The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

A new verb, sanoru, entered the Japanese lexicon last year as preparations for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games got underway. The word, meaning “plagiarize,” came about after Kenjiro Sano was accused of having stolen designs to create his Olympic logo. Twitter sleuths—many of them trolls with Pokémon avatars—later uncovered more works that appeared to have been “borrowed.”

The Tokyo Organizing Committee eventually pulled Sano’s design, with a new one announced on April 25. But that was not the only unfortunate event to mar the early stages of preparation.

Costs have spiraled. And Zaha Hadid, the formidable British architect who passed away earlier this year, designed the New National Stadium for the Games but later saw her contract cut short as costs soared. A full explanation has never been offered as to how costs got so out of control, but Hadid had an idea.

“Our warning was not heeded that selecting contractors too early in a heated construction market, and without sufficient competition, would lead to an overly high estimate of the cost of construction,” a statement from Hadid Architects reads. The office also points out that, “For the first time in the construction of a public building in Japan, a two-stage tender process was used, in which contractors are appointed before being asked to submit cost estimates.”

Hadid was replaced as the main designer for the stadium by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma, and a very public row erupted in which Hadid accused Kuma of stealing her design. Had she known it, perhaps Hadid would have used the word sanoru to describe the situation.


After a tough 2015, preparations appear to be settling down, even if a bribery scandal threatens the credibility of the city. Kuma’s design is set to be built, although last-minute alterations are needed to be made to incorporate the Olympic flame in the stadium. Further problems are likely—Olympic Games preparation tends to go wrong wherever it can—but questions are also being asked about the sustainability of the massive investment in the Games.

The event is currently six times over budget, with costs expected to reach $15 billion. During bidding, Japan said it could stage the event for $2.5 billion. Anybody expecting drastic cost-cutting would be an extreme optimist. A revised budget prepared by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, seen by The Journal, showed officials could find little to cut. All costs remained the same after searching for price reductions, and the only savings resulted from axing plans to remodel Tokyo Big Sight, which will be used as a media center.

Lessons from 1964 also do not bode well for the organizers. Almost as soon as the first Tokyo Games ended, the country slipped into recession. Touted as an event to show the world that Japan was back—and friendlier than a couple of decades earlier—the 1964 Summer Games also saw huge investment in infrastructure, paid for with bonds. A credit crunch and corporate earnings slump followed, leading to a difficult year for the nation. The showpiece technology, the globally lauded Shinkansen bullet train, would later help trigger another crisis: Japanese National Railways was split into private companies in 1987, with ¥37 trillion in debt left for taxpayers to deal with.

“In general, we know that just having a big event that brings in money is a worry,” Tsutomu Kozaka, involved in Olympic planning for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, told The Journal. “That is why we are looking at ways to make sure that good times persist. The Olympics are great, but we need to make sure that we have plans for after the event. There is obviously a general impression that the Olympics will have a one-off effect; so for now, to make sure that does not happen, we are looking for further uses for the venues.”

Kuma’s new venue, the main Olympic stadium, has been designed to allow for maximum public use. “Passing the previous stadium, the days when there were events taking place were fine. But on days when there was nothing taking place, it was just a concrete castle floating in the sky,” he said earlier this year. “Rather than having this lonely scenery, we hope to have something that is open to citizens at any time within this open environment.”


The new stadium features the Sora no Mori (forest in the sky) walkway, which Kuma hopes will be used even when there are no events running. “This area will be open at all times and will be accessible from the outside. The full circuit is 850 meters, and I imagine people will be running around it, taking strolls, and looking down at the city below them. This will very much be an area that citizens can enjoy.”

The architect says that his design looked way beyond the Olympics, and was focused on giving back to the Tokyo community. “The stadium and the Sora no Mori design are to ensure this is open for cultural purposes and to allow for it to be used in many different ways.”

Each and every rendition of the Olympic Games tends to have an underlying purpose. For Beijing, the event brought China to the world stage. Rio, which has had plentiful problems, continues a process of infrastructure building that began with the XV Pan American Games in 2007 and continued with the 2014 FIFA World Cup. London 2012, meanwhile, aimed to regenerate the east side of the UK capital.

Tokyo’s goals have been a little confusing. In the bidding process, there was talk of the Games boosting the morale of those affected by the triple disaster of 2011 in the northeast of Japan. That didn’t work. Construction workers and others that should have been helping with the cleanup came to Tokyo, leading to a staff shortage that pushed up wages. Since then, the Games seem to have settled on the concept of omotenashi, or hospitality.

“It seems to be a sensible and justifiable thing to encourage,” Kozaka says. “For instance, if restaurants become more friendly to foreigners, and Wi-Fi becomes more readily available, then we will have a more omotenashi culture. Wi-Fi might be our weakest point at the moment; the lack of it is certainly the thing that tourists complain about the most.”

This, in turn, could attract more international businesses and tourists to Tokyo, helping to boost the economy over the longer term. For locals, however, there are questions about the benefits. Tourists have made the Ginza of today unrecognizable to long-term Tokyoites, for better or worse. And the Olympic Village, to be built in the south of the city, offered an opportunity to bring affordable housing to a city that has long pushed the less wealthy out of its central areas.

That is an opportunity missed. “The areas where the athletes are staying will be privatized and turned into residences to be sold individually,” Kozaka says. “But we want the area to be somewhere that is of use to more than residents, and we now are thinking about how to do that.” Tokyo views the Games as an opportunity to build a southern center to the city to go along with the Tokyo Station area, Ueno, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Shinagawa, and, with the construction of the Fukutoshin Line, Ikebukuro.

Transport facilities, redevelopment, new housing, and retail will all be pushed to help create a “Rinkai” center for the capital.

Globally, the Games could have another impact. “Japan is the world’s second-largest direct importer of tropical wood, largely in the form of plywood,” says the non-governmental organization Global Witness. “Nearly half of Japan’s imported plywood is sourced from Sarawak state, Malaysia, where intensive logging is destroying some of the last tropical rainforests and threatening the livelihoods of tens of thousands of indigenous people, who claim the forest as their own and depend on it for their livelihoods.”

Speaking to The Journal, Hana Heineken, senior forest policy advisor at Global Witness, said the Games could worsen the situation for Sarawak, and that the organization had found evidence of timber used in Tokyo construction projects linked to highly unsustainable and likely illegal logging operations in Sarawak.

Economic and environmental risks could sidetrack the Games and have lasting consequences. But London, in the buildup to its Games, also suffered worries, criticism, and cynicism from members of the public. Rio is the same. The Olympics, though, tend to be special for cities, raising spirits and bringing a fresh vibrancy to their populations—at least for a short time. What happens after depends on appropriate planning and solid organization.

Last year, before taking on the new stadium design, Kuma had this to say of Tokyo’s prospects: “I cannot predict whether the new face of Tokyo—whatever it looks like—will be a success.”



The Games were lauded as a roaring success at the time, as infrastructure worked, the crowds went wild, and the athletes did their thing with few problems. Once the show was over, however, stadiums—located 45 minutes from the center of the city—were used much less regularly than would be needed to recoup costs. Many in the city have questioned whether their taxes would have been better spent elsewhere. Sydney Olympic Park became a ghost town after the Games, but today is playing an increasingly important role in the state economy.

Held when times were good for Greece, the city spent around $11 billion on facilities. Then, after the event was over, many of the stadiums fell into neglect. A decade later, pictures emerged showing the pricey venues overgrown with foliage at a time when the nation was struggling through a debt crisis that continues to this day.

The welcoming party for China’s ascension to the world stage came at a price: Historic neighborhoods were demolished and communities displaced to make way for the event’s infrastructure. Hopes that human rights would come to China as the Games approached were also dashed, with the designer of the main stadium for the event, Ai Weiwei, becoming a prominent critic of the government and ending up under house arrest for years. Still, nobody doubts China’s prominent place in international affairs today.

The UK’s capital revitalized its east side for the Games, and that is looking likely to have a lasting, positive legacy. Construction continues in the area, with new office space opening through 2025. Other facilities are also still in use for both sports and cultural events. In a city notorious for high rents, housing in the area also remains affordable—at least for now. The London Games are a model of success for Tokyo to follow.

RIO 2016
With the Games set to start within weeks, Brazil has just impeached its president, people are on the streets, and it is touch and go as to whether facilities will be ready on time. Concerns have arisen over the safety of the water for aquatic sports, a bridge to be used for cycling collapsed into the sea, and an outbreak of the Zika virus offers a further complication. Few would look to the future in optimism.

Richard Smart has been living and writing in Japan since 2002.
The Olympics are great, but we need to make sure that we have plans for after the event has happened.