The Anti-Olympic Torch arrives in Tokyo

The Anti-Olympic Torch has arrived in Tokyo, continuing a journey that began in Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Games there and since passing through Olympic resistance movements at host cities at all subsequent Games.

Brought now to Tokyo by activists from South Korea who had led the recent anti-PyeongChang protests, its passing to the locals involved in the little-noticed yet feisty movement against 2020 formed a nearly week-long series of events.

This “relay” is, of course, a parody of the actual Olympic torch relay, set to start in Japan in March 2020 and last 114 days (travelling around the country under the cringeworthy motto of “hope lights our way”), as well as a testament to the transnational network of anti-Games movements that has now built up around the counter the sport mega-event and what Jules Boykoff calls “celebration capitalism”.

anti-olympics protest torch handover tokyo

I attended two of the Anti-Olympic Torch events for my fieldwork researching the anti-2020 protests in Tokyo.

The first was the symbolic handover of the torch itself, which is overtly “shabby” and rustic to emphasis its representation of the excluded groups who frequently clash with redevelopment projects in Olympics host cities. Organised by Hangorin no Kai (Anti-Olympic Group, or sometimes No Olympics 2020), one of the main activist groups in the anti-2020 movement, participants met outside Sendagaya Station on the afternoon of 21 November. We then toured around the construction site of the controversial New National Stadium and other related facilities, which has entirely swallowed Meiji Park, where many homeless people were staying, and Kasumigaoka Apartments, a public housing complex originally built under the umbrella of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics redevelopment. Former homeless residents, whose lawsuit over the loss of the park is on-going, and someone from the Kasumigaoka community also joined the tour at various points to share their insights. As we moved, participants played music on small instruments, forming a kind of makeshift chindonya marching band. The climax was the actual handover “ceremony”, involving several representatives from across the protest movement as well as someone in drag doing exaggerated performance calligraphy with the slogan “Hangorin” (Anti-Olympic). It came to an end just as the light was fading. Other than the attendees and random passersby, the main audience was actually a healthy contingent of public security bureau officers from the Tokyo Metropolitan Police watching and making studious notes from across the street.

The finale of the Anti-Olympic Torch events was a tour of the Tokyo Bay redevelopment sites on 23 November, organised by Okotowa Link (known in English as “No Thank You to Olympic Disasters” or “Another Olympics Disaster? No Thanks!”). This was a more ambitious undertaking that saw participants first gather in Tsukiji to hear about the closure of the market from local activists. We then boarded vehicles and drove to various places around the bay, culminating in a walk through the desolate Olympic Village construction site in Harumi. Since the day was a public holiday, no work was going on at the sites, conjuring up a particularly eerie atmosphere and a vision of what things might be like after the two-week bonanza is over in summer 2020 and the city is left with these expensive real estate investments that it potentially cannot reuse or sell on.

tokyo bay 2020 olympics construction development

I was reminded of the writer Iain Sinclair and his brilliant psychogeography memoir-cum-travelogue Ghost Milk. With customary surgical, almost fragmentary yet lyrical prose, Sinclair uses the titular metaphor as a refrain to describe these grand projects: ephemeral capital fuelling ubiquitous and soon-to-be-empty construction sites intended to realise phantom visions of city branding. Instead all they seem to usher in is surveillance, security, evictions and boondoggles. “The scam of scams was always the Olympics,” Sinclair writes, “Engines of regeneration. Orgies of lachrymose nationalism. War by other means. […] The five-hooped golden handcuffs. Smoke rings behind which deals could be done for casinos and mosques and malls: with corporate sponsorship, flag-waving and infinitely elastic budgets…” A brazenly suggested Olympic plan for hosting the 1988 Games in London is denounced as “the worst sort of land piracy”. What would Sinclair say about the developments in Tokyo Bay or Sendagaya?

The other events in the Anti-Olympic Torch handover included a talk at Tokyo University of Foreign Studies and screening of a film about protests at the 1988 Seoul Games, shown in Mitake Park in Shibuya in the vicinity of the now-closed Miyashita Park, which is another one of the flashpoints in the anti-2020 campaign.

The arrival of the Anti-Olympic Torch garnered some press attention from at least two outlets, the independent media OurPlanet-TV and Tokyo Shimbun. The torch also came to Japan against a poignant backdrop of related news stories: Osaka was selected to host the 2025 World Expo and organisers claimed they had received 80,000 applicants for the contentious 2020 Games volunteers programme (though 44% of them were not Japanese). The ghost milk of mega-events in Japan continues to trickle.


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