National | New Year's Special

Can Tokyo's soft power push ensure a positive Olympic legacy?

by Alex Martin

Staff Writer

When the capital hosted the Olympic Games over half a century ago, it was heralded as a symbol of Japan’s postwar recovery. This time around, Tokyo appears keen on trading brick and mortar for hearts and minds.

One-hundred kilometers of highways were freshly laid during the massive infrastructure drive that coincided with the 1964 games. Haneda Airport was modernized, and luxurious hotels sprouted in a city once ravaged by American firebombings. A new sewage system gushed into action, and the world’s first bullet train roared between Tokyo and Osaka at record-breaking speed to the awe of visitors.

The sporting event saw Tokyo transform from a grubby city to a first-world metropolis and signified Japan’s return to the global stage as a peaceful, economically confident nation. This was reflected in the choice of Yoshinori Sakai, born in Hiroshima on the day the atomic bomb was dropped on the city, to light the Olympic flame.

A makeover of that scale is a feat difficult to emulate for the fully developed city that Tokyo has evolved into in the decades since.

Instead, the capital has been striving to portray the upcoming games as Tokyo’s chance to showcase its soft power, epitomized by the term “omotenashi” used by celebrity television presenter Christel Takigawa during a speech to the International Olympic Committee in 2013 to describe the Japanese spirit of selfless hospitality. And in the age of climate change, organizer’s have been working to make the games the most environmentally friendly in Olympics history with proposals including venues powered by renewable energy and medals forged using recycled materials.

But from budget battles and controversial plans for a national stadium to a plagiarism scandal and fears about the capital’s intense summer weather, the road to the Olympic and Paralympic games has been anything but smooth, raising the question of whether the city can leave a positive mark on an event whose history has been riddled by cautionary tales of waste, corruption and overspending.

“We will have to see how the games roll out, but I believe the key phrase is human legacy,” said Makoto Hamaoka, senior researcher at Mitsubishi Research Institute.

While past games Japan has hosted, including the 1964 Olympics and 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics, left tangible legacies in terms of infrastructure, a mature city like Tokyo should be aiming to address social and environmental issues and embrace diversity to boost the nation’s welcoming image, he said, an aspect that was played up in the 2012 London Olympics.

“Human resources are increasingly important in a graying and shrinking population, and this should be an occasion where the nation shows how it can host an inclusive, accessible and sustainable event,” he said.

Slated to kick off on July 24, the games will be held in dozens of venues sprawled across nine prefectures that will be host to 339 events featuring 33 Olympic and 22 Paralympic sports.

Including eight new competition venues, 25 existing sites and 10 temporary venues, the games are, by some calculations, projected to cost over ¥3 trillion in total — a far cry from the ¥700 billion initially estimated under the slogan of hosting a “compact” games.

One of the first signs of cost overruns surfaced in 2015, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced he would be scrapping the late London architect Zaha Hadid’s competition-winning design for the 2020 Olympic Stadium following concerns over its spiraling price tag and public anger at the scale of the proposed arena. Instead, a flatter, cheaper stadium designed by Kengo Kuma was chosen and formally unveiled last month.

It was also 2015 when the Olympic committee ditched the games’ official logo after accusations of plagiarism surfaced against designer Kenjiro Sano. And in March last year, Tsunekazu Takeda, the chairman of the Japanese Olympic Committee, resigned amid allegations of corruption over Tokyo’s bid to host the 2020 Games.

Despite some major hick-ups along the way, the Rugby World Cup, which wrapped up in November, was hailed as a resounding success, fueling tourism and winning new fans in Japan and around the world. World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont went as far as to call the event perhaps the “greatest Rugby World Cup in history,” praise that must have been met by a sigh of relief from Olympic organizers who considered the tournament a rehearsal for the 2020 games.

Weather risks persist, however. Concerns over Tokyo’s sweltering summer heat prompted the IOC to move the men’s and women’s marathons and walking races up north to Sapporo — to the dismay of Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who has raised environmental sustainability as one of her goals in promoting the games.

As part of that effort, the former defense minister vowed to reduce plastic waste and introduced an ordinance due to take effect in the spring banning all smoking in restaurants, except in separated smoking rooms. The Olympic Village will be powered by hydrogen generated in Fukushima Prefecture, she said, in line with another key theme for Tokyo 2020 — reconstruction and recovery from the 2011 Tohoku disaster, when an earthquake and tsunami led to nearly 16,000 deaths and a meltdown at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

The lumber used in the roof of the new National Stadium, for example, was sourced from across the nation, including disaster-hit areas, while the Olympic torch relay will begin at J-Village, a soccer training center in Fukushima that was an operational base for dealing with the nuclear crisis.

But despite calls for sustainability, most of the new venues are expected to run annual deficits after the games wrap up, according to estimates made by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.Except for the Ariake Arena — the venue for volleyball and wheelchair basketball, which will be able to host competitions and concerts after the games — five out of the six new venues owned by Tokyo are likely to be bleeding red ink.

“The venues have already been slimmed down to cut costs, and we plan on increasing profitability by introducing measures such as selling their naming rights,” said Kenji Suzuki, senior director for venue opening preparations at the city’s Bureau of Olympic and Paralympic Games. Day-to-day management of the venues will be handled by designated administrators, Suzuki said, and the metropolitan government will work with them on devising ways to attract visitors and host events.

Some experts, however, have voiced skepticism over post-games promotion of Olympic sites.

“Plans for the legacy of London 2012 were closely examined from the onset of the bidding process,” said architect Kazuya Yamazaki, who joined British firm Allies and Morrison after moving to the U.K. in 2001. He worked on several London Olympic projects including the Greenwich Park Equestrian & Pentathlon venue before founding his own firm in Tokyo.

Rejuvenating the East End of London and particularly Stratford, the site of the Olympic Park, was a major piece toward securing the games’ legacy, Yamazaki said. The project transformed what was once a run-down area into a thriving center of business, retail and tourism.

“But I don’t get the sense that organizers for Tokyo 2020 are very focused on the legacy of the Olympics,” Yamazaki said. “They talk about attracting crowds to the venues, but how? There aren’t that many events that can gather tens of thousands of people.”

In terms of redevelopment, the Tokyo Bay area is undergoing a facelift with the construction of new competition facilities including the Tokyo Aquatics Centre and other commercial venues. Perhaps one of the most ambitious projects in the area is the Olympic Village, which will be converted into a group of condominiums called Harumi Flag after the games are over, essentially creating a new community on 18 hectares of reclaimed land in Chuo Ward.

But with no direct rail access to the city center and Tokyo’s population projected to peak in 2025, some have voiced concerns over the desirability of the property and whether the market can absorb the 4,000-plus apartment units that will be offered for sale.

“It should be more about creating an attractive, culturally rich area that people would want to live in, rather than simply erecting buildings,” Yamazaki said.

One thing Tokyo and the rest of Japan can count on, however, is tourism. Ever since the capital won the bid to host the games in 2013, the number of inbound travelers has been growing, thanks in part to the weaker yen. Last year, 31.2 million travelers came to Japan, compared with 10.36 million five years earlier.

And for 2020, the government has set a target of attracting 40 million foreign tourists and having them spend ¥8 trillion. During the Olympics alone, as many as 10 million visitors are expected to arrive, meaning sports fans could be facing a room shortage in the capital.

To accommodate the linguistic needs of international visitors, the travel sector has been working to provide signs and directions in English, Chinese and other languages while improving the accuracy of existing foreign language signage found in towns and cities.

Meanwhile, in order to stymie a fall in non-games tourism, the Japan National Tourism Organization is expected to promote regional destinations including seasonal events such as those related to cherry blossoms in spring and winter sports.

“I’m somewhat concerned as to whether regional tourist destinations can fulfill the high expectations of travelers, and there is also the issue of transportation — while visitors flock to large cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Fukuoka, more work needs to be done to improve accessibility to rural tourist attractions,” said Joji Nishikawa, head of Tourism Business Consultants.

And with all the talk about omotenashi and the nation’s esteemed hospitality, Nishikawa says it is essential that the service industry concentrate on quality, not quantity, for inbound tourism. Last month, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announced that the government will offer a loan program to help the private sector build 50 “world class” luxury hotels for affluent tourists.

“While I support the initiative, I would rather see the funds being used to revamp and improve the quality of existing ryokan,” Nishikawa said, referring to traditional Japanese-style inns, considered a symbol of omotenashi.

“We want people to relish their experience in Japan and continue visiting our country after the Olympics.”