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The Tokyo stadium saga

In the land of the rising sun, the prospect of an Olympic stadium rising from the ground in time for the Tokyo 2020 summer Games has, at times, seemed alarmingly distant.

When in July 2015 Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ordered the development plans to be scrapped due to spiraling costs, there appeared to be no clear pathway ahead for the centrepiece of the Games. However, with a new design by Kengo Kuma & Associates having been selected following a second tender process in December, there finally appears to be progress and a definitive timeline.

Construction work is expected to start later this year, according to the Japan Sport Council (JSC), which is responsible for building the facility. In January, it was announced during an International Olympic Committee inspection visit that the completion date for the facility had been brought forward from January 2020 to November 2019.


Kuma’s design for Tokyo’s new national stadium was submitted by a consortium that also featured engineering company Taisei Corporation and construction support services provider Azusa Sekkei. The winning design has a price tag of ¥149bn (€1.1bn/$1.2bn) against an estimated ¥250bn for the controversial concept by British- Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid that was abandoned in July 2015 amidst a public furore over the proposed cost of the development. In the second tender, the rival proposal by architect Toyo Ito, submitted by Takenaka Corp, Shimizu Corp and Obayashi Corp, would have cost ¥149.7bn.

Comparing the elaborate, but eye-wateringly expensive plans of Hadid and the new, more cost-effective design, is a thorny issue. JSC told SportBusiness International that it does not “measure the current design against the former one.” However, Kuma is convinced that his plans will provide a fitting platform for the Games.

“What makes the new national stadium unique is that it applies the idea of ‘hisashi’ – an important element of Japanese traditional architecture, to a giant contemporary structure such as this stadium,” Kuma told SportBusiness International.

“Hisashi provides an in-between space in Japanese houses. In finalising the design, we thought of the location of the stadium. It stands in and is attached to the outer garden of Meiji Shrine, a special forest at the heart of Tokyo, so we focused on what kind of design would be most appropriate.” The stadium will have a capacity of 68,000 rather than 72,000 as before, with the option of adding 12,000 seats if Japan hosts football’s Fifa World Cup in the future.


The JSC’s seven-member body specialising in architecture and landscape assessed the bids according to various factors. “The independent committee included academic experts, whose mandate was to analyse the engineering plans and other related matters,” the JSC told SportBusiness International. “The independent committee interviewed those behind the proposals and evaluated their plans.” According to the JSC, each member of the committee ranked the proposals out of a score of 140, with half of the points based on the attractiveness of the construction cost and schedule.

“The design meets the conditions sought, such as basic concept, construction and cost,” Abe said in December. “I want every effort to be made so the new stadium incorporates the world’s best barrier-free (facilities) and ‘Japanese-ness’, and is a stadium that excites the people of the world and offers a legacy of which the next generation can be proud.”

Kuma’s vision for the stadium seeks to “create Japanese tradition” by using steel frames and wood within a concept of a “stadium of trees and green.” Notably, it will have a height of 49.2 metres, lower than the Hadid-led proposal of 70 metres, which was criticised as being a potential eyesore on the Tokyo skyline.

The new plan, which involves five floors above ground and two below, places greenery on stadium decks in a bid to dampen the effect of Tokyo’s summer sunshine and allow the stadium to fit in with its surrounding environment.

The JSC is hoping that the ‘Forest Stadium’ will shine through. “The new stadium will introduce greenery and water in Gaien, the outer garden of Meiji Jingu Shrine, as well as the sporting activities,” the JSC said. “The new stadium will fit in naturally with the impressive environment around the construction area. Looking into the next 100 years, this long-term plan will produce a stadium rooted firmly in the earth and surrounded by trees and greenery that will be open to all.”


Rather than peering years into the future, though, the JSC, Tokyo 2020, the Japanese government and all Games stakeholders are just thankful that plans now appear to be set in stone. Getting to this stage has been a saga, even by the standards of other highly contentious Olympic host city projects from years gone by.

The stadium was initially expected to host the final of the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, as well as the 2020 Olympic Games. In November 2012, some 10 months before Tokyo was awarded the 2020 Olympics, Hadid’s company won an international design competition for Japan’s new national stadium.

The cost of building the stadium was tagged at $1.6bn in the Tokyo 2020 bid book. However, in October 2013, Hakubun Shimomura, the Minister in charge of Education, Sports and Science, told parliament that the construction cost had rocketed with some reports claiming it had risen as high as $3bn. A month later, it was announced that the development would be scaled back to cost $1.8bn.

However, that was not the end of the matter. In October 2014, it was announced that stadium construction work would be delayed until at least mid-December due to a complaint regarding alleged irregularities in an earlier round of the tender process to demolish the existing stadium in the Shinjuku district of the capital.

Then, in the middle of 2015, came Abe’s announcement that the original proposal had been jettisoned, and a bitter fall-out ensued. Hadid suggested that elements of her company’s design had been incorporated into the new plans – something Kuma strenuously denied. Hadid also blamed the previous project’s costs on the government’s insistence that a Japanese construction company should be used. Hadid died in March following a heart attack.

With the support of Japan-based Taisei Corporation and Azusa Sekkei, Kuma’s project is rooted firmly in the country, and there is a feeling that the local links will cut through some of the red tape that had previously suffocated the project. However, when Abe ordered a review of the plans – and apologised for the mess to an exasperated electorate – he said that the delays would rule out the stadium as a host venue for the 2019 Rugby World Cup in the country.

World Rugby has approved a revised plan for Yokohama to replace Tokyo as the venue for the final on November 2, 2019. Although Tokyo 2020 president Yoshiro Mori has said that it is not “realistic” to suggest Tokyo could be involved in the Rugby World Cup, Kuma has previously suggested that engineers are exploring the possibility of accelerating plans to enable an earlier finish than November 2019. Meanwhile the State Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, Tsutomu Tomioka, is currently chairing a study to define the role of the stadium beyond the Games. For the time being, though, the focus is on making up for lost time.

“Construction work is set to start in December 2016,” the JSC told SportBusiness International. “The former project was going to cost much more than initially estimated so the plan came in for criticism from the public as well as athletes. Therefore it was decided to put the former plan back on the drawing board and to make a new plan from scratch. The project will finish two months earlier than the IOC had demanded, but the construction work will not be completed when the 2019 Rugby World Cup takes place.”


According to Tokyo 2020 spokesperson Hikariko Ono, the stadium development, as part of a wider review of the Games’ facility plans, is now consistent with the vision of IOC president Thomas Bach, whose Agenda 2020 roadmap encouraged cost-saving initiatives by Games host cities to avoid long-term financial problems.

“Tokyo 2020 has conducted a thorough review of its venue plan, with particular attention being given to the perspectives of legacy, the impact of venue development on the citizens of Tokyo and Japan, and minimising venue construction costs,” Ono told SportBusiness International.

“So far, this review has resulted in savings of approximately $1.7bn. We will use 19 existing venues for competitions and an existing convention centre will serve as the international broadcast centre and main press centre. In addition to the new Olympic and Paralympic village, eight new permanent venues will fulfil the city’s needs for sports facilities and provide a tangible heritage. Finally, we plan to construct seven temporary venues for the Games.”

The national stadium project is therefore one of a minority of new facilities for the Games. However, it has not quite been able to shake off the cloud of controversy. In March, it emerged that the Olympic cauldron had been omitted from the national stadium plans. A working team was tasked with finding a place for the cauldron whilst not increasing construction costs, and is due to report in the coming days.

Given the problems that have dogged the development to date, though, it would appear to be only a relatively minor speed bump in a long and arduous road to the unmovable deadline of July 24, 2020, when the global spotlight will turn to the national stadium and the Olympic flame will spark the Games into life.

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