Closing the Gates on Japan’s Symbolic National Stadium

Society Culture

Now that the excitement of Tokyo being chosen to host the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics has begun to fade, it’s time for planners to get down to the nitty-gritty of preparing for the games. Ironically, this means flattening one of the most enduring symbols of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the Kasumigaoka National Stadium.

At the end of May, the national stadium will close its gates for the last time and preparations will begin for knocking it down to make way for the New National Stadium, a mammoth 80,000-seat structure designed by architect Zaha Hadid.

Since opening in 1958, the stadium, known affectionately as Kokuritsu, or simply “National,” has been the scene of countless sports dramas. At the 1964 Olympics, Ethiopian Abebe Bikila crossed the finish line to become the first double Olympic marathon gold medalist. In 1979, an 18-year-old Diego Maradona made his worldwide debut at the FIFA World Youth Championship, scoring for Argentina in the final against the Soviet Union. And the American sprinter Carl Lewis set a new world record of 9.86 seconds in the 100 meters at the 1991 Track and Field World Championships—a meet that also saw his US teammate Mike Powell break Bob Beamon’s 1968 long jump world record, one of the longest-standing achievements in athletics history.

Athletes enter the stadium during the entrance ceremony for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. (© Jiji Press)

The Japan Sports Council, which manages the venue, has planned numerous events as part of its “Sayonara Kokuritsu” project celebrating the history of the stadium. There are last soccer and rugby matches, a final track and field grand prix, and a grand finale on May 31 featuring famous athletes of the past. Perhaps the biggest event will be a two-day concert stop by Sir Paul McCartney. Tours of the stadium have grown in popularity as the clock ticks down, with areas previously off limits now open to the public.

Demolition of the stadium is slated to begin in July, with the new one to be completed and ready to host the Rugby World Cup in 2019. The iconic Olympic cauldron, which was famously recast by hand by Suzuki Bungo just in time for the 1964 games after his father Mannosuke’s failed first attempt, will be preserved at the new stadium. The fate of the two lovely mosaics of the Greek goddess Nike and mythical sumo wrestler Nomi no Sukune by artist Hasegawa Roka that stand atop the main grandstand, however, is still undecided.

As the national stadium prepares to make its curtain call, there are some who are calling for a stay of execution. A group of Japanese architects, led by Pritzker Prize–winner Maki Fumihiko, have voiced their discontent with the current plan for the new stadium, calling it too large and out of touch with the surrounding environment. Although the group does not oppose the plans for the stadium, which have been scaled back, it has been critical of the project’s lack of transparency, absence of natural spaces, and destruction of the surrounding environment. The group has asked for the demolition of the current stadium to be postponed until all issues are resolved. To some this might sound like sour grapes, but as the unique historical and natural environment of the surrounding Jingū Gaien area is designated for landscape preservation, a stadium design that does not feature a single tree is indeed cause for concern.

The cost of the new stadium has also been a major issue. The original estimate of ¥185 billion has been reduced to around ¥170 billion, but no one can credibly argue that the final bill for the project won’t far outstrip these figures. This raises the question of what will become of the venue after the Olympics have come and gone.

The current stadium regularly hosted a wide range of amateur and professional sporting events and was considered “sacred ground” for the sports of soccer and rugby and for the many annual high school and college finals held there. Yearly maintenance for the venue cost ¥500 million—which, while not cheap, kept the usage fees for the stadium low enough for amateur organizations to hold events there. In comparison, maintenance fee estimates for the new stadium are around ¥4 billion annually. It is not difficult to deduce that usage fees will force many organizations to find different venues.

The idea of the stadium generating revenue by hosting more concerts and high-profile sporting competitions is being bandied about, but competition is fierce to host these events. National soccer team matches are already spread out between Tokyo, Osaka, Saitama, and Yokohama, and large-scale events like the World Championships in Athletics only come around once in a blue moon (the last one in Japan was held in Osaka in 2007). Concerts provide more regular opportunities for revenue, but it is hard to imagine what appeal the new national stadium will have to draw big-name acts away from established venues like the Tokyo Dome and Saitama Super Arena.

The hyperbole that fuelled the international design competition for the new Olympic stadium—the phrase “a national project on a scale unprecedented in this century” should have set off warning bells—won’t put spectators in seats. The venue runs the risk of turning into a white elephant post 2020. The only realistic way out of a fate similar to that suffered by Beijing’s famous Bird’s Nest, which has sat largely (and expensively) idle since the 2008 games, is for planners to heed their own words and carry out the project with full public participation. This is completely up to organizers, though, and as the schedule for constructing the venue grows tighter, an outcome that preserves the legacy of the national stadium seems unlikely.

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