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.

Using Format