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Once-reluctant Japanese get behind Tokyo's bid

By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) - Tokyo knows better than most how an Olympic Games can rebrand a city. It did it once already at the 1964 Games, shaking off a war-ravaged reputation and showing a modern face to the world.

Fifty years later, Japan's capital now wants to show that it is back, showcasing a new energy and dynamism after two lost decades, by hosting the 2020 Games.

As the clock ticks down to choosing the host city and the government touts the games as everything from more stimulus for an economy tiptoeing back from economic stagnation to the final step of recovery from 2011 disasters, once reluctant Tokyo residents are finally coming around to support them as well.

Some bookmakers have given Tokyo an edge, and property firms are eagerly hoping for victory over rivals Istanbul and Madrid on Sept 7, when the decision is made. Builders, hotels and restaurants would gain as well, with a range of other businesses also betting the positive attention will boost investment.

Even people like greengrocer Toshiyuki Utsumi, 83, who runs a tiny corner shop in the Higashi Azabu neighborhood not far from the Tokyo Tower, an Eiffel Tower-lookalike, are in favor.

"This will boost Japan in the eyes of the world," the wiry Utsumi said, sorting bananas. "1964 was the start of our growth, Japan went from nothing to a real plus."

But others, like neighbor Eiko Wada, are less happy.

"For the time of the Olympics it's good, you bring in lots of people to build things," said the 60-year-old Wada, who runs an izakaya pub. "But it creates an economic bubble and after it's over, people end up out of work. That happened in 1964.

"They talk so much about the country making progress and the economic benefits, but Japan is already an advanced country. Basically they'll just throw around a lot of money for a while, but after it's over only shadows will remain."

Lukewarm support was one of the factors that sank Japan's bid for the 2016 Olympics that went to Rio de Janeiro. As recently as mid-2012 only 47 percent were in favor of Tokyo hosting the 2020 games, the bid committee says.

According to a late August poll by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, though, 74 percent said they supported the games. Another survey, out last month, had 62 percent support.

"We'd get a lot of economic benefits in this area," said Sei Hara, who runs a stationery shop in Nishi-kasai, which would host the canoe/kayak slalom. "The economy has been stagnant for a long time so it's a good idea to do something to boost it."

Most of those opposed, like Wada, speak of wasted money.

"It'd just create traffic jams and pile up debt," said a Tokyo taxi driver in his 50s, declining to be named. "The country doesn't have that kind of resources right now."

Olympic organizers are quick to point to a $4.5 billion war chest already in the bank, with further support as needed promised by the government. The overall economic impact is estimated at some 3 trillion yen ($30.48 billion).

"The games are in a safe pair of hands," Tsunekazu Takeda, head of the Japanese Olympic Committee, told reporters recently.

Pluses for Tokyo include the fact that 85 percent of events will be within 8 km of each other, most connected by a public transport system so reliable conductors apologize for a few minutes' delay. A number of venues already exist, such as sumo's hallowed Kokugikan, to be used for boxing, as well as the Budokan, built for 1964 but known now more as a concert hall.

Land for the Olympic Village, a 44-hectare plot on the Tokyo waterfront currently in use as a parking lot where motorcycle policemen also train, is already owned by the government.

SAFETY CONCERNS

Working against Tokyo, though, are safety concerns in one of the world's most seismically-active nations, with memories of the March 2011 quake and tsunami still fresh.

Tokyo itself was devastated by a major quake in 1923 and is said to be overdue for another. The land set to be used for the Olympic Village, along with that for several other venues, was reclaimed from Tokyo Bay, in some cases nearly a century ago.

Organizers cite strict building codes and the fact that a damaging tsunami in central Tokyo is unlikely due to the area's geographical structure.

"Pillars for most of this land have been sunk very deep, and any further building will be preceded by additional reinforcement," said Hitoshi Sakai, CEO of The Institute for Social Engineering, an independent Tokyo think-tank. "Japanese construction firms are known for their skills in this area."

Government officials have also downplayed worries about the nuclear crisis at the crippled Fukushima reactor just 200 km (150 miles) north of Tokyo. On August 26, chief government spokesman Yoshihide Suga said it would have no impact on the bid to bring the games.

ANOTHER 1964?

The 1964 Olympics, which Tokyo beat Detroit, Vienna and Brussels to host, are remembered with such pride that the anniversary of their October 10 opening is a national holiday.

A building boom transformed Tokyo prior to the games, the high-speed Shinkansen train began to run, and a growing middle class snapped up refrigerators and other appliances, including televisions to watch the games.

"Tokyo was turned absolutely upside down," said Ayako Abe, a social commentator who was a university student in 1964.

"Tram lines disappeared and they buried rivers in concrete to build highways, which has led to hotter summers. But it really got the country going as a consumer society, everybody was reaching out to buy new things."

To produce a lasting legacy of the games this time requires a long-range vision that some are unsure exists.

"Even just campaigning for the Olympics means you have to use a lot of money," said civil servant Shuji Nakajima, 27. "If it succeeds that's fine, but if it doesn't the money's gone."

Tokyo planners may have their eyes on making the games a technological show, highlighting advances in disaster prevention and environmental sectors like alternative energy, Sakai said.

"But there needs to be a much more comprehensive plan to sell Tokyo and sell Japan, to bring businesses here, bring tourists here," he added. "If the goal is only to host the Olympics, I think they should just give up."

(Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Ossian Shine)

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