Two women: one in her 60s, and one in her 90s. We cannot use their names or show their faces, as they fear retribution for speaking out. Yet, in a more just world, they would be known as the true faces of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Their stories are remarkable and infuriating. They were displaced from their homes 55 years ago to make way for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and now, more than five decades later, they have been displaced again. “I thought that would be my final home,” said the woman in her 90s. “That I would die in that house. But they forced me to move. [The city] uprooted my community. Again.”
They show us the history of these two struggles, waged decades apart. On the table between us are a half dozen plastic binders documenting their struggle. We see the brown-edged, crinkled documents that were used to fight evictions in 1964 and the crisp white sheets that make up the pamphlets in use today. These papers make up just a part of several meticulously kept binders filled with letters, leaflets, and maps documenting both battles.
But as we learned after speaking with them, with the aid of a translator, for several hours, not all displacements are created equal. In 2020, the removals have been colder, more vicious, and less forgiving. That’s not to say that the move in 1964 was without pain. As the woman in her 60s said to us, “I was just a child in 1964. I remember feeling very bitter and upset. It was a community with animals and I didn’t know what happened to them. Then [at the start of the games] from the edge of my house I saw fighter jets [sky write] the Olympic rings.”
But in 1964 at least, people were able to protest and negotiate with the city. The demand was “give us our houses instead of building new ones.” They squatted and after a fierce struggle, the government eventually did force them to move, but provided new housing with running water, modern toilets, and gas: a first for many who were displaced.
For the 2020 Games, their community was fractured, as residents were shipped to three different relocation sites, breaking apart a close-knit community. An academic survey found that 80 percent of the residents wanted to stay.
It didn’t have to be this way. When the original designs for the main Olympics stadium were issued, they raised eyebrows not only for their futuristic look but also for their sizable price tag. After costs spiraled to nearly $2 billion, Tokyo organizers abandoned the lavish plan in favor of a cheaper model. But what got lost in the furor was that in order to make way for the original design, around 300 households from the adjacent Kasumigaoka apartments were evicted. While Tokyo organizers gave architects a second chance, they did not extend the same courtesy to the residents of this community that the locals call “Kasumi.”
Residents of Kasumi pushed back against their eviction orders, but their pleas were ignored. The woman in her 60s said, “The politicians don’t listen. There is no political party willing to stand up to challenge Olympic priorities.”
In trampling the housing rights of the people of Kasumi, Tokyo 2020 organizers and their enablers in government extended the Olympics’ long and inglorious record of displacement. Sometimes the numbers are gobsmacking, as when Beijing evicted 1.5 million people to make way for the 2008 Games, or when Rio de Janeiro displaced 77,000 people for the 2016 Olympics. At other times, the total number of displaced people is smaller, as with Tokyo. But it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that real people are affected, their lives upended.
What’s also sometimes lost in the number shuffle is that the housing that gets demolished is often public housing. Finance capital has increasingly targeted real estate, and this has dire consequences for those who live in public housing. For residents, public housing means home. For finance capital, it means a lucrative business opportunity. All too often, everyday working people get caught in the cross fire. The people of Kasumi are the most recent victims of Olympics-induced gentrification.
When we asked what they would say to the IOC, the woman in her 90s laughed at first and then said, “I don’t know how to talk to big people like that.… The more you say something to them, the worse it gets.”
We also spoke to a man in his 80s who was displaced for 2020. He said, “There is a shadow extending over Tokyo. You can feel it. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it’s coming with the Olympics.”