In just over five years, Tokyo will become the first city in Asia to host the Summer Olympic games twice, the first time being in the summer of 1964. Fifty years ago, the Games brought Japan the chance to show off its newfound postwar boom to the world and many here believe it was one of the key events that helped to put Japan on the fast-track to restoring its glory and creating a 20 year economic boom. Many are betting on history repeating itself; and after suffering numerous economic setbacks, saddled with a graying population, heavy debt, and parts of the country still rebuilding after the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, it’s easy to see why starting now, Japan will be selling the Olympic Dream to anyone and everyone. However before we start thinking of what happens after the Games, we should make sure we’ve properly prepared for the coming storm.

It takes years and raw manpower to make two weeks in the middle of summer come off without a hitch. I was privy to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia in the United States and know first-hand what a serious endeavor that was. New stadiums, arenas, and even streets and parks were built and thankfully are still used to serve as a reminder of how the Games can put a metropolitan area that was only 2 million people strong beforehand on the map; The Atlanta Metro Area has over 5 million now and a lot of it is thanks in part to businesses that thought the town “had arrived” on the international spotlight. It was definitely the Olympic games that brought the world to the city that had mostly been known for its “Southern Hospitality,” a very large airport, and the birthplaces of both Coca-Cola and Martin Luther King, Jr. Will the Games have the same effects on Tokyo?

That question is a tough one to answer; Tokyo, on the surface, doesn’t need much help in the PR department for sure. It’s ranked generally at the top of most charts in terms of having status as a “world city”, and has always been ranked tops in safety for such a large metro area. This year, Tokyo even topped Monocle’s rankings ( world’s most livable city in 2015. However under the surface, ol’ Edo is not without its issues, and can stand some improvement.


There are a ton of people who are ready to point fingers at me and say “dude, what the hell are you on about? Tokyo has trains, trains, and more trains!” Yes, yes, and yes— and they’re always on time, clean, and very safe. As an avid documentarian of Japan’s rail system, I ride these trains just for the hell of it, but I also know the system needs work if we’re to play host to a ton of foreigners that will flood the system five years from now. Tokyo’s public transit is a series of interconnected subways, commuter railways, buses, monorails, and people-movers. It’s hard for even native Tokyoites to know where one system ends and the other begins, and I’m often tasked by visitors here to help guide them around the labyrinth-like system.

Hotels, Hostels, and Home-shares

Recent advances in technology has made this area a lot better for tourists. When I first came to Tokyo back in 2000, I remember having to fax (!) my itenerary from Atlanta to a hostel in Minami-Senju near Asakusa because they didn’t accept emails, they didn’t take credit cards; cash only. I was lucky that I could get a friend to send money to their bank account here in Japan to hold my room. Those days are pretty much over with, since now pretty much all the decent places will let you book online, and there’s apps like AirBNB and HostelFinder that can fill in the gaps here. But there are some strange gaps that still exist that folks coming here need to know about— and hopefully won’t be an issue in 2020.

Banking, ATMs, and Cash

If it’s one thing I’m still suprised about here in Japan, it’s the fact that it can sometimes be a serious challenge to use a foreign ATM card in this place. There was once a time where you were pretty much screwed if you needed money from your cash card issued back home. Citibank’s ATM’s were the only game in town, and there were only maybe 5 places you could get to one. Travelers Cheques could only be cashed at big department stores, and forget about using a credit card at most places. Again, technology to the rescue; lots more places accept credit cards now. Also starting in 2010, Japan Post and Seven-Eleven ATMs here can accept most bank cards…MOST. I have an HSBC debit card issued from a Taiwanese branch and I can only seem to use it at Aeon ATMs. Straaaaannnngge. There is still no rhyme or reason for this foolishness, so I’ll explore ways around these issues as well.

Dealing with Police and Medical Staff

This is probably going to be the biggest part that needs to change… and most of it has to do with (you guessed it) the average Japanese ability to deal with foreigners. No, I’m not talking about the ability to communicate to us in English nor our ablilty to communicate in Japanese (although anyone coming here had better figure out how to use Google Translate on their phone at the very least). I’m talking about just dealing with people from a different country in terms of understanding that we are all human and have the same basic needs. Sometimes that simple rule goes out the window for many Japanese here because they get too worked up trying to remember basic English from their schooling days, instead of “reading the air/空気読む,” which means to ‘glean from context’. If I’m holding my foot which is bloodied from an accident, and you’re a policeman in a policebox, I think it’s safe to say that I need to get to a hospital, stat. However I recently helped a friend who tried to do this very thing unsuccessfully on his own. I jumped on the phone and translated my buddy’s words into Japanese to the officer and he was able to call the ambulance and get him to a doctor. The question I want to ask is whether or not Tokyo’s police and paramedic staff will have some training in ‘human understanding’ before 2020?

Staying connected

Lots of people landing at Narita, Haneda, Centrair, and KIX have been overheard asking this question aloud: “why the $%#& doesn’t my phone work over here?!” More have asked me later on where to get things like prepaid SIM cards and how to access wifi hotspots. I’m perplexed at how Japan can a world leader in providing access to the internet to those who live here (nearly everyone has a 30GB/s FIBER OPTIC connection to their home, including me, and there’s LTE data in every TUNNEL under this place) yet completely ignores the 15 million-plus/year tourists who travel here. Other countries around us like Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong make it as simple as popping into a convience store and walking out with a multiday SIM card that has oodles of data and airtime on it. Not Japan though. You can’t have regular voice phone number unless you’re a resident with a valid ID thanks to an archaic telecomminications law that hasn’t kept up with the times. There are prepaid SIM cards available for tourists, but they’re data-only (which actually isn’t an issue these days) and many aren’t for sale in the airports, or in a physical store for that matter (which is the real issue here.) Wireless LAN hotspots are everywhere now thankfully; Starbucks is the easiest to use now since you can just use your Facebook, Google, or Twitter IDs to log in — and they are all over the place. Many convenience stores also have Wifi as well, sporting English, Chinese, and Korean language login pages. I’ll introduce some other methods I’ve used, and show how we may not need to worry about this at all by 2020.

So, buckle up and stay tuned, this series is just getting started and I invite you to be a part of it by asking your own questions here; I’ll try to include them in my upcoming reports if I get enough intrest. Also if you live here and can answer some of these questions as well, please do so— I love learning new ‘life-hacks’ here to help my “JapanLife” for myself and my readers.

Photo Credit: Sean Pavone

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