World Rugby seeking new Japan 2019 centrepiece, as Tokyo National Stadium plan scrapped

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has today (Friday) ordered a complete review of plans for Tokyo’s National Stadium project in a major about-turn on the development which is set to see it shelved as the main venue for the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Tokyo’s new National Stadium has been the subject of much hand-wringing in Japanese political circles in recent months due to its spiralling cost and ambitious design. Designed by British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, the new 80,000-seat stadium is not only due to stage various athletics events through its role as the centrepiece of the 2020 Olympic Games, but also the opening match and final of Japan’s hosting of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Earlier this month, the Japan Sport Council (JSC) formally committed to the Hadid design, with the new stadium having been set to come with a price tag of Y252bn (€1.84bn/$2.03bn). This would have made it the most expensive sports venue in history and compares to the price of Y130bn specified in Tokyo’s bid documents for the Games.

Speaking to reporters today after a meeting with Tokyo 2020 chairman Yoshiro Mori, Abe said: “We have decided to go back to the beginning on the Tokyo Olympics-Paralympics stadium plan, and start over from zero. We have looked at the logistics and construction period and I have made this decision because I was assured that we can definitely complete construction on time.”

Abe’s decision comes amid falling support for the prime minister. Abe returned to office in 2012 with a pledge to bolster defences and inject new life into the economy, but his backing has slipped to about 40 per cent amid voter concern about new defence legislation, with unrest over the National Stadium project adding to this decline.

Referring to the controversy over the cost, Abe said: “The Olympics are a party for our people, and they and the athletes… are the main players. We need to make it something that they can celebrate.”

Abe said he received the backing of Mori for the move, adding that he has instructed sports and Olympics ministers to immediately prepare a process to choose a new stadium plan. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, the Japanese government’s top spokesman, said the contract with Hadid would be cancelled, and that a new tender process would be completed within six months.

Media reports said the National Stadium’s hosting rights for the Rugby World Cup would be attributed to an existing stadium and the government was aiming to keep costs for the new venue to about Y180bn.

Abe’s decision comes a day after leading architect Tadao Ando, who chaired the committee that chose Hadid's design in 2012, said that he wanted the original blueprint to stay in place, warning that the scrapping of the plan would result in a loss of “international trust” in Japan.

Ando maintained his committee was only tasked with choosing a design that could be delivered at the initial target budget of Y130bn, with costs only increasing afterwards. “I really want to keep the design but the price doesn't match,” he had said. “It's a piece of art that everyone around the world will see, but also a piece of art that needs to fit the needs of sport – a very difficult thing. I thought Japan could carry this off when a lot of other places couldn't.”