Japan's Olympics minister seeks to 'turn calamity into blessing'

Toshiaki Endo, the state minister for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, is faced with the burden of building the new National Stadium, the plan for which has been sent back to square one.

How will he go about building the stadium in such a limited time period while gaining the understanding of the people?

I asked for his thoughts on July 24, exactly five years before the opening of the Tokyo Games.

The Yomiuri Shimbun: On July 17, just before the announcement that the plan would be revised, you were called to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's office.

Toshiaki Endo: Prime Minister Abe and former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, president of the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, spoke together for about 30 minutes, after which I was called in with Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Hakubun Shimomura.

I could tell from the atmosphere that a big decision had been made.

They told me we were being criticised by the public, and so the sports event would not be something everybody could enjoy.

I was asked to create a system that would allow us to start over from square one. I realised the importance of the request and knew I had to do a solid job.

Q: On July 21, a group of related ministers was set up and you assumed the role of chairman.

To finish in time for the Olympics in this limited time frame, no further delays can be permitted. Under the new system, the government will take responsibility and concentrate all efforts under its leadership.

A: The new National Stadium could be a sanctuary not only for sports, but also for culture and the arts.

It could also serve as a base from which to transmit Japanese technology to the world, and as Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe is also aware, a base for disaster prevention.

From these different perspectives, we are focusing on the stadium but also thinking about the region as a whole.

The entire government, including the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry and the Finance Ministry, will work as one to build it. That's the kind of system that has been set up.

I was appointed as chairman, so I intend to hold myself responsible.

Q: You are operating on a schedule. Before the Olympics, it is necessary to hold test events to rehearse several administrative aspects such as security.

However, the new stadium is supposed to be completed by spring 2020. Will everything be done in time?

A: We have established two promotion teams and had people from the Tokyo government assigned as well. First we intend to settle on a construction plan by the beginning of autumn, in a little over a month.

After discussing how to carry it out, we'll decide on the layout and construction company by January or February next year. Further preparations will be needed after that, and then the actual construction work will start.

Carrying out the test events in the year before the Olympics is clearly noted in our candidacy file. Changing a public commitment would make people suspicious and uneasy about Japan, so I want to make sure to get the full understanding of the International Olympic Committee.

But test events have been carried out before in the same year the Olympics have been held, so it's not impossible.

Q: Considering its importance as a composite facility after the Olympics, it is highly doubtful whether anything can be built cheaply. In what areas can costs be held down?

A: We don't want to start by simply discussing "at what price." Mr. Masuzoe and I have agreed that it is important to think not only about cost, but also about creating a legacy for the next generation.

This will be a place where athletes put their all into their sports, moving people and giving them dreams.

It will be a base for the transmission of culture, art and technology, as well as for disaster prevention.

It boils down to the fact that we have to listen to the wishes of the athletes and the public, consider all views with care, and then finally think about what we're going to build.

Q: Before it was decided to scrap the original stadium plan, there wasn't much discussion of this legacy.

A: Everyone was just talking about construction costs, and there wasn't enough discussion about what functions the facility should have. The education ministry should have talked about construction costs only after discussing and transmitting information about functions.

I think in Japanese society, sports are still seen simply as an extension of play. Sports are very effective in teaching health and unity and boosting the spirit, but awareness of this is still low. The emphasis in reworking the construction plan was aimed at increasing the public's interest in the Olympics and Paralympics and encouraging them to co-operate.

In furthering the legacy discussion, I think my task is to see whether we can find a way to turn a calamity into a blessing.

Q: What is your perspective on the meaning of the Olympics after working to change Japan's sports policies?

A: Sports were not very highly valued in terms of policy, either. So I created the Basic Law on Sports, followed by the Sports Agency to embody it.

I think I've at least created the nucleus of an organisation.

The Olympics and Paralympics are a checkpoint we have to pass on the way to thinking about sports in Japan for the next several decades.

I think this is our best chance to encourage public interest in the power of sports.

Q: Your responsibilities outside the new National Stadium are piling up.

A: We need to revive the disaster-stricken areas. I felt the influence of sports after the Great East Japan Earthquake, and I want to use the 2020 Games as an opportunity to spread that influence even further. I want to think about using the strengths of people in disaster-stricken areas, asking them to participate by providing agricultural produce and industrial goods and through volunteer work.

I also want to think about holding tournaments and preliminary matches in those areas.

I need to consider how to work out an overall security system, which should cover cyberspace as well.

And how to use the Paralympics as an opportunity to reform society. There are a lot of things to tackle from now on.

Speaking in rugby terms, I see myself as the first prop on the front line in the middle of a scrum.

I want to focus on teamwork and play the best I can.

Toshiaki Endo

Appointed state minister for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in June. A former senior vice minister for the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry.

Chairman of the all-party parliamentary project team for considering the establishment of the Sports Agency.

Former Executive Board Member of the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.