How Japan shelved plans for its new National Stadium

How Japan shelved plans for its new National Stadium
A rendering model of the new National Stadium for 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, designed by Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, is displayed at a meeting in Tokyo.
PHOTO: Reuters

"Mr. [Hakubun] Shimomura (the education minister) has lost the ability to handle the situation. Unless you take responsibility and handle this through the Prime Minister's Office, these problems will never be resolved."

This was how Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso advised Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to handle the plan for the new National Stadium, during a visit to the prime minister's home in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, on the evening of June 25.

Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe was publicly saying that the metropolitan government should not have to contribute ¥50 billion (S$551 million) toward the stadium's construction plan. Shimomura had been working to convince Masuzoe, but so far a compromise had eluded him.

However, Abe had already told his aides in mid-June to reexamine the construction plan. They reported back that the stadium would not be finished in time.

Now into July, Abe reportedly told people close to him that changing the plan would be difficult.

"It was an international commitment. Changing the design would take considerable [political] energy," he was quoted as saying. Abe changed his mind, however, in the face of surging public anger after the government approved spending ¥252 billion to build the stadium.

"We have to cut costs. I'll make the final decision on my own," Abe was quoted as telling a Diet member he is close to a few days ago.

In the end, Abe decided a clean slate was needed.

The Mori factor

"It's one for all. If that's your decision, I'll abide by it. I'll explain the situation carefully and handle things meticulously," Yoshiko Mori, chief of the Olympic Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, was quoted as telling Abe on Friday at the Prime Minister's Office.

Mori employed a phrase used to describe the importance of teamwork in rugby - "one for all, all for one" - to accept Abe's decision to scrap the plan for the stadium.

Abe met one-on-one with Mori for 35 minutes, after which other people including Shimomura and Toshiaki Endo, the minister for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, came to talk for about another hour.

After the meeting, Mori addressed waiting reporters cheerfully. "After the Olympics, the rugby world should have free use of the new National Stadium," he said. Mori had previously said, "It's better to reconsider the construction plan" while recording a programme for BS Asahi.

Behind the scenes, Abe started reexamining the plan in June. At the time, the education ministry, which is in charge of the National Stadium, was said to be reluctant regarding any reconsideration of the plan.

This was mainly because a review would mean the stadium would not be ready for the Rugby World Cup, which is scheduled to begin in September 2019.

Mori, a former Japan Rugby Football Union chairman, had worked to make the stadium the main venue for the World Cup before the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in 2020.

Abe and Mori are from the same political faction of the Liberal Democratic Party, effectively making Mori the senior figure. "To be honest, having Mr. Mori involved makes it tough," Abe was quoted as telling people close to him in early July, indicating how difficult it was to make a final decision out of consideration for Mori.

Growing urgency

After Shimomura announced the ¥252 billion price tag on June 29, the outcry from the public, former Olympians and others exceeded the government and ruling parties' expectations.

"Day by day the backlash was growing. Public opposition had reached 70, 80 per cent. Even if [the stadium] won't be finished in time for the Rugby World Cup, deciding to change the plan was unavoidable," a senior government official said.

Abe himself was said to be extremely concerned about public opinion on the subject, checking the Internet to read what former track star Dai Tamesue and other athletes were saying.

Masuzoe was speaking out publicly against Tokyo having to pay ¥50 billion toward the stadium. "There is no basis for the metropolitan government having to pay," he said, adding fuel to public criticism of the government.

On June 25, the Cabinet's support rate was dropping partly due to statements about controlling the media by LDP members and other factors.

This summer, the Abe administration is facing several potentially difficult hurdles, including restarting the Sendai nuclear power plant in Kagoshima Prefecture and Abe's statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Members of the government were reportedly becoming concerned that if they did not address the furor over the stadium, it could begin to hinder their ability to manage the administration.

After the House of Representatives passed the security-related legislation Thursday, members of the government and ruling bloc reportedly became increasingly convinced that the opposition parties would press them over the stadium issue.

This is what pushed Abe over the edge, sources said.

During the Diet deliberations on July 10, Abe had expressed reservations about changing the plan. "It might not be ready for the Olympics," he said. However, some analysts see Abe's sudden decision to scrap the plan as a calculated "surprise."

The final hurdle was making a political settlement with Mori. Endo called Mori to persuade him on Friday morning, the day the decision was announced, sources said.

"I'm sorry it won't be ready for the Rugby World Cup," Abe reportedly told Mori during their meeting Friday. The prime minister's show of respect won over the older politician.

Hadid denies cost increase caused by design

"It is absolutely right that the benefits and costs of the new National Stadium should be clearly and accurately communicated and understood by the public and decision-makers in Japan," Zaha Hadid Architects, the architecture office responsible for the design of the stadium, said on Friday. "We hope that this is one of the objectives of the review announced by the prime minister."

The comments were made as part of a statement put on the office's website on the day.

"It is not the case that the recently reported cost increases are due to the design," it said in the statement. The office attributed the increase to "steep annual increases in construction costs in Tokyo and a fixed deadline."

Japan Sport Council paid the London-based office about ¥1.5 billion for supervising the design, and any penalty costs will be a focus of discussions, among other issues.

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