Yoshiro Mori, former rugby player and prime minister, and current head of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics’ organizing committee, is not a man of few words. When the current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, took it upon himself to discard the design for the new National Stadium because cost estimates had gotten out of hand, Mori quickly called a press conference to make it clear that the fiasco was not his fault and that he had been against the design in the first place. It lasted 90 minutes.
One reason it took so long is that he kept backtracking on earlier statements. Though he denied having anything to do with the selection of the design by U.K.-based architect Zaha Hadid, he also questioned why the plan had to be canceled. If you add up all the rest of the costs of the Olympics, he said, it will come to much more. Perhaps sensing that the press wasn’t buying this as an excuse for anything, he clarified yet again, saying that Japan “cherishes” sports, so even if the games cost ¥400 billion — the amount Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe figured they would cost in the end — “the stadium should be built.”
The old National Stadium has already been razed, so unless the associated entities decide to leave a big hole in the middle of Tokyo and use an existing venue for the main Olympic stadium, they’re going to have to build something. And one thing we know about big holes in Tokyo is that they don’t remain holes for long. The major construction companies have enjoyed a windfall since “Abenomics” reversed the “less public works” policies of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and then the Democratic Party of Japan, and Tokyo is the only place in the country where grand construction projects still make any practical sense.
This fact was implicit in another remark Mori made in his colorful but cryptic way. The Japan Sports Council wanted the new stadium to be finished in time for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, with which Mori is also involved. Now, the RWC organizing committee will have to find a new stadium and, according to Mori, originally it didn’t occur to him that one was needed for the tournament. He assumed Nissan Stadium in Yokohama would be used.
Then something happened. “It was as if I was driving a Crown and then got invited to ride in a Century,” he said at the press conference. The Crown is one of Toyota’s top-line mass market sedans, while the Century is its limousine-class vehicle, the kind of car you see picking up politicians in front of the Diet building. What Mori meant was that he had a perfectly good stadium for the RWC but was somehow persuaded to upgrade to something more luxurious, meaning Hadid’s stadium.
Who did the persuading? Back in mid-July on the Tokyo MXTV talk show “Shukan Literacy,” freelance journalist Takashi Uesugi explained how powerful parties with “vested interests” (riken) had conspired to make the stadium happen. Though the bid organization promised the International Olympics Committee a new stadium — a pledge they didn’t have to make since the IOC supposedly prefers host cities to use existing venues — the Japan organizers for the RWC made no such promises to the international governing body for rugby. But the JSC thought the new stadium would become that much more of a necessity if the public were convinced that it was also being built for the RWC.
Then there’s the Japan Olympic Committee, which wants to construct a new headquarters on the same piece of land where the new stadium would be built. The cost of the headquarters could be tacked on to the outlay for the stadium.
Uesugi said these and other interests joined forces behind closed doors to make the new stadium inevitable, and all were egged on by predetermined construction companies who knew they were negotiating with amateurs. So costs that were already underestimated ballooned even more. Despite PR to the contrary, the stadium was never about “impressing the world” or Japan’s love of sports. It was about money and influence.
According to Toshihiro Yamanaka in the Asahi Shimbun, Mori’s press conference follows a pattern developed before World War II: People in power think they can spend as much as they want, and when a project fails for one reason or another they claim they were always against it. The bureaucrat who resigned last week to take responsibility was an obvious scapegoat. The same people who ran the now-discredited show are still in charge as it reboots.
Like Tadao Ando. In another Asahi editorial, Naoto Maeda questioned the credibility of the head of the stadium selection committee after he said that he had no idea why the estimate for the stadium had gotten so high. He wants the construction companies to somehow forego profits and build the stadium for the benefit of the country. Ando is probably the most famous Japanese architect in the world, and the only member of the committee who has any expertise in these matters. Many of those involved in the process blame Hadid’s design for the cost overruns, but since Ando remains in his position, another Hadid design could very well be chosen since he has pledged solidarity with her, even though a lot of people seem to hate her buildings. One anonymous expert told Asahi that Hadid’s outlandishly curvy structures “flatter the vanity” of those in power, but as soon as they discover everyone else thinks the buildings look ridiculous they change their minds. Mori called the national stadium design a “drooping oyster.”
Except for Tokyo Shimbun, all major media supported the stadium project until public opinion turned against it. As Uesugi said, “Nobody wants to be shut out of Olympic coverage,” which explained why he made his remarks on MXTV. The station is too small to afford the Olympics, though its main shareholder is the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which blames the central government for the mess even though the substance of the problem was inherited from former Gov. Shintaro Ishihara.
If passing the buck were an Olympic event, Japan would have a lock on the gold medal.
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