Japan's ‘neat freak’ nature makes it an ideal Olympic host

Brush-like structures at the side of a ferry pier in Hokkaido's Lake Toya. They were there for visitors to scrub mud and dirt off their shoes before entering the boat – an ingenious invention that encapsulates how much the Japanese care about the c
Brush-like structures at the side of a ferry pier in Hokkaido's Lake Toya. They were there for visitors to scrub mud and dirt off their shoes before entering the boat – an ingenious invention that encapsulates how much the Japanese care about the cleanliness of their surroundings. -- ST PHOTO: JEREMY LEE
People celebrating as Tokyo wins the race to become host city of the 2020 Olympics at the live-viewing event in Tokyo on September 8, 2013.  -- PHOTO: AFP
People celebrating as Tokyo wins the race to become host city of the 2020 Olympics at the live-viewing event in Tokyo on September 8, 2013.  -- PHOTO: AFP

MUCH ado was made over fears that Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant crisis could hurt Tokyo’s bid to host the Olympics in 2020.

While Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in a hastily amended speech at the final presentation to International Olympic Committee (IOC) members, declared the situation “under control”, experts, the media and the Japanese people begged to differ. In fact, many were shocked by his remarks.

In August, Nuclear Regulation Authority chairman Shunichi Tanaka compared the situation to “a haunted house, one thing happening after another”, one leak after another found in tanks holding dangerous radioactive water.

A massive underground reservoir of contaminated water under the plant has also been creeping slowly towards the sea after it began spilling from its reactors when struck by an earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

The fifth and most serious leak from the tanks was revealed just two weeks before the announcement of the Olympic host on Sept 7.

Yet I never once doubted Japan’s standing in the race. Regardless of whatever was happening in Fukushima, I felt Tokyo was always the frontrunner in the decision.

Japan may have stagnated economically in the last 15 years, was battered by the 2011 twin disasters and suffering from bad publicity from the nuclear crisis, but among the contenders for 2020, only Japan can guarantee the kind of safety and stability required to host a successful Olympics. It also has the drive to ensure the event takes place without a hitch, and looks good to boot, with what I’m sure will be cutesy Olympic mascots, opening and closing ceremony extravaganzas, and beautiful and cutting-edge facilities.

Tokyo had claimed that it had a US$4.5 billion (S$5.64 billion) “reserve fund” to construct sports venues and other facilities for the Games. Even though it now seems like the total bill will likely bust the initial estimate of 450 billion yen (S$5.8 billion), the world’s third-biggest economy should be good for it.

Other contenders looked riskier. Spain’s capital, Madrid, has just emerged from a recession. Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, is dealing with the conflict in neighbouring Syria, a doping scandal, and, earlier this year, faced massive anti-government protests.

One would think the folks at the IOC would be wary of placing the Olympics in the hands of a host beset by political, security and infrastructural problems, when concerns still plague 2016 host Brazil.

The fact that there was any doubt at all that Tokyo would win the bid was incredible to me.

The Japanese are meticulous to a fault, and place much importance on presentation and appearances. I got a first-hand glimpse of many examples of this conscientious devotion to order, efficiency and cleanliness on a trip to Japan two months ago.

Their public toilets were spick and span, of course, and when presenting even tiny trinkets at any shop for purchase, cashiers wrap every single item expertly, and when I say there’s no need for that, they still provide me with extra paper or plastic sleeves nevertheless, in case I want to wrap them myself.

Some may say such wastefulness in packaging is bad for the environment, but Japan makes up for it by having recycling bins so readily available in public places, so much so that I couldn’t even find a conventional rubbish bin. The Japanese do not have a “throwaway” culture; I have no doubt that this extra packaging is disposed off in an environmentally friendly manner.

After a ferry ride across Hokkaido’s Lake Toya, where we triapsed around a forested area that was on an island in the middle of the lake, I spied curious brush-like structures placed neatly at the side of the pier before the return ferry journey. The guide informed me that they were there for visitors to scrub mud and dirt off their shoes before entering the boat – an ingenious and typically ataxophobic invention of the Japanese.

When a long queue started to form at the sole cashier counter that was open in a shop, an observant employee, without prompting from a supervisor, rushed towards an empty cashier to shorten the queue. When the two queues started getting longer, another employee rushed to open a third counter; and so on.

In Singapore, there is an ongoing campaign for people to return their trays after eating at hawker centres, food courts and fast food outlets. In Japan, one doesn’t even have to ask. People not only return their trays, but separate their rubbish into papers, plastics, food waste, etc.

At one food court, my mother accidentally spilled food on the sparkling white table. Not wanting to offend Japanese sensibilities, she searched in vain for tissues in her handbag to clean the mess. At this point, a boy who looked to be in his teens, who was sitting at a table next to us with his parents, whipped out a wet wipe, came over and proceeded to wipe our table clean for us. Totally unprompted.

I would never imagine a Singaporean teenager doing the same thing. Even adults in Singapore leave their tables filthy, with crumbs and bones strewn everywhere and chilli sauce smeared on the surface.

And the Japanese attention to cleanliness does not stop at home.

Japanese expats who are members of Tokyo-based non-profit environmental group Green Bird, which has a chapter in Singapore, Japan and cities all over the world, meet regularly in whatever city they are in to tidy up the parks and streets, reported The Straits Times on Sept 14. Volunteer coordinator Junko Kurata, who moved to Singapore in 2011, told The Straits Times that being responsible for keeping one’s environment clean is a value taught to Japanese from a young age.

“We feel strongly about this. We just don't feel comfortable when we see litter,” Ms Kurata was quoted by The Straits Times as saying. “It makes us want to pick it up. It doesn't matter that a place is not our home town,”

Given the orderly sensibilities of the average Japanese, one can imagine the distress felt by the nation when it was hit by the twin disasters in 2011. But the Japanese still kept a stiff upper lip and managed the best that they could.

If they could do that, and without the social chaos that usually presents itself in the aftermath of a disaster of this scale, hosting a successful Olympic Games will be easy as pie to them.

Sure, doubts still linger over Japan. No one, not even Japan’s powers-that-be, knows whether the nuclear crisis can be resolved in time for the 2020 Games.

But if any nation can do it, Japan can. I, for one, wouldn’t bet against it.

jerlee@sph.com.sg