Abe pulls plug on costly Olympic stadium plan

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

To reduce the estimated construction cost of ¥252 billion and ease growing criticism, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Friday that the new National Stadium to be built for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be redesigned from scratch.

This means Japan will renege on its promise to use the venue for the 2019 Rugby World Cup because the new stadium won’t be built in time, Abe said.

“I’ve decided to send the current plan for the new National Stadium . . . back to the drawing board,” he told reporters. “I made the decision today because I’m firmly convinced that (a new stadium) will be completed by the opening of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.”

Abe apparently feared a backlash from angry voters. The estimated construction cost for the extravagant stadium was originally ¥130 billion, but then it suddenly soared to ¥252 billion.

The revised price, which came without any public explanation, is believed to have negatively affected public approval ratings for the Abe Cabinet in recent polls.

Later in the day, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the government will finish drawing up a new plan for the stadium in fall, and it will include a cap on the total construction cost.

Kyodo News reported that the government will set a target below ¥200 billion. But a high-ranking official later said the government does not yet have a specific target.

Suga said the government will hold an international competition that combines the design and the construction, which he claimed will shorten the total process and make sure the stadium is ready for opening of the Olympics.

The design for the now-rejected design by British-based architect Zaha Hadid, featuring two gigantic keel arches supporting the roof, was chosen in 2012 through an international competition.

Pulling the plug now may damage Japan’s international reputation and put a question mark on its ability to manage numerous other Olympic-related projects.

“It is true that (Hadid’s design) was a key part of our campaign to attract the Olympic Games to Tokyo,” Suga told a news conference earlier Friday.

During a presentation at a meeting of the International Olympic Committee in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in September 2013, Abe himself proudly said in English, “I can also say that, from a new stadium that will look like no other, to confirmed financing, Tokyo 2020 will offer guaranteed delivery.”

Abe made the announcement Friday after meeting with Yoshiro Mori, president of the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, in the prime minister’s office.

Mori had promised to World Rugby, the international governing body of rugby unions, that Japan would build an entirely new stadium to host the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Mori was believed reluctant to give up the plan to host the rugby championship in the new National Stadium, but according to Abe, he endorsed the decision to scrap the Hadid design.

A senior official close to Abe had said earlier that he believes the stadium issue was having an even bigger impact on his approval ratings than the controversial security bills, which were passed by the Lower House on Thursday.

According to the latest poll by Jiji, conducted between July 10 and 13, the approval rate of the Abe Cabinet fell to an all-time low of 40.1 percent, down 5.7 percentage points from the previous month, while the disapproval rate surged to a new high of 39.5 percent, up 5.5 percentage points.

Abe, who has no powerful rivals within the Liberal Democratic Party, is expected to be smoothly re-elected as party president in an election scheduled to be held around Sept. 20.

Still, the recently declining approval rates in media polls could significantly weaken his administration, which has consistently boasted high public approval and looked set to remain in power for a long time.

Mizuho Aoki contributed to this story