Commentary / Japan

Abe conjures himself up as the people's champion

by Kevin Rafferty

Special To The Japan Times

There’s good news and there’s bad news over Japan’s decision to scrap the world’s most expensive sports stadium, also known as the main venue for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.

The good news is that at last someone has stood up to the gang of egotistical architects and their greedy construction company henchmen who rip off the public purse in the name of art or style to erect concrete monstrosities, “concrete carbuncles,” Britain’s Prince Charles called them.

Enough, said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who last week declared he had listened to “the voice of the people” and scrapped Zaha Hadid’s stadium, costs of which have soared to more than $2 billion. The design was adventurous to the point of being futuristically far-fetched, like a bicycle helmet or a hair dryer, or, in the damning chauvinistic words of Arata Isozaki, “a turtle waiting for Japan to sink so that it can swim away.”

But, hold on: There is lots of bad news wrapped in there too. Who would have imagined Abe wearing the cloak of Champion of the People? The same Abe has just defied the clear wishes of the Japanese people in rushing through new laws that will effectively destroy Japan’s peace-proclaiming Constitution by allowing troops to serve abroad fighting in other countries’ wars.

This is a much more serious matter than cost overruns on an Olympic stadium. Spending $2 billion on a stadium is a boondoggle too far. But in the scheme of government white elephants this is only a single building. The Bank of Japan has poured 1,000 times as much vainly trying to stimulate the Japanese economy, with Abe’s blessing.

There is the stench of stinking fish about the decision. Why was Abe involved at all? He is not a member of Japan’s Olympic committee. Until a few weeks ago, the government was proclaiming that it would stick by the existing design, citing time pressures and Japan’s credibility. Only three weeks before, education minister Hakubun Shimomura told Tokyo 2020 organizers that Japan would stand by Hadid’s design. “A large change in the design at this point would keep the stadium from being completed in time, and it was also a big sales point for Tokyo’s bid,” Shimomura was quoted by NHK as saying after the meeting.

The cancellation of the stadium smacks of cheap politicking, with conjuror-in-chief Abe, facing plummeting popularity, trying to find a new trick to bemuse the people. There are serious matters of principle, morality and governance, which all seem to have escaped him and indeed most of the commentariat, shame on us.

Among the questions which Abe and his colleagues evaded are:

How did the costs of the Hadid-designed stadium balloon out of control? Hadid’s office blamed soaring construction and labor costs and the tight schedule, and claimed that the design “uses standard materials and techniques well within the capability of Japanese contractors and meets the budget set by the Japan Sport Council.”

How will the government ensure that the new design will not suffer similarly from cost overruns? After all, successive Olympic Games have become a byword for overspending.

What precisely will be the timetable and competition for the new design? The statement from Abe’s chief sidekick Yoshihide Suga was very much a conjuror’s rabbit running away fast. He promised a new international competition completed in the next six months, then, hey presto, there would be a new project and its estimated cost. He gave no details of the terms of the competition or the target budget. Where is the transparency in this?

Who is running the Olympics show now, the Tokyo Olympics committee or Abe?

How will compensation to Hadid affect the total bill?

Where is Japan’s reputation if a winner of an international competition can be sidelined by prime ministerial fiat?

What happens now to the 2019 Rugby World Cup, or is that collateral damage?

Who is going to resign? Yoshiro Mori, head of the Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee and president of the Japan Rugby Football Union, has been doubly humiliated. But Abe also lent his energy and prestige to the project, including the stadium.

Go back to September 2013 in Buenos Aires, Tokyo — not Japan, though obviously with the strong backing of the Abe government — defeated Istanbul and Madrid to host the 2020 Games. The voting delegates praised Japan’s slick presentation, backed by Tokyo’s ¥400 billion fund and promises of a new stadium and events packed compactly around Tokyo. In November 2012, the year before Tokyo was chosen, the Japan Sport Council announced that Zaha Hadid Architects had defeated 45 other finalists to win the design for the new stadium.

It is surely fair to question whether Tokyo’s skyline would be enhanced or blighted by the futuristic stadium designed by Hadid. It is certainly relevant to point out that stadiums for Olympic Games have been expensively under-used after the athletes have gone home. The state-of-the-art stadium that starred for the Athens Games in 2004 is derelict, and Greece is struggling with the €9 billion bill for hosting an event that is frequently described as “the world’s most expensive white elephant.”

Beijing Bird’s Nest stadium is a popular attraction for tourists’ selfie pictures, although few of them pay the $8 for a guided tour. London’s Olympic stadium is still being renovated to serve as home for the West Ham United Football Club.

So Tokyo and Abe had fair warning that staging an Olympic Games is likely to prove more expensive than anyone plans or imagines in advance. Abe was party to the planning of Tokyo’s bid, and turned up in Buenos Aires to glad-hand and woo delegates. When Tokyo won, he led the cheers, and declared happily, “When I heard the name ‘Tokyo,’ I was so touched, overwhelmed. The joy was even greater than when I won my own election (as prime minister).”

It would be optimistic to expect that the bigwigs of the International Olympic Committee would assert control on the integrity of the Olympic movement to check costs or see that host cities meet their promises. After news of the scrapping of the Hadid design, IOC chief Thomas Bach merely expressed optimism that Japan would deliver the goods.

On the evidence of soaring costs and the huge expenses involved in staging a month-long multibillion dollar party called a Summer Olympics, the biggest boondoggle is the Olympic movement itself. Abe should be thanked for questioning ballooning costs, but questioned himself about what was the value of Tokyo’s promises — and his — in pitching for the games in the first place. Equally, government by edict or conjuring trick is no way to solve Japan’s deep structural economic and social problems.

Kevin Rafferty, a longtime journalist and commentator on Asia, was managing editor at the World Bank and is a quondam professor at Osaka University.