Tokyo Is Boiling. Will It Be Too Hot for the 2020 Summer Olympics?

The heat wave devastating Japan shows how disastrous the weather is likely to be in 2020. The IOC and the Abe government—and the yakuza—played a part in this hellish timing.


Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

TOKYO—If they gave an award for deceptive Olympic proposals, Tokyo would win a gold medal.

The recent wave of heat stroke and related deaths here make a cruel joke of Tokyo’s original bid for the 2020 games, which claimed July 24 to August 9 is a great time for them: “With many days of mild and sunny weather, this period provides an ideal climate for athletes to perform at their best.” Yes, if 104 degrees with 74 percent humidity is ideal, that’s completely true—and if you don’t mind dying. Monday, just short of two years before the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, was the hottest day in the city’s history.

Tokyo had its highest ever recorded temperature: 105 degrees in Ome City, located in the west side of the metropolis. In Kumagaya, located in Saitama Prefecture, next to Tokyo, the highest temperature in recorded history was reached at 106 degrees. On Sunday, the Tokyo Fire Department (which provides ambulance services) dispatched 3,125 cars, the most in a single day since it began providing emergency medical care in 1936. The Fire Department said the surge has been caused by heat-related illnesses and injuries; the heat wave enveloping Tokyo is the one fire they can’t put out. Over the last few weeks all across the nation heat-stroke and heat-related illnesses have claimed dozens of lives and injured thousands.

While Tokyo previously averaged a daytime high of 82 to 84 degrees in July and August, even that temperature doesn’t take into account the humidity, which can rise above 80 percent, or the resulting heat index.

Right now, as I’m finishing this article at 7 p.m. Tokyo time, it’s 89 degrees outside. But when you factor in the 74 percent humidity, it feels like 105 degrees. Imagine being trapped in a Sumo wrestler’s armpit in a sauna.

Japan’s Meteorological Agency has been issuing advisories urging people to drink water frequently and take other steps to avoid heat stroke.

Ironically, while people were keeling over in the capital on Sunday, the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee, led by former prime minister Yoshiro Mori, officially announced the names of the two big wide-eyed Tokyo Olympics mascots, one for the Olympics and one for the Paralympics. The blue-and-white checked Olympics mascot was christened Miraitowa—a combination of the Japanese words for the future, mirai, and towa, which means perpetuity, eternity, and sometimes immortality. It’s a hopeful name for what is shaping up to the be the deadliest Olympics in history.

When it is this hot, even Japan’s hardcore salaryman takes off his tie and wears a short-sleeved white shirt or polo shirt. Older men and women walk the streets with a wet rag wrapped around their neck; the drugstores and convenience stores selling “cooling goods” like instant ice-packs or menthol cooling towels sell out of merchandise. The handheld fans that we in the West believe are used primarily by the dancing geisha in Shogun World are actually being used in futile attempts to brush away the heat and cool off.

Young men on the street keep pushing up their trendy black-framed glasses because the sweat on their noses makes them slide down. Walking outside from an air-conditioned building into the heat feels like opening the oven in the middle of making rice-crackers and peeking inside. The vending machines that are on every train platform in Tokyo are sold out faster than they can be refilled, leaving thirsty commuters with strange choices—coconut jello-cubes elixir, anyone? But when you’re thirsty enough, you’ll drink anything, even Clear Coke. Pocari Sweat, Japan’s long-selling sports drink, tastes great.

The heat and the humidity soaks into everything. Futons go damp, pillows become sponges, towels mildew in a day.

What About Last Time?

“Wait,” you may say, “Didn’t Japan have a very successful nation-changing summer Olympics in 1964?”

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Yes, it did—starting in mid-October. Autumn Olympics? Great idea. Summer Olympics? Not so much. You could argue that this recent spate of hot weather is a freakish event, but you’d be wrong. Whether you believe in climate change or not, as a matter of meteorological fact Tokyo keeps getting hotter.

One of the prescient scribes to warn of the perils of Japan’s 2020 Olympics deserves credit now for what was dismissed as alarmist nitpicking a few years ago. Robert Whiting, author of Tokyo Underworld and an expert on Japanese baseball, in a series of articles penned for the Japan Times was the first to ring the warning bell. He noted in his article “Negative impact of 1964 Olympics profound” in 2014, that the Tokyo Olympic bid submitted was incredibly disingenuous. He noted the likely temperature posed an “extreme risk for athletes” and was “particularly dangerous for marathoners.” The one bright spot he found was that, “Luckily for many, track and field events would be held in the fully air-conditioned new National Stadium.”

Ahem. We’ll get back to the new National Stadium proposal in a minute.

In the documents submitted by Tokyo to the International Olympic Committee, the candidate proposal originally stated: “The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games 16-day competition period will be from Saturday 25 July to Sunday 9 August following the Olympic Opening Ceremony on Friday 24 July.”

But here’s the kicker:

“With many days of mild and sunny weather, this period provides an ideal climate for athletes to perform at their best.”

For anyone who has lived in Tokyo during the last decade, that’s an obvious and quite brazen lie. I translated the passage for the tiny old woman that sells lunch boxes in my neighborhood and she laughed out loud. “That’s ridiculous. That’s why the children have summer vacation in July—it’s too damn hot to be in the school building or go outside.”

But the International Olympics Committee seemed to buy it. In the Report Of The 2020 Evaluation Committee (2013), they note: “Tokyo proposes to hold the 2020 Olympic Games from Friday 24 July to Sunday 9 August with dates selected for climatic reasons, coinciding with the holiday period, thus maximizing spectator attendance and traffic reduction.” There appears to be no evaluation of that claim—or comment on “climatic reasons.”

Of course, the IOC may have had other reasons to buy the arguments made by Tokyo and select it for the 2020 Olympics.

In 2016, French prosecutors said that $2 million associated with Tokyo's bid apparently was paid to an account linked to the son of the ex-world athletics chief Lamine Diack, who was a member of the International Olympics Committee at the time of the payments. A great deal of the payment was made via Dentsu, Japan’s largest advertising agency, which has scored lucrative contracts on the 2020 Olympics.

Japanese investigators said there was no evidence of bribery. The Tokyo governor at the time, Yoichi Masuzoe denied any substance to the claims in the summer of 2016, stating obliquely "Tokyo Metropolitan Government had not put any public money into the lobbying." But there are a number of strange payments associated with the 2020 Olympics bid, including the governor of Tokyo paying the equivalent of $36,000 in September 2013 to a right-wing group leader to help ensure Japan’s successful bid.

This might also be a good time to mention that the former vice chairman of Japan’s Olympic Committee was investigated by the Japanese government after allegations emerged that he once had close ties to two different yakuza (Japanese mafia) bosses: one the former head of the Sumiyoshi-kai and the the other the current head of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan’s largest yakuza group.

Again, no prosecutions ensued. But who would be surprised at criminal behavior in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics? Not me. The 1964 Olympics were rife with corruption and bid-rigging.

The winning proposal this time around was founded on a lie and putting it on as planned is tantamount to manslaughter. If you understand Japanese criminal law, when people die at the Olympics, and they will if nothing is done to radically address the problems—it could be possible to file charges against the organizers for professional negligence resulting in death.

And that bright spot mentioned by Robert Whiting, the air conditioned stadium? It’s been scrapped. There has been some effort to address the problem. The International Olympic Committee approved moving the marathon start to 7am, with men’s competitive walking beginning even earlier, but will that solve the problem? Unlikely.

When you consider the bribery scandal, the Olympic stadium fiasco, the indifference of the ICO to anything but money, and the arrogance of Japanese leaders who only care about a memorial to themselves—and the likelihood spectators as well as athletes may well expire from the heat—you can reach only one conclusion. The best way to enjoy the Tokyo 2020 Olympics with a clear conscience is to boycott them.

I’m already planning my vacation in Helsinki, where the summer actually has real “mild and sunny weather” and they welcome a free press. Perhaps I’ll go to France, if they actually go ahead and indict Japan and IOC members for bribing their way into this hell of their own making.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics: sayonara.