Tokyo’s Olympic War On the Homeless

Last week the perpetually capital-minded CityLab jumped on the corporate sponsored greenwashing train to gush over the forthcoming Olympics in Tokyo. Such a damaged brand are the Olympics – with it’s massive wastes of subsidized funding, razing poor neighborhoods for athletic mega-infrastructure, and general disruption to normal street life – that it’s now necessary to hire numerous firms for their Herculean public relations battles.

Urbanist rags like CityLab are all too eager to root for the monied establishment, and come up with the best way to absolve liberal guilt via some paper-thin progressive Trojan Horse.

Here it was puff piece for embattled Tokyo metro governor Yoichi Masuzoe. $350 million is ready to subsidize hydrogen cell cars for the Olympics, as well as the 6,000 unit Olympic village planned to run solely on fuel cells. Despite hydrogen’s abyssimal record as an extremely expensive alt fuel, Masuzoe chimed, “Fortunately, we are rich.”

Certainly a compelling proposition when you’re playing with somebody else’s money.

The piece cites a few risks, but ultimately cheerleads for what is sure to be yet another boondoggle for hydrogen power. Again, this is all for show; a distraction from the destructive tide rippling outward from Olympic ground zero every two years.

Once considered the highest of honors a metropolis could seek on the world stage, today going after an IOC bid has become controversial. Critics cite the mass purging of poor residents, uncertain investment returns, and outright militarization of public commons for months prior to, during, and after the games.

During urban freeway construction in the 50’s and 60’s, it was poor communities, usually of color, who suffered the most when massive new infrastructure was rammed though. This undemocratic process of eminent domain for corporate gain is replicated for the Olympics.

It’s a convenient double-plus-good for developers and their accomplices in city hall (and parasites like AirBNB) – they get to make a buck building new gentrified projects that will permanently erase the poor long after the games have concluded.

Throughout Tokyo, local authorities want to revamp and redevelop just about anything they can get their hands on. It’s a mass land grab, it’s urban renewal, it’s a privatization of the commons by the wealthy. One such scheme is for Miyashita park in bustling Shibuya Ward.

The advocacy group Nojiren says the ward government is complicit in trying to eradicate Miyashita’s homeless population, “These people need help, but the government doesn’t provide it. During the Christmas break they hand out candy to the homeless, but what good is that?

But it isn’t just those who depend on public parks, alleys, and overhangs for outdoor sleeping shelter at night. Cited by Agence France-Presse, some 2,000 public housing units in Shinjuku, Tokyo have been slated for eviction, and most of those residents are elderly.

One wonders if these are the people Governor Yoichi Masuzoe has in mind when he exclaims, “We are rich.”

There grows greater understanding of the harm the Olympics imposes, along with successful urban campaigns to reject the IOC bidding process. We may see a future where the world’s greatest athletic competition returns to a singular home as it did so many centuries ago.

Already there’s been talk of reducing the footprint of the Olympics, as well as the cost. Even among architects – usually not known for their concern for the poor – there are signs of reform. Edward Suzuki has suggested Tokyo mitigate harm by simply reusing its Olympic stadium from 1964. While this would seem a logical proposition, the growth for the sake of growth mentality of most urbanists will surely recoil at this.

With increasing organized resistance to the IOC and its corporate partners, we may find soon that no city is willing, or even able to play host to such a colossal event. Here’s hoping we find better ways to bring the world together.