A sneak peek of Tokyo ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympics
Welcome to Tokyo. Please do not speak on our subway trains. They are very crowded. They are also sacred in their own frenetic way, throbbing veins of an entire nation. Displaying serenity and control while whizzing through dark tunnels; pressed against other human flesh; making sure you stand facing seated passengers and not exposing them to your backside; while quietly counting exits until your next transfer; is very Japan.
Also: Welcome to the site of the 2020 Summer Olympics.
The 365-day countdown begins on Wednesday. You will see soon images of temples and shrines, the Samurais that speak to a warrior culture and the anime obsession that makes Japan so darned cute. It’s all there and all true, very wonderful and occasionally weird.
A sneak preview of what you’ll see and hear in a year:
Everything runs on time in Japan. Pick a time or a station. It’s all the same. Trains and buses scheduled to depart at 1:40 p.m. emerge from nowhere and arrive precisely when they’re expected. If you’re late, they’re gone.
Don’t feel inferior. Their infamous efficiency may be nothing but a survival technique, as there are 65 million people living in the Greater Tokyo Metropolitan area. A local businessman told me that much of the Japanese efficiency is the result of overworked people. You see a lot of that, too.
During the afternoon, in areas of leisure, you will find mothers and children. But no fathers. They come out at night, in dark suits on subway trains until 9 p.m. at night, exhausted yet pushing, disheveled but undaunted. In Japan, they even have a word for death from work: Karoshi.
The Olympics will test all of their limits and capacity for order. Because there will be a lot more people riding their trains. And many of them will not keep their mouth shut.
It rains a lot. You know how gamblers only squawk about their winnings? Same was true with recent vacation pictures I shared on social media.
I didn’t reveal the two days when Tokyo rain was relentless, soaking me and my mood to the core. One of those occasions, I vaguely remember posing a question to my spoiled children with great vitriol. Like, “What the @!# was wrong with Hawaii?”
Later that night, I went online and found that Maui was literally on fire.
The Tokyo Olympics are going to be a feast for the eyes. Here’s majestic Mount Fuji. Here’s the plaque on the ground in Hiroshima marking the Atomic bomb’s detonation. Here’s the park in Nara where you can mingle with a thousand sacred deer. Every city has its own style and unique architecture. Every time you step off the train, you’re in a new and wonderful place.
The Japanese are extremely courteous and polite. Workers at fast-food chains act like they’re enjoying their jobs, and most of them are. The ugly fringe stuff you encounter almost everywhere else on the planet – bitterness, bias, predatory glances, rejection or the fear of violent behavior – never crosses your mind in Japan.
The night when a coworker bailed on me at a bar in Rio de Janeiro, where there were no buses and only cab drivers who pretended to know where they were going, when I sat in the backseat of a car until 3 a.m. fearing for my life as my driver wandered through countless dark corners of Brazil, the night that some of my former USA Today editors are surely still laughing about?
Yeah, that would never happen in Japan.
Because that fear doesn’t exist. At your most stupid, you’re still safe in Tokyo. That’s pretty cool, and the cumulative effect of Japanese effort blows your mind.
Still, you don’t see much sign of spectator sports. I noted one lonely basketball hoop attached to the back of a garage. They are working too hard, too focused to hand that much of their culture to recreation.
But the Japanese are wholly engaged, curious and diligent hosts, and Olympic tickets are extremely scarce. They will pack every Olympic stadium. They will provide a great vibe, guaranteed.
They will also welcome a world in turmoil, and maybe that’s never changed. But the 2020 Olympics will also be election season in America, another geopolitical show commanding immense global interest. It will be a fascinating juxtaposition, indeed. A civil host during most uncivil times.