Sounds of a City, Chapter 3: prelude

Unlike sports competitions such as the FIFA - or the Rugby World Cup that are national events and therefore held in various regions of the host country, the Olympic and Paralympic Games are, in principle, assigned to one single city. 

The Rugby World Cup 2019 took place in 12 different stadiums throughout Japan, with the opening game between the host nation and Russia at the Tōkyō Stadium in Tōkyō on 20th September and the final at the International Stadium Yokohama in Yokohama yesterday evening. South Africa won 32 – 12 over England adding after 1995 and 2007 a third victory to its rugby history. At first, the New National Stadium, constructed for the Tōkyō 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, was supposed to be the primary venue of the event. However, as the initial design was scrapped in 2015, the stadium could not be completed in time. 

Traditional sports such as sumo, judo or karate and Western imports like baseball or soccer count among the most popular across the archipelago. Played and cheered by a comparatively small part of the population, rugby is a rather uncommon activity and the interest of holding its World Cup could therefore be questioned. As a matter of fact, the tournament has since its invention in 1987 been run in countries that are more familiar with the sport and Japan marked by hosting in 2019 its debut in Asia. 

The coordination of a World Cup is different from the one of the Olympic and Paralympic Games where the responsibility lies in the hands of one particular city. However, given that matches such as the opening game and the final are usually held in the same host countries’ main stadiums, the events eventually correlate.

In the run-up to the next Olympic and Paralympic Games, official test events are organised by International and National Federations as well as the Tōkyō 2020 Organising Committee. The Japanese capital has created READY STEADY TOKYO as an official brand name and logo. From September 2018 to May 2020, 56 competitions will be held, out of which more than half are on the occasion of events that happen to take place during the period, and 22 solely Olympic and Paralympic dedicated. They serve as a rehearsal to confirm and improve the venues in order to ensure a successful operation during the Games. Most of them are kept moderate and so far, there was no large-scale ticketing. Therefore, the management of an elevated amount of people and related factors like security or the orientation of foreign tourists are difficult to verify beforehand. 

By hosting the Rugby World Cup 2019, notably Tōkyō’s Olympic readiness got a test run and with the visit of some hundreds of thousands (sports) tourists over a short period of time, Japan could prove its capability to interact with international fans, as well as the efficiency of infrastructural elements such as signage in foreign languages. Furthermore, the management of the around 13,000 hired volunteers may be helpful in the preparation of the 80,000 Games and 30,000 City Volunteers. 

The next Rugby World Cup will be held in France from 8th September to 21st October 2023, roughly one year before the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games. The final will take place at the Stade de France located in the commune of Saint-Denis in the north of the capital, which will also host the opening and closing ceremonies and the athletics events in summer 2024.  

The correlation between the Olympic and Paralympic Games and other sports competitions or mega-events is not a 21st century phenomenon, but the same succession of the Rugby World Cup and the Games is yet a premiere. Thus, being its precursor, Japan may relay more than only the Olympic Torch to France. 

Sounds of a City, Chapter 2: animo

Compared to other Olympic and Paralympic host cities, there have been relatively few negative news about the Tōkyō 2020 Games and apart from some rumours about the scraped New National Stadium or the imitation of the initial logo, domestic as well as foreign media seemed to have little interest in bloating stories over the past years. Reasons may be the general tendency of Japanese prudent media culture, the difficulty to access information in other than Japanese language and the restrained amount of international journalists covering Tōkyō. For example the UK, who hosted the Games in London in 2012, counts about 1,700 foreign correspondents, whereas Japan has roughly 300. 

However, since the One Year To Go, discussions about Tōkyō’s preparation are multiplying and put the city progressively in a darker light. 

In the run up to the Olympic and Paralympic Games, common points of criticism are host cities’ rush in the construction of venues, the eviction of locals as well as costs and cost overruns. 

Looking at Tōkyō, the Olympic agenda has overall been respected, the various test events are being held as foreseen and even the change of the New National Stadium’s design has not prevented its accomplishment sufficient in advance. 

Beijing, displacing 1.5 million residents for the 2008 Games, but also Seoul in 1988 with 720,000 evictions and the last host city Rio de Janeiro with over 70,000 relocations have drawn media’s attention. By building most of the new venues it the quite unsettled bay area, rather than chasing, Tōkyō tries to attract people to its new artificial islands. However, in some parts of the Heritage Zone and specifically around the New National Stadium, a handful of homeless people have been asked to leave at the beginning of the construction works. As the renitency has been little and the number of concerned very moderate, the operation has for many passed unnoticed. Although this displacement may occur irrelevant, it is to mention that Japan counts amongst the lowest homeless rates in the world and that, as often, the most vulnerable part of the population got affected by the construction of the venues.

Currently estimated at about USD 12.5 billion, Tōkyō’s Olympic budget has already quadrupled. Hereby, the Japanese capital surpasses the 156% average cost overrun of the modern Olympiad, albeit undermatches the so far unbeaten 720% overrun of the Montreal 1976 Summer Games.  Nevertheless, recent concerns about the heat during the Games and the costs related to preventive measures have triggered a series of critical press articles. This has been accentuated by the most recent idea of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to move the 2020 Games marathon and race walking events to Sapporo on Japan’s northern main island Hokkaido and governor Koike Yuriko’s sarcastic counter proposal to hold the competitions somewhere on Russia-held Japan-claimed islands. In order to avoid the unendurable daytime heat, the marathons, scheduled for the 2nd and the 9th August, have already been advanced of 90 minutes and the streets have been paved with a special coating that reduces heat reflection from road surface. 

Even though competitions were partly held at night, the high temperatures during the IAAF World Athletics Championship held in Doha, Qatar from 27th September to 6th October 2019, put numerous athletes in bad condition, causing the drop out of about 40% of the runners in the women’s marathon. Since then, the IOC expressed its concerns over potential risk to the athletes’ lives. It is very uncommon to change the venues of major Olympic events only 10 months before they are held and although in Japan there have been relatively few manifestations from opponents of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the controversy between Tōkyō’s government and the IOC has drawn attention. 

For now, it looks as if the marathon and the walking race will be held in Sapporo, but the final decision will be announced around 31st October.

Following the statement, it is likely that both, national and international media will gain interest in Games-related scandals. Yet to see if the news will be treated with restraint or if they will set off an avalanche of numerous articles about the upcoming Tōkyō 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. 

Power, poles, utility and necessity

Among the heavy repercussions of typhoon Hagibis’ landfall on the weekend of 12th/13th October, thousands of utility poles were destroyed or damaged, leaving hundreds of thousands of households without electricity. Typhoon Faxai, which hit Japan in September 2019, dismantled about 2,000 utility poles in Chiba Prefecture, severing power lines and causing large-scale blackouts. Jebi, another fierce typhoon that targeted the Kansai region at about the same period last year, destroyed over 1,000 utility poles, leaving 2.2 million households for weeks without power. 

The Land of the Rising Sun has erected utility poles after the devastation of World War II, as it was a relatively cheap and fast option for reconstructing the country. However, they were exposed to wind and rain and so their vulnerability became quickly an issue. 

Today, Japan counts more than 35 million utility poles, a yearly still increasing number. In contrast to other global cities like London or Paris that have buried the entirety of their power cables underground and major Asian cities such as Hong Kong, Singapore and Taipei that are rapidly approaching this goal, its proportion reaches even in central Tōkyō only 8%. Across the country, the capital has yet made the most of efforts, and therefore the ratio in other regions is even lower. 

In case of downfall, utility poles can become a perilous item, threatening human lives, causing damages on facilities and blocking emergency vehicles. Yet not only for safety reasons, but also for their visual appearance, they have been denounced and since 1986 Tōkyō has made attempts of removal.

Some years ago, when I found in an official brochure a grey-sky picture showing an urban scenery with cables opposed to one without, where the sky was clear-blue and the sun shining, I started to be intrigued by the story behind the utility poles. After having read reports and listened to the opinion of numerous people, I understood that there was a major controversy about their existence.  Whereas some consider them as a main element which contributes to the charm of Japanese cities and regret the loss of a unique feature, others see them as an eyesore in urban landscape and as a factor which makes Tōkyō lag behind the standards of other world metropolises.  

After the Great East Japan Earthquake and the tsunami of March 2011 that damaged about 56,000 utility poles, legislation was enacted to facilitate their relocation underground and required the national government to make efforts to expedite and urge prefectures and municipalities to draw plans on their own. In 2017, governor Koike Yuriko expressed the wish to reduce the number of utility poles in the Japanese capital to zero. Indeed, moving electricity cables underground is an efficient measure to protect power lines from natural disasters. As a matter of fact, the governor has been passionate about the removal of utility poles since being a member of the House of Representatives. In the run up to the Tōkyō Olympic and Paralympic Games, the promotion of their elimination has become a preoccupation with the target to bury 1,400 km of power transmission lines until year 2020.

Howbeit, the biggest obstacle is the price that it comes at. The most used method, which consists in digging fosses where power and communication lines are run through pipes, costs about 530 million yen (approximatively USD 5 million) per kilometre, which is between 10 and 20 times more than constructing overhead. If Tōkyō’s project to bury 1,400 km was put into effect, the expense would be 742 billion yen, about USD 6.84 billion. 

The costs are to be shared between the national government, the municipalities, the power companies and communication firms that run the lines. In order to create landscapes befitting to a host city and to rise attractiveness for tourists, priority in the project has been given to Tōkyō’s central areas. Furthermore, as the most vulnerable parts of the region are still carrying out the damages from the last typhoons, they can hardly afford investments for the removal. 

As much as I believed in the on-time accomplishment of the New National Stadium, as much as I do not assume that the utility poles in Tōkyō will be eliminated by 2020. However, the recent promotion for their burying is an example of how Tōkyō, like other host cities, is using the Olympic and Paralympic Games as a leverage to accelerate urban projects.

Sounds of a City, Chapter 1: accelerando

Summer period in Japan is known for its incredibly hot and humid weather as well as for the numerous typhoons that the archipelago endures.  

In 2019, Faxai, who hit the country on 9th September, was the strongest so far. This powerful typhoon was the cause that three people lost their life, about 40 got injured, some ten thousand homes were damaged and hundreds of thousands households in Kantō area, notably in Chiba Prefecture, were left for weeks without water and power. Although the high-risk season should now be over, a new typhoon had gained power over the past days and reached Tōkyō megapolis on Saturday night. 

Because of approaching Hagibis, for the first time in Rugby World Cup history, games got cancelled. The Rugby World Cup is a national event, which takes place in different parts of the host country. So, World Rugby and the Japan Rugby 2019 Organising Committee decided past Thursday to drop the game between New Zealand and Italy in Toyota, between England and France in Yokohama and on Sunday between Namibia and Canada in Kamaishi because of concerns over the anticipated impact of the storm. As it is the tournament rules, each of the teams was awarded two points and all fans with tickets were promised to get a full refund. Due to that decision, Italy was automatically eliminated. 

The 2020 Tōkyō Olympic Games will be held from 24th July to 9th August, about the warmest period in Japan, and with the Paralympic Games from 25th August to 6th September, it is very probable that at some point during the sporting event a typhoon will make landfall. In contrast to the Rugby World Cup, the Games are assigned to a city and are therefore carried out in a restricted geographical zone. As a result, the weather condition can become a main concern. In order to prevent athletes and audience from the intense heat, competitions such as the marathon were rescheduled to early morning, and trials with large-scale misting towers and artificial snow on tribunes were made. Those operations come at a cost and increase the currently at USD 13 billion stated event’s budget. The consequences are to be covered by the Japanese capital.

The Tōkyō 1964 Games were held from 10th to 24th October (Olympics) and from 8th to 12th November (Paralympics) which seems a reasonable period. The main reason why the 2020 Games were scheduled for this rather inconvenient time of the year, is simple albeit fundamental: as a matter of fact, the summer months mark the off-season of American broadcasting, which is an important source of income for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Indeed, NBCwho actually televised its first Olympic Games in 1964 from Tōkyō, declared to shift about USD 1.45 billion for the upcoming event, which is more than for any in the past. 

The machinery of mega-events is big, and the interest of many people are involved. Yet, it seems as if sometimes reality is neglected by decision makers. 

With wind gusts up to 216 kilometres per hour, a whole day of tremendous rainfall and an earthquake of a magnitude of 5.7 at its landfall, Hagibis’ arrival was spectacular. So far, at least 11 people have died, more than 100 got injured, flights and trains got cancelled, many rivers got flooded, about 7 million people got evacuation orders and in the Tōkyō Metropolitan area over 240,000 homes are without electricity. 

As uncomfortable as Hagibis was for me as an individual, as much as I take of a positive experience. Coming from an environment which is seldom facing natural threats such as typhoons, my idea of its impact on a city was quite abstract. 

By this means, Hagibis has remarkably helped me relate theoretical knowledge to reality and has showed me how few control human beings have in such situations. Having felt this strength of nature, I could not even have considered to participate at any sports competition yesterday, and like many people who were in the Japanese capital, I was absorbed by the thought of the amount of water I had in stock or the consideration of which tree or utility pole could possibly first hit the house. 

Nevertheless, these thoughts were in my case needless, and I am lucky enough to publish this report today.    

Short time, now see

Arriving from Paris, a city whose composition only seldom changes, Tōkyō’s constant metamorphosis is striking. 

As the average lifespan for houses in Japan is around 26 years and every building individually is replaced over time, Japanese cities seem like a living organism and maintain their function rather than their shape. Whereas French cities (and European cities in general) are comparatively inflexible once they are built, those in the Land of the Rising Sun are perpetually altering. 

Although having studied this phenomenon and having been confronted to it repeatedly over the past years, I sometimes still am astonished by reality. 

I have seen houses being demolished in a few days, parking lots appearing right after; I have observed high-rise buildings passing from one – to 24-storeys within only a few weeks; watched workers transforming train tracks and highways in barely more than one night. 

Yet, I have never seen an Olympic stadium being built from scratch. 

About two and a half years ago, an early summer evening of 2017, when I was in Japan and started to gain interest in the impact of the Olympic and Paralympic Games on Tōkyō, I was on my way to an opening show of a small art exhibition. As I biked through the neighbourdhood of Sendagaya, I saw the foundation of what the new National Stadium would one day be. 

The place I was heading for happened to be one street away of the venue, and had a small balcony overviewing the area. While people were sipping their drink and chatting, I leaned on the balustrade, looked at the construction land and started to imagine how this environment would look like in future: how there would be a big sporting facility, how the day of the opening ceremonies of the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games thousands of people would be gathering, and how weeks after the sporting event life would go back to normal. From plans and pictures, I knew how it should  look like, but in this calm and peaceful atmosphere, it seemed strangely abstract. 

Unlikely the other Olympic venues, the National Stadium is not under the responsibility of the Tōkyō Metropolitan Government (TMG) or the Tōkyō Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (TOCOG) but financed by national funds.

Chaired by the Japanese architect Andō Tadao, the Japan Sport Council (JSC) who was the owner of the Tōkyō 1964 Olympics stadium, which was situated at the same place in Kasumigaoka-machi, Shinjuku-ku, assigned the new National Stadium to Zaha Hadid in 2012.

However, the project of the Iraqi-British architect, first seen as a symbol of futuristic Japan, was quickly criticised. First, because of its production costs that were estimated at more than USD 2 billion and which would have made this 80,000-seat stadium the most expensive in the world. Then, because of its design, considered as not adapted to its historical surroundings and therefore overlooking the beauty and richness of the local culture. 

In summer 2015, the project of Zaha Hadid’s stadium got cancelled, and a call for tenders was made in September of the same year. The request was particularly challenging, since its deadline was as of December 2015. Furthermore, the new stadium’s budget was asked to be of USD 1.5 billion maximum, and the project should not only include the architectural design, but also guarantee the cooperation with a construction company and the feasibility on time. As the deadline left just three months to make a proposal from scratch, there were only two Japanese agencies, Itō Toyo’s and Kuma Kengo’s, who replied. Kuma Kengo’s winning design operated by Taisei Corporation was announced in late December of the same year. 

Kuma Kengo’s stadium, partly made of wood (a typical characteristic of Japanese constructions), is seen as a comeback to the countries’ original values. 

With the utilisation of natural materials and the re-interpretation and adaption of traditional Japanese architecture to the 21st century, Kuma Kengo became world-famous. His agency is conducting various projects in Tōkyō and Japan, as well as in other countries around the world like the Saint-Denis Pleyel Train Station in France, which should be accomplished in 2023, one year before the Paris Olympic and Paralympic Games. 

The new National Stadium, which originally was supposed to host the Rugby Worldcup 2019 that currently takes place in Japan, is now almost finished and its completion is scheduled for November 2019. 

It may be relevant to mention that Zaha Hadid, who got the more and more decried, died only some months after the abandon of her stadium, on 31st March 2016 at the age of 65 years after a heart attack. 

Although the time loss due to the reassignment of the stadium’s design, I do have to add that I never had any doubt whether it would be constructed on time. Seeing it at the practically finished state leads me back to that summer night. It makes me think of how we picture the future, how we apprehend the present, and how we remember the past. It illustrates the speed of the Japanese construction industry and is an example for one of the many challenges that Olympic and Paralympic host cities may have to deal with.


The following four pictures were all taken by me, with an interval of about 10 months respectively (16/05/2017, 28/02/2018, 04/12/2018 & 04/10/2019). For the last one, I sought back the above-mentioned house. I was enchanted to find it in the same condition, and moved that I was allowed to climb up the balcony. 

16/05/2017 © Louise Claire Wagner

28/02/2018 © Louise Claire Wagner

04/12/2018 © Louise Claire Wagner

04/10/2019 © Louise Claire Wagner

Learning from here to go back there


For the past few years, Tōkyō, the Japanese capital and currently the largest conurbation in the world, has been my main fascination and inspiration.

It was in 2014, that I visited Japan for the first time and instantly fell in love with the country. When only one year later I was given the opportunity to choose an area for my master’s thesis in urban studies, it seemed obvious that I wanted to focus on Tōkyō and on the construction and mechanics of Japanese cities.

Following an analysis of the neighbourhood Kagurazaka, also called Little France or Little Paris, I became aware of the influence that the Olympic and Paralympic Games had on the urban and social development of Tōkyō, host city in 1964 and 2020.

In order to understand the challenges encountered in the 21st century, I felt the need to firstly look at the recent past. And so, I wrote a final paper entitled Past, present & future: Tōkyō facing the Olympic Games, before commencing my PhD thesis Tōkyō, Paris: two capitals and the Olympic Games, that I am currently working on.

As a matter of fact, the 1940 Summer Games were assigned to Tōkyō, but Japan was forced to cancel them due to World War II. It was finally in 1964 that it became the first host city in Asia. The Japanese population, eager to demonstrate to the rest of the world the country’s post-war recovery and modernisation, placed great importance on the event. The Tōkyō 1964 Games, often called the rebirth of Japan, had a noticeable impact on the capital’s urban development and on people all over the country. The event also allowed Japan to rewrite its national image and show the world a different face. But Japan of the 21st century is no longer that of 1964. As time has passed, Tōkyō has inevitably changed. Despite this, the city’s structure continually reminds us of the 1964 Games and the memories of the event are omnipresent.

When looking at Tōkyō’s Venue Plan for 2020, two main thematic areas can be identified: the Heritage Zone and the Tōkyō Bay Zone. The Heritage Zone, consisting of several refurbished venues of the Tōkyō 1964 Games, connects the legacy of the past with the 2020’s event. The Tōkyō Bay Zone, mainly housing new permanent and ephemeral venues, is considered as a symbol for the city of tomorrow. The Olympic Village, situated in-between the two zones, appears like a bridge relating past, present and future.

Tōkyō and Paris, two capitals and two global cities, are both world economic and political centres which inspire multiple architectural and artistic creations. They share the ambition to reinvent themselves, and to evolve from the richness of their past to ensure their place in the international competition. Particularly Tōkyō, although one of the most equipped and secure cities in the world, is nonetheless aware of the rise of other global cities and emerging economies such as BRICS, and is careful in guarding and preserving its position in the international market. 

With a shrinking and ageing population, Japan faces new challenges. Thus, structural elements such as creating an accessible and inclusive environment were put forth in the 2020 bid.

As for many Olympic and Paralympic cities, it is difficult to define to what extent transformations are due to the Games. Often, they are used as a catalyst to accelerate already existing urban plans and strategies.

With my research, I aim to discern in what way the Olympic and Paralympic Games transform Tōkyō and distinguish through a comparative study what is unique to the Japanese context or what can be applied to other Olympic and Paralympic cities such as Paris, host in 1900, 1924 and 2024.

So far, I have preferred sharing photographs rather than my theoretical expertise. Yet, it is the knowledge acquired through scientific literature which has decidedly influenced my perception as well as my interpretation of places one builds and places where one lives. Likewise, photography, which helps support my research in a visual way, has taught me how to be guided by cities’ rhythms and movements and allows me to transform my theories into pictures. I therefore consider it as my more creative, yet quite abstract research.

Thanks to the Japan Foundation (and to all the people who have supported my project), I have been given the opportunity to closely follow the preparations for Tōkyō 2020, and stay in Japan from about 10 months before the Olympics until around one month after the Paralympics.

Given that this is a very unique occasion, I decided from the beginning of my mission, to share some of my knowledge and experience in form of a weekly report. The idea is to write some scientific as well as some rather anecdotic articles on various different topics.

Little by little, the outcome should help us to understand what it takes for a city to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games, to discover what the main challenges for 2020 are and how the city is facing them.

Last but not least, in a less formal way, it will also reveal what life is like for a young researcher in Japan and the world metropolis of Tōkyō.

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