Critics of Tokyo 2020 venues misguided


The Tokyo 2020 Olympics are still almost six years away, but in many ways the games have already begun.

What do I mean?

The ongoing nonsense that has been taking place with regards to the main Olympic Stadium and other venues already approved by the IOC.

I have lived in Japan for nearly 20 years now and it never ceases to amaze me how some people here will try to back out of a contract they have already agreed to or signed off on.

Those who have been around these parts for a fair amount of time likely know what I am talking about. It seems as if in Japan a deal is only a deal until somebody becomes dissatisfied with it, even when those doing the whining are not directly involved.

Too often in Japan we see people complaining until they get their way, even if they are totally off base.

The problem with this kind of stubbornness is that it is usually both counterproductive and damaging in the long term. The Tokyo 2020 organizers are going to have to stand firm against this bevy of architects, politicians and others who are trying to change plans that have already been set.

Where were all of these folks back when the Japanese Olympic Committee selected Tokyo as the host city for the bid in July 2011?

They had more than two years before the IOC vote last September in Buenos Aires to voice their concerns about various issues related to the bid, but few actually did. Now they seem to be coming out of the woodwork.

The bigger issue here runs a lot deeper than money. It has to do with being true to your word. While it may be common practice domestically for contracts to be broken or altered, the 2020 Games are an international matter in every sense of the word.

The agreement with the IOC and all of the sporting federations for the venues has already been signed. Trying to change matters after the fact is going to reflect very poorly on Japan.

IOC members still have not forgotten what happened with the bid for the 1998 Winter Games, when the night before the vote in 1991 in Birmingham, England, the Nagano delegation went around and promised the voters they would pay the way of every coach and athlete to the competition.

The next day Nagano beat Salt Lake City in the final round of voting 46-42.

That was during the economic bubble, when the money was flowing. By the time the Nagano Games rolled around, however, the dynamic was much different and the organizers reneged on their original promise and provided free travel for only a small number of athletes.

Now it appears we may be witnessing a repeat of this previous disgrace. It just doesn’t seem to resonate with some that conducting business this way in the international arena is both improper and unethical.

IOC vice president John Coates, chairman of the IOC’s Coordination Commission for Tokyo 2020, warned organizers during a visit here in June about changing and altering venues.

“There will be no changes unless there is the full sign off from the international federations — that is critical,” he said.

I believe this kind of conduct is partially a product of the legal system in Japan, which discourages litigation.

Best-selling author Robert Whiting, who penned both “You Gotta Have Wa” and “Tokyo Underworld,” provides some cultural and historical insight on this issue.

“In America the written contract is the most important thing,” he says. “Signed contracts are considered the final word in a business relationship and are expected to be followed to the letter. Americans adhere verbatim to the letter of an agreement and do not hesitate to go to court if there is any deviation.

“The American system of contracts and lawyers came about because there were so many different ethnic groups in the United States with different codes of conduct that lawyers were needed as go-betweens to codify business arrangements.

“In Japan, human relationships are considered paramount, not the written word. Signed contracts are considered the beginning of a relationship and a road map to follow, but both parties recognize that things change and both sides should be adaptable to changing circumstances.

“Japanese believe a piece of paper is valid only as long as the conditions under which it was reached continue to hold true. If not, they will rewrite the contract to suit changing circumstances.

“Thus, whereas Americans try to close every conceivable loophole and nail the deal down on paper, the Japanese view contracts with some suspicion, assuming from the beginning there will be flexibility on the part of both parties involved should conditions change.”

Whiting refers to the U.S. in his analysis, but it is fair to say that in 2014 in most countries contract terms would be expected to be honored in the manner originally agreed upon.

The latest example here is the case of Skymark Airlines, which agreed to buy six Airbus A380 airplanes in 2011. When Skymark recently tried to change the terms, citing the weaker yen and competition, Airbus nixed the order last month and demanded a significant cancellation fee.

In addition to complaints about the design and cost of the main Olympic Stadium, now there is talk of moving the basketball competition out of Tokyo and out to Saitama Super Arena.

So much for the concept of a compact games.

If the bid was all about trying to do everything the cheapest way, then Saitama should have been part of the original plan. But to try and change it after the bid was won is unacceptable.

It seems in retrospect that it might have made sense to have more of a regional feel to the games. Instead of holding the marathons in Tokyo in the summer heat, move them up to Sapporo where conditions would be more favorable for the athletes and spectators.

The bottom line is that the chance at hosting the Summer Olympics comes along once every 50 years or so if a city is lucky. Tokyo should be using this as an opportunity to help promote sports and itself for the coming decades, not trying to cut corners.

This talk of using “legacy venues” also doesn’t fly with me. This is a rare chance for Tokyo to upgrade some of its antiquated facilities with some modern venues.

One example is the Yoyogi complex that was one of the centerpieces of the 1964 Tokyo Games. Both of the arenas are so old now that they are practically begging to be replaced.

The Tokyo 2020 bid should have called for leveling both arenas and replacing them with a single state-of-the-art building like London’s O2 Arena or New York’s Barclays Center. Something that could have been viable for years after the games ended and hosted many future events.

The Tokyo 2020 team is now caught in a difficult position, trying to balance the promises made to the international sporting community with the rising chorus of domestic dissenters.

“The National Stadium will remain at the center of Tokyo as a sporting hub, enriching the life of 35 million people in Greater Tokyo area,” said Tsuyoshi Yanagidate, deputy executive director of communications and engagement for Tokyo 2020, in a statement provided to The Japan Times. “It will also become an iconic legacy of the Tokyo 2020 Games for the next 50 years and more, spreading the values of Olympic legacy even since 1964 Games. While the Japan Sport Council performs the key administrative role on this project, we are confident that the stadium will showcase the best practice city-center stadium and play a central role of massive celebration in 2020.”

Just last month Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe addressed the issue of the cost of staging the Olympics.

“Expenses can be 30, 40, 50 times more than the original plan,” Masuzoe said at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. “How can I persuade the taxpayers to pay this kind of money?”

The problem with Masuzoe’s analysis is that it is flawed.

In a paper published in 2012, researchers at Oxford’s Said Business School compared cost data from summer and winter Olympic Games over the past 45 years. Their data showed the eventual cost of staging the Olympics went over budget by 179 percent on average. Essentially 1.8 times the original cost.

Tokyo 2020’s plan calls for an expenditure of approximately $5 billion. So if history holds to form, the final tally will actually be closer to $10 billion.

Masuzoe’s statements come across as an attempt to initiate even further cutbacks in the approved plan by inflaming the feelings of those opposed to the cost of Tokyo hosting the games. He would have constituents believe the 2020 Games may cost between $150 billion and $250 billion, which is pure fantasy.

The 1998 Nagano Games went 56 percent over budget from the original plan, according to the Oxford study, which is far below the average found in the games it researched.

In the final analysis, Tokyo 2020 must put aside domestic business practice and stand firm on its commitment to build the Olympic Stadium and construct the other venues as promised in the original bid plan, in spite of the noise being made by opponents.

The damage of doing anything less will be exponential.

  • hudsonstewart

    I think it’s far more important to realize that a mistake was made and break your word than to stubbornly refuse change despite the increased risk. In an ideal world, design flaws in the stadium would have been caught before the bid was made. However, they weren’t. That does not mean that they should be ignored at the potential cost of human life (I refer to the material that the roof is made from). What the author of this article sees as the noble practice of “keeping one’s word” I see as a stubborn attachment to antiquated ideals that are best left out of issues where human safety is concerned.

  • Don Corleone

    Grossly underestimating construction costs? That sounds as American as Apple Pie, never realized the Japanese also did this. Regardless, I hope this all gets sorted out to the benefit of the 2020 games. Salute my friends.

  • zer0_0zor0

    The monstrous stadium should be downsized so that they don’t have to cut down any of the trees in that forested area, which is one of very few in the Yamanote sphere. I read that 500 trees would be cut down, which is just hideous planning.

    “There will be no changes unless there is the full sign off from the international federations — that is critical,” he said.

    I agree that the changes should have to be approved, but I support saving the trees and downsizing/adapting the scale of the stadium planned for Yoyogi.

  • DA

    Well said. I think the new stadium looks absolutely stunning and it would be a real shame if it were heavily downsized. I’m all for saving a few trees, but I can’t really understand those who claim that the current facilities there should not be demolished (just refurbished) because of their historical value. Now, I’m a big lover of Shitamachi, of most things old in general. I’m an avid reader of Nagai Kafu and I adore everything Edward Seidensticker has written on Tokyo. But I also embrace the fact that makes Tokyo stand apart from other world capitals – that it’s only constant is change. There’s a certain charm with having been in the city at a certain time in a certain age, and as with our bodies its cells are constantly evolving.

  • phu

    I agree that the Japanese lack of consideration for upholding voluntary commitments is often frustrating and counterproductive. However, that does not mean that ALL commitments should be irreversible or unalterable simply by virtue of having been made.

    If this piece had been written with a subject more objectively wrong, like the Nagano reversal mentioned, it would have been a lot more compelling. However, ignoring all of the problems with the proposed stadium simply to say that it should go up regardless of whatever real problems there are with it really kills the credibility.

  • A.J. Sutter

    Just a couple of problems with the article’s argument: its premises.

    First, the supposition about the divergence in attitude between the US and Japan regarding contracts is a false stereotype. I’ve been negotiating international contracts for a few decades, both in the US and Japan. Yes, especially in the Bubble Era Japanese parties would try to have informal understandings, or would be seeking to renegotiate before the ink was dry. That practice is much less common now. Moreover, the notion that US parties “adhere verbatim to the letter of the agreement” is ludicrous (as is the ethnic melting pot theory of contracts Robert Whiting also espouses). As in many other things, US contract practice is based on money and power. A breach of contract may make good business sense if its costs are significantly less than its benefits. Reputational damage can be contained by confidentiality clauses in settlement agreements. And if you have enough power in the relationship, you don’t have to worry about costs at all. When I joined the law department of a Silicon Valley semiconductor equipment maker in the 1990s, one of the first things I was told was “Remember: it’s not nice to sue your customer.” Our best hopes regarding some of the deal provisions we negotiated, especially about intellectual property, were that our customer might hesitate just a little before they went ahead and screwed us anyway. That included our big American customers.

    Second, it’s wrong to treat an agreement involving governments the same as a private commercial agreement. The first type, including the Olympics, raises issues of democracy. The Tokyo Metropolitan Government wasn’t particularly transparent in its plans prior to the Olympic bid — there weren’t public hearings, opportunities for complaints, etc. Nor was there a referendum within Tokyo-to — just propaganda campaigns. (BTW it was the architectural and urban planning genius of several Tokyo governors that allowed the current waterfront skyline, creating the heat island that Tokyoites are suffering in this summer.) The rest of the country wasn’t involved in the debate either, even though there is a huge impact on areas outside Tokyo. I’m writing from Iwate-ken, where I live for part of the year. Even here in Morioka, we’re told that we have to postpone reform of the home where my octagenarian parents-in-law live because of shortages of construction materials and labor. That’s due not only to the government-sponsored projects around the Olympics, but also all the private construction in Tokyo that’s directly stimulated by the Olympic bid win. The situation on the Sanriku is even more dire. And similar shortages affect every part of Japan outside the capital. For the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to want to scale back would be both welcome and appropriate, especially if it’s because the voices of Japan residents are finally being listened to.

  • Mike

    How much of the public was actually consulted when it came to deciding any of this?? From what I have seen, The Olympics were the former governor Ishihara’s pet projects. And from what I know of Ishihara, he isn’t one to listen to dissenters. When those silenced critics were finally given space to air their grievances, the majority of the decisions had already been made. I don’t think we should try to shut the dissenters up, again.

    • J.P. Bunny

      From what I can see almost no one was consulted about the Olympics, other than high profile pro Olympic people. The People of Nagano definitely did not want the Winter Olympics, but what they wanted didn’t matter. Dissenters aren’t given air time or press space until it’s too late, then they appear to be wet blankets out to spoil everyone’s fun. The people being forced out of their housing for the new buildings certainly aren’t pleased.

  • Bogs_Dollocks

    Godzilla called. He wants his bicycle helmet back.