TOKYO, JAPAN — In the lobby of the Marunouchi Nijubashi Building, which is undergoing final preparations to host the 2020 Olympics, a robot is on patrol. A combination of information kiosk and surveillance camera, the robot stops directly in front of me. It has the word ALSOK plastered across its neck, or at least what I consider to be its neck. Its face is a screen filled with Japanese text; it looks like I can touch it if I want to, but I am not confident enough to reach out and try. I step out of its way and it rolls by me, back toward a case full of old Olympic torches it is charged with protecting.
The robot is an ALSOK Reborg-X model, and the technology lurking within within it suits its terrifying name. It is perhaps the most visible piece of what is being branded as the first “AI-secured Olympics.” The robot is designed to scan crowds and target individuals who are too “jittery,” or have skin that is too “red-tinted,” as these are supposedly signs that someone is about to commit a terrorist act. It can also scan faces and cross-reference them with law-enforcement databases. These robots will be scattered across Haneda airport in advance of the Olympics, and then deployed widely once the events begin. As cities across the United States move to ban facial recognition, the Tokyo Olympics will push Japan to expand the technology in unprecedented ways. You will not be able to get into an event without handing over a scan of your face.
This robot was at the Marunouchi Nijubashi Building to help guard the One Year To Go Festival, a celebration bringing together politicians, oligarchs, and officials from Olympic committees for the purpose of boosting enthusiasm for the coming Olympic games. At one meeting between IOC and JOC officials, after nearly face-planting into the podium in a surreal bit of unintentional physical comedy, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe trumpeted the 2020 Tokyo Olympics as the “peace games.”
This was hard to square with the scene outside the meeting. ALSOK had a carnival booth set up, where they were giving away merchandise to anyone willing to dress up in riot gear and take a picture next to a cardboard cutout of the martial artists the company is sponsoring for the games. This meant that kids were lining up to get free t-shirts, but before they did, they had to take a smiling photo brandishing a club, decked out in the gear of a company bringing a dystopian privatized surveillance state to life.
While the IOC and JOC were busy congratulating themselves for bringing surveillance robots to Tokyo and ALSOK was outfitting kids in riot gear, a series of anti-Olympic events were getting underway in the city too.
The anti-Olympic movement in Tokyo is led by two groups. One, Hangorin No Kai, centers its work around the needs of the unhoused in Tokyo. The other, Okotowalink, is a collective of academics and activists focused on issues related to housing, feminism, and anti-imperialism. Together, they hosted the first ever global anti-Olympic summit. Joining them were activists from South Korea representing the Anti Pyeongchang Olympics Alliance, Los Angeles representing NOlympics LA, Paris representing Non aux JO 2024 à Paris, members of groups who opposed the Rio, Nagano and London games, and academics and journalists from across the world. The main event of the summit was a public protest through the streets of Tokyo.
This gathering of activists is unprecedented in the history of the Games. In recent years, the Olympics have been consistently and successfully rejected by specific cities, but those anti-Olympics efforts always focused on what the event would do to one place. What this gathering aimed for was a coalescence of the disparate anti-Olympics movements for the sake of making a far more focused argument: The Olympics are untenable for any city.
Upstairs from the lobby patrolled by the Reborg-X, at the The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, Jules Boykoff, an author and scholar who studies the urban impact of the Olympics, was answering questions from the local and foreign press along with activists Misako Ichimura, from Tokyo, and Anne Orchier, from Los Angeles. Their analysis was clear: The Olympics create unequal cities. The very nature of the games leads them inexorably to the problems that have plagued the Olympics for the better part of the last half-century: skyrocketing budgets, corruption, militarization of the police, environmental degradation, and displacement. Despite one local journalist asking why these issues hadn’t been brought to their attention earlier, none of this is news. There is an almost bottomless reserve of research that paints these issues in stark detail.
Every city represented at the gathering of activists had a story to tell about police brutality and the Olympics. From Los Angeles, members of the NOlympics LA (a group with which I organize) told stories both of the militarization of the LAPD in advance of the 1984 Games, and the present day police force’s brutal treatment of the unhoused. The thought of fleets of surveillance robots hitting the streets of Los Angeles in an age of ICE crackdowns was a particularly horrifying byproduct of that portion of the summit.
Similarly, activists from South Korea reported that police in Seoul have been tear-gassing anti-gentrification activists in the wake of legislation passed before the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, which eliminated environmental reviews on construction until 2032. Activists from Rio spoke to the deadly crackdowns in the city’s favelas, and the violent displacement of the city’s most vulnerable residents. These were all largely stories that the organizers and tenants in the room had read or heard about, but having them all told in the same place by a global community put the evidence into sharper focus.
What’s often missed in mainstream critiques of the Olympics is how the various forms of rot they bring to individual cities can grow and mutate in the years and decades that follow. The Reborg-X itself offers a bit of clarity into how this process plays out.
ALSOK, Japan’s largest private security company, was founded by Jun Murai, the deputy general secretary of the organizing committee for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, a year after the conclusion of those games. According to a manager of ALSOK’s promotions department, Japan’s entire security industry was “born as a legacy of the 1964 Games.” ALSOK likely does not exist today without the 1964 Olympics, because once the police state expands around one of these events, it does not contract. The Olympics are not just a convenient excuse for the expansion of the private security apparatus in Japan, they are its origin.
Today, ALSOK’s presence in Tokyo is ubiquitous once you start looking for it. The company is equal parts Pinkerton and ADT; homes and businesses throughout the city have ALSOK stickers plastered on them. Birthed by the Olympics 55 years ago, ALSOK has spent the last five decades spreading its tentacles into Tokyo. Now, the 2020 Olympics are coming to offer it even more places to invade. For these games, ALSOK is heading a coalition of over a dozen private-security companies who will be working in unison to secure the games.
Decade-spanning grifts like this one have touched every city the Olympics has ever descended upon. Their consequences are familiar and unceasing, which is how protestors from around the globe ended up in Tokyo to march against the very concept of the Olympics. The message sent out in multiple languages by those marching through the Shinjuku neighborhood was clear: No Olympics Anywhere.
The official IOC and JOC line on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is that they are not just the “peace games” but the “recovery games.” Though few officials directly referred to the disaster from which Japan is recovering by name during various meetings, they were talking about the earthquake and subsequent nuclear disaster that hit the Fukushima region in 2011.
The idea is that by starting the torch run in Fukushima and having a number of Olympic events take place in the prefecture, the world will see that normalcy has returned to this region. IOC president Thomas Bach said of the 2020 Olympics, “The people in the devastated areas will not only benefit from the infrastructure that is being built for these Olympic Games, but you will also see the encouragement and hope they will get through the Olympic Games through the reconstruction of these areas.”
This fails to tell the real story in two ways. The first is that J-Village, a former Japan National Soccer training facility that is both the headquarters of the Fukushima recovery effort and the site where the torch run will begin, is still the center of a veritable disaster area. Because so much of the detritus in the area is radioactive, much of it is covered in plastic bags full of radioactive material. Though some of the radioactive dirt has been trucked around the country, and is now a potential contaminant at some of the temporary Olympic facilities being constructed along the waterfront, most of it sits sealed in bags in areas that may never open up again for human habitation. The area directly around the Fukushima nuclear reactor has not recovered, and likely never will.
Also, Fukushima is big. The prefecture is larger than the state of New Jersey. There will be Olympic events played in Fukushima, but the actual venue, the Fukushima Azuma Baseball Stadium, is almost 100 kilometers away from the nuclear reactor that melted down in an area that was never evacuated. This is akin to saying that the Chernobyl area has recovered because Euro 2012 matches were played in Kyiv. It is an obvious fallacy being pushed by the JOC in the hopes that the foreign press never takes stock of the actual geography of the area.
The Olympics are not leading the recovery of Fukushima, and in fact have complicated the recovery efforts in two direct ways. The first is that in branding these as the recovery games, local officials have been pushed to reopen cities in the gray areas of the evacuation zone. These areas are technically habitable, but are directly adjacent to areas that are at least somewhat dangerous to their inhabitants. Numbers are hard to pin down, but in some parts of the prefecture, only a reported 10 percent of residents have returned to the area, and many of them carry around geiger counters to measure the radiation that their bodies are absorbing by living in the area. This is not a return to how things were, but a scary new normal that some are willing to live with in order to reconnect to the physical space they consider to be their home.
Those who would rather not take the risk of returning to Fukushima are being screwed in different ways. Because their homes have technically been deemed safe to return to, they no longer qualify for relocation benefits. Having survived an earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear meltdown, this swath of the population is now left without a decent option for housing. And why? So that the government can use a sporting event to burnish a faulty record of recovery. This is an ugly reality for people who have already suffered through a great deal, and one that only exists because of the recovery timeline created by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Across Tokyo Bay from the aforementioned site of radioactive dumping, the Olympic Village for the Tokyo Olympics is sprouting out of the landfill that makes up the Harumi Wharf. I don’t mean to fetishize this particular swath of land; this is not lost park space like Miyashita Park in the Shibuya neighborhood, a formerly well-used area lost forever as the Olympics turn chunks of Tokyo into playgrounds for tourists. But it was nonetheless public land.
As of now it still may be technically public land; the contracts determining the specifics related to the timing of the privatization are fairly complicated. But according to activists from Okotowalink, it will not remain that way for long. The Olympic Village is being developed by an array of private companies including Mitsui Fudosan, Mitsubishi Jisho, and Tokyu Land. The government sold them the land at one-10th of its market price. The companies then developed it as a subsidized public-private partnership to serve as housing for Olympic athletes. Then after the games are over, they will convert the buildings into luxury housing. The kicker? That conversion will also be funded by the state. The private developers will then be able to sell what had been the Olympic Village as market-rate luxury housing.
Which is to say the land transaction was subsidized with tax money, the construction is partially subsidized with tax money, the conversion will be subsidized with tax money, and the profits will end up in the hands of a few powerful private actors. This is a comprehensive transfer of public resources into the hands of a very select few. Meanwhile, near the new National Stadium being built near the Meiji Jingu Shrine, another massive luxury development is rising. This development is replacing the Kasumigaoka social housing project.
Displacement was the thread that bound activists from across all of these cities. These patterns—the privatization of public land, the eviction of the poor, the criminalization of the unhoused—were drawn repeatedly by activists from across the globe. Leonardo Vilchis, a housing activist from the Los Angeles Tenants Union, sees this dialogue between activists as an opportunity to “see the future.” Los Angeles represents the future of privatized public housing taken to its logical conclusion. At the same time, people from Los Angeles get to see their future in the specific mechanisms used by recent Olympic cities to privatize public spaces in the name of luxury development.
Some of the concerns around the games are more quotidian. For example: it’s fucking hot in Tokyo in the summer. At one point, JOC President Yoshiro Mori, who during his brief tenure as Prime Minister of Japan was once referred to as having, “the heart of a flea and the brain of a shark,” trumpeted the hundreds of nurses who have volunteered their labor to make sure that athletes and spectators stricken by heat stroke do not die. I did not know this until I had sweated through everything I owned four days into my trip, but Tokyo’s weather in late July is plagued by the kind of lethal humidity that rivals that of a Florida swamp’s. Tokyo is nearly inhospitable to outdoor sports in the summer.
If this all sounds like an unrelentingly gloomy picture of the Olympic Games, well, it is. The destructive vision of the Olympics that was conjured by the activists in Tokyo was overwhelming, and it was often a struggle to keep up. To that end, researcher Cerianne Robertson, who currently lives in Los Angeles, is launching Olympics Watch, which she describes as, “a central platform for building the global critique of the Olympics.” This is a necessary tool both for the continued collaboration of the activists who were together in Tokyo, and for the continued struggle against the games.
The week of events ended with organizations from four of the represented cities collectively authoring and approving a joint statement. The statement speaks to these shared experiences with militarized policing, displacement, environmental catastrophe, and corruption. But at its core is the demand for the end of the Olympics in their current form; these were not terms of negotiation, but a demand for surrender. This is because, collectively, there is no belief among these activists that a reformed Olympics can exist. Despite recent pushes by the IOC to make small changes, such as requiring a public referendum as part of a city’s bid, the larger forces that lead to the Olympics devastating the cities that host them are not going anywhere.
By assembling a such a wide array of people in one space, something became clear: The Olympics are not about sports. The sports are merely the pretense for the Olympic project, which is designed to remake cities to the detriment of many for the sake of profit. Plastered on the side of a temporary venue in the Ariake neighborhood of Tokyo were all of the companies and subcontractors involved in its construction. Hundreds upon hundreds of names were on the placard, and it’s entirely possible that more companies were involved in the construction of this one venue than there will ever be competitors inside it.
During my whole time in Tokyo, I was haunted by Vilchis’s words about seeing the future. The Olympic cycle is a self-sustaining loop of bad ideas and bad outcomes. Once you understand how the loop functions and feeds itself, the future is indeed crystal clear. What happened in Rio will happen in Tokyo and will happen again in Los Angeles. Olympic-related displacement has already started to hit Los Angeles nine years before the start of the games, and just thinking about how LAPD would use an army of Reborg-Xs is enough to keep me up at night for the next nine years.
My days in Tokyo weren’t all doom and gloom, though. It was inspiring to see activists from all over the world come together to make a clear demand, and our proximity to the IOC itself allowed for some catharsis. The IOC of my mind was a faceless array of barons and thieves from across the globe. A group of men that exist on paintings hung in hunting lodges, but are not truly flesh and blood.
After seeing a few dozen members of the IOC in person, what stood out was how they all share a way of moving through the world that can only be described as “doddering.” With very few exceptions, these are extremely wealthy and corrupt men, each on their own personal and unique journey towards moving like Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein.
In addition to the primary protest in Shinjuku, a series of smaller ad hoc protests were staged by activists on July 24 throughout Tokyo. One of them took place outside of the IOC’s gathering, which led to an impromptu interaction between Senegalese IOC member Mamadou Diagna Ndiaye and an array of activists from across the globe. As Ndiaye walked out of the main IOC event, his limo came to pick him up directly behind a couple dozen activists protesting. There was a brief moment as he walked by where both parties were confused, as if shocked that the other was real.
After a moment, one of the members of NOlympics LA yelled out, “Hey, will you talk with us?” Ndiaye flashed a shit-eating grin and said, “No!”
After another member asked him again, Ndiaye asked, “What do you want to say?”
NOlympics LA organizer Jonny Coleman responded, “Tell Thomas Bach he’s a fucking criminal.”
Spike Friedman is a writer and researcher focused on housing in Los Angeles.