyo was voted #1 in the world, topping several of the 16 categories listed, including local friendliness, taxi services, cleanliness, and public transportation.


On top of all this, there is an unmatched culinary tradition — one that has not only contributed to the longest life expectancy in the world but has now gained global repute. Tokyo now has more than twice as many Michelin 3-star restaurants as any other city in the world.


Renowned celebrity chef and globetrotter, the late Anthony Bourdain, named Tokyo as his favorite city in the world. In an interview with Maxim he said, “If I had to agree to live in one country, or even one city, for the rest of my life, never leaving it, I’d pick Tokyo in a second.” He was referring mostly to the food, on “virtually every level and price point.”


He called his first trip to Tokyo, in general, an “explosive, life-changing event,” even comparing it to the first time he ever took acid, in the way it changed every experience that came after it. “Nothing was ever the same for me,” he had said, “I just wanted more of it.”



I understood what he was saying because I felt the same way the first time I came to the city over five decades ago.


The City Will Prevail


I think I am perhaps the only American — and one of the very few foreigners — to have witnessed the buildup to both Tokyo Olympics 1964 and 2020 and the many metamorphoses in between. I describe this experience in a newly released book, Futatsu No Orinpikku, just published by Kadokawa in Japanese. Among the many take-aways from the book is the stunning ability of this city to reinvent itself.


From a pre-Olympic third -world city with rat-infested open sewers and rampant disease, Tokyo transformed itself into a shining hi-tech metropolis used as site for the 007 movie You Only Live Twice. It was a place TIME Magazine called “The Most Dynamic City On the Face of the Earth.”



It was called the greatest urban transformation in the history of the world. But that was just the beginning.


Other bursts of construction and growth followed. The 38-story first skyscraper Kasumigaseki Building. The Shinjuku skyscrapers. Ark Hills. Roppongi Hills. Omotesando Hills. The new Tocho (Tokyo Metropolitan Government headquarters), the new manmade city center of Odaiba, and the creation of Toyosu, where I now live.


And it is still going on. Did you know that there are 45 new skyscrapers in the city to be completed by 2020?


Tokyo 2020 has its problems. But, somehow, I think the city will prevail. It always has. So, while we are on the subject, stop and admire what I and many others believe is the greatest city in the world.




Author: Robert Whiting
(This article was first published by Yukan Fuji in Japanese on October 16, 2018.)