Tokyo 2020: Building a Positive Legacy


Preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics are proceeding apace, though various hurdles remain. Even as Japan strives to complete the advance work, it must also look ahead to the legacy of the games, using them to address existing local problems and to develop human resources for the future.

October 28 this year marked exactly 1,000 days until the opening of the summer 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Although Japanese Olympic fever is still subdued, this is no different from before the 2012 London Olympics, which attracted relatively little attention from the local public in advance but generated great enthusiasm once they started.

The preparations for the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics have run into a series of problems: The original design for the new National Stadium to be built for the games was rejected and an entirely new one had to be drawn up. The Olympic and Paralympic logos also had to be replaced. Costs were cut, and some of the planned venues had to be changed. The delay in moving Tokyo’s central fish market from Tsukiji to Toyosu is interfering with the construction of a key roadway. But as the games approach, we can expect to see the necessary work progress, and the Japanese people, keen Olympics fans in general, will likely begin to show their enthusiasm. The legacy that the 2020 games will leave for the future is more in question.

At its annual meeting in 2002, the International Olympic Committee amended its charter to include the promotion of “a positive legacy from the Olympic Games to the host city and host country” as part of its mission. The IOC subsequently took to asking host cities to draft plans for their Olympic legacies, undertake legacy-building initiatives, and submit follow-up reports on the results after the games. The committee took these steps in response to serious concern about the negative image of the Olympics among potential hosts arising from the ballooning scale of the games and the rising financial burden imposed on the host cities, along with the sight of leftover facilities that were not used after the games.

London’s Example

The 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics were the first for which the IOC had the hosts draw up a legacy plan. In 2007 the British government announced five Olympic promises: (1) to make Britain a world-class sporting nation, (2) to transform the heart of East London, (3) to inspire a new generation of young people to take part in local volunteering and cultural and physical activity, (4) to make the Olympic Park a blueprint for sustainable living, and (5) to demonstrate that Britain is a creative, inclusive, and welcoming place to live, visit, and do business.

The organizing authorities strove to build positive legacies in line with these promises. They drew up plans to achieve an economic boost of around ¥4 trillion in added value from the 2012 Olympics over the eight years following the games—even more than the target of a ¥3 billion boost over the nine years preceding the games—and they are continuing to work at this endeavor. The results of these initiatives have won high appraisals not just for the tangible legacy, such as the Olympic Park, other facilities, and improvements to the rail system, but also for intangible improvements, such as the increase in the sporting population, new jobs in East London (the area around the Olympic Park), and growth in the number of tourists from abroad.

Tokyo, like London, is a mature city, and the organizers of the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics have been stressing the legacy-building aspect of the games from the beginning. In December 2015 the Tokyo metropolitan government issued a legacy plan covering eight fields, and in July of the following year the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games came out with a legacy and action plan for five fields. Work on implementation of these plans has been progressing.

When Tokyo previously hosted the Olympics in 1964, the preparatory construction work created a tremendous physical legacy, including the “bullet train” Shinkansen rail link between Tokyo and Osaka, the Shuto (Metropolitan) Expressway, the monorail linking Haneda Airport and the city center, the National Stadium, Nippon Budōkan, Yoyogi National Gymnasium, and Komazawa Olympic Park Stadium. The 2020 games will also leave a tangible legacy in the form of facilities like the new National Stadium and the Olympic Village. But this time the main focus should be the game’s intangible legacy. And the legacy should not be limited to Tokyo; hopefully it will benefit the country as a whole—particularly the areas devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011. In view of the results of the London Olympics, this should definitely be possible to achieve. But since intangible forms of legacy are not visible, they can be hard to grasp, and at this stage many regions are still trying to figure out what sort of initiatives to undertake and what sort of legacy they should seek to achieve from the games.

A Chance to Tackle Local Problems

The key element in considering what sort of legacy-building targets to set is to take local problems as the starting point. Instead of simply seeking to maximize their gains from the Olympics, local planners should consider ways to take advantage of the games’ power to help deal with issues that need to be addressed anyway. The biggest legacy of the London games is said to have been the revival of East London with the development of a large-scale urban complex covering an area of over 200 hectares. East London was facing problems unrelated to the games, such as poverty and soil pollution, and the local authorities were able to tap the games as a means of getting on the way toward solving them. Of course the situation in the places that serve as sites of Olympic facilities is different than in those that do not, but what is important for both is the approach of looking for legacy targets that are relevant to local problems.

With less than 1,000 days to go to the Tokyo Olympics, there are limits on how much can be done, and as the opening date nears, people’s attention will shift to the games. For this reason, some will probably say, legacy-building efforts are liable to fall by the wayside. But there is actually no need to complete these efforts before the Olympics begin. The critical period comes after the games. All that is required is to set up opportunities and programs. The head of Britain’s tourist agency revealed that the planned allocation of the tourism promotion budget for the London Olympics was 20% before, 20% during, and 60% after the games. The Japanese tend to excite quickly and then cool off quickly. So it will be crucial to come up with schemes and arrangements that can be sustained after the games are over.

Appealing to Influencers

The Olympics and Paralympics have great power to focus international attention on Tokyo and Japan and to draw foreign visitors. Britain took full advantage of the 2012 games as an opportunity to publicize its attractions to the rest of the world. In Japan, even places without Olympic venues can use the games to promote tourism, sales of local products, international exchanges, and business negotiations through various initiatives, such as by hosting pre-games training camps and by attracting media representatives and visitors from abroad.

Localities thinking of hosting training camps need not limit their candidates to national teams from major or highly competitive countries. They can select counterparts in line with their own objectives and strategies. For example, Imabetsu, a town in Aomori Prefecture with a population of less than 3,000, has agreed to provide a pre-games camp for Mongolia’s fencing team. And Sanmu, a city in Chiba Prefecture, will be hosting Sri Lanka’s athletes.  In neither case do those to be hosted represent prominent countries, but the municipalities selected them on the basis of clearly defined strategies, having begun their related activities four years in advance of the games.

When it comes to attracting tourists from abroad, two upcoming sporting events offer even better prospects than the 2020 Olympics, namely, the Rugby World Cup that Japan will host in 2019 and the World Masters Games to be held in Japan’s Kansai region in 2021. In the case of the rugby championship, the intervals between matches are long, and the venues are spread across the country. So there is a good chance that both attending fans and media representatives from overseas will visit regional sites during their free time between matches. And many of the participating teams will be from countries that ordinarily send few tourists to Japan, which makes this event all the more attractive as an opportunity to promote international tourism.

The World Masters Games—which promote lifelong sports for older athletes—offer a different sort of prospect. The biggest attraction of this event is that it is expected to draw as many as 20,000 participants—people who play sports at an ordinary level. They, along with accompanying family members, are likely to spend time before and after the games touring, shopping, and doing business in Japan. I should note, however, that even though I have traveled abroad to see the soccer FIFA World Cup four times, the Rugby World Cup once, and the Olympics twice, I have never revisited any of the places I toured on those occasions. In order to achieve ongoing results in terms of promoting tourism, it will be important to focus not so much on individual visitors as on influential figures, including mass media representatives and prominent athletes, and to tap the power of social media.

International Certification for Japan’s Food Products

There is a possibility that Japanese agricultural products will not be used in the meals prepared for participants before and during the Olympics. Producers of food for the Olympics must be certified as meeting international or equivalent standards, but the share of Japanese producers with such certification is extremely low. Also, an international nongovernment organization is closely monitoring the sources of agricultural and other products, including timber, for sustainability and for human rights problems, such as child labor and bad working conditions. Japanese corporations supplying products for the Olympics will be held to account and required to make improvements if their products are not in compliance with international standards as part of global supply chains. Instead of taking a negative view of these potential barriers, domestic suppliers should see the Olympics as offering a good chance to meet all the relevant international standards in a single sweep, thereby opening the way to doing business globally after the games.

Another potential benefit that we should seek from the Olympics and Paralympics is the achievement of a more inclusive society. The games will bring to Japan people of various nationalities and races, and also people with a range of disabilities. Thanks in part to interest in the upcoming Paralympics, efforts are now underway to create both physical structures and intangible arrangements so as to enhance the welcome for those with disabilities. And we can hope that this event will also lead to better public understanding for such people. If acceptance of differences becomes widespread in Japanese society, it will make life more comfortable for Japanese people themselves, and diversity will become a source of social vigor and of new value.

In addition, we should take full advantage of the games’ deadline power—the concentration of attention and energy resulting from the need to complete the work as scheduled. We are already seeing this power operating in the form of efforts to achieve technological advances and social reforms by 2020 in a variety of fields, such as self-driving cars, hydrogen power, minpaku (home rentals for short-term lodgers), multilingual services, automatic translation and interpretation, recycling of “urban minerals” (such as metals from electronic devices), barrier-free design, and the development of sporting industries.

The Greatest Legacy: Human Resources for the Future

A multitude of projects are in the works across the country as part of the preparations for the 2020 games. Pre-games training camps are being arranged in hundreds of locations; Cultural Olympiad Tokyo 2020 is aiming to draw 50 million people to 200,000 cultural happenings; the organizers will stage official gatherings, while local bodies, schools, and others will also put on events, and some 80,000 people are expected to serve as volunteers. If young people and other residents participate, not only by volunteering to help out during the events but also by joining the planning and implementation teams and taking part in the decision-making processes, their experiences can help them become social and community leaders after the games are over. In other words, the games can serve as a valuable opportunity for the development of Japan’s human resources.

Our organization, Mitsubishi Research Institute, and Shibuya’s municipal government, in cooperation with business corporations, are organizing a project bringing together young people to come up with ideas for the area’s future in connection with the upcoming Olympics and Paralympics. Consisting of some 100 people aged 18–29 with connections to or special interest in Shibuya, this group will devise plans and proposals for the area, and the ones deemed worthy will be adopted as official initiatives to be implemented with support from businesses. In the course of their activities, the participants will have to cope with various pains, difficulties, and setbacks—travails not experienced by those who merely offer their ideas and proposals from the sidelines. But it is precisely this sort of experience that will imbue them with the toughness required of social and organizational leaders.

If initiatives like this bloom across Japan, attracting numerous young people and other local residents to take part in social endeavors, our country will gain a new store of human resources, which will be the Olympics’ biggest legacy. Also, if these are not just passing efforts but turn into platforms for tackling local problems on an ongoing basis, the initiatives themselves will be a valuable part of the games’ legacy.

I understand that the organizers of the 2024 Paris Olympics are planning to create a legacy whose biggest element will be the creation of social businesses aimed at achieving zero poverty, zero unemployment, and zero emissions of carbon dioxide. Some will probably ask what such goals have to do with sports. And it is true that it is important for the Olympics and Paralympics to generate interest and enthusiasm as sporting events. But in today’s world, the Olympics cannot be socially relevant unless their impact extends beyond the time frame of the event program and the physical confines of the host city.

In retrospect, the 1964 Tokyo Olympics marked a turning point for Japan, showing it to the world as a country that had recovered from the devastation of World War II and had regained full membership in the international community—and giving a boost to the growth that would turn it into an economic superpower. It is our job to make the 2020 Tokyo Olympics another turning point, one to which future generations will look back as marking Japan’s transformation into a fully mature society.

(Originally published in Japanese on October 27, 2017. Banner photo: The final runner in the torch relay lights the Olympic flame at the October 10 opening ceremony for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. © Mainichi Shimbun/Aflo.)

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