11.08.2021 / ArtsPeople, Tokyo
A Tale of Two Stadiums
Yoyogi National Gymnasium (ArtsPeople); Kobe Earthquake (Masahiko Ohkubo); Japan National Stadium, Kengo Kuma (Japan Sort Council); Zaha Hadid stadium design (Courtesy ZHA).
The Olympics drew to a close on Sunday – ending several weeks of obsessing over wins and losses, indulging in patriotism, or putting up with over-enthusiastic relatives and friends. Although protests, scandals and record-breaking budgets marred the games since the outbreak of Covid-19, with a bit of distance, the 2021 Olympics will come to represent much more than these challenges for Japan.
Japan’s Changing National Identity
The Olympic Games are one of those rare moments when art and sport combine to give us new ways to understand a culture. The world’s focus on Japan’s struggle to stage the event has overshadowed the chance to gain important insights into its changing national identity – insights that can be found in the very structure the Olympics (and next up the Paralympics) take place in; the Japan National Stadium.
Olympic architecture can say so much about a country’s priorities and tell a story about a particular point in time. Back in 2018, when I was living in Tokyo, I was interested to see the new Olympic stadiums starting to take shape for this reason. Comparing the new and old Olympic stadiums in Japan provide stark evidence of the enormous social, economic, cultural, environmental, and geopolitical changes that have occurred in the 56 years between hosting its Olympic events.
Tokyo Olympics, 1964
The Yoyogi National Gymnasium built for the 1964 Tokyo Games was designed by Kenzo Tange – a key modernist architect of Japan’s post-war reconstruction. For the world’s ‘first Asian Olympics’ it needed to not only showcase Japan’s prolific post-war recovery, but also define for Japan what it meant to be both ‘modern’ and ‘Japanese’. Since the Meiji Period (1868-1912), the words ‘modern’ and ‘sophisticated’ had been synonymous with ‘Western’. Japan’s devastating defeat in WWII, post-war Allied occupation and mass influx of American popular culture was yet again creating a tension between these ideas. Social unrest and mass protests raged against the US-Japan Security Treaty (‘Anpo’), which was due to be renewed in 1960.
Back in the 1990s I often wished I was an exchange student 35 years earlier than I actually was – to study alongside these politically engaged, intense Japanese teenagers would’ve been a far-cry from the affluent and apathetic youth of post-bubble Japan. In fact, when arriving as a Masters student in Kobe only two months after the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, I felt like I was witnessing first-hand the cracking of the bubble. To walk around Kobe and witness the devastation was heart wrenching. This period marked the beginning of the end of Japan’s post-war industrialization, and in some ways the positivity of the previous decades.
Since then I’ve stood many times on the Tokyo pedestrian footbridge overlooking Tange’s stadium. It is an arresting, majestic structure blending Japanese and Western modernist aesthetics with futuristic overtones. It was also a powerful statement at the time about Japan’s emerging capacity for technical innovation – when completed, it was the largest suspended roof span in the world. But more than that, I’m also moved by knowing what struggles were taking place at the time, and what has happened since – the economic decline, rapidly ageing population and environmental destruction.
To me, the Yoyogi Gymnasium has always been Japanese design at its finest – an embodiment of ‘eternal design’, where the line between ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ is indistinguishable and irrelevant.
Revival of Traditions
Unlike the Yoyogi Stadium, the new Japan National Stadium attempts no such grand gesture, reflecting how Japan views itself at this particular moment in time. Architect Kengo Kuma revives traditional joinery techniques at the brink of extinction, and combines them with the latest in computer-aided design and engineering technology to create a subtle lattice structure that is both aesthetically beautiful and able to withstand earthquakes of enormous magnitude.
Respect for Nature
The stadium’s use of timber from all 47 prefectures of Japan and extensive green spaces expresses the country’s reverence for the natural world and its seasons, and are a homage to the sacred forest surrounding the Meiji Shrine nearby. In fact, many of Japan’s contemporary buildings are bringing timber back into architecture to embody the nation’s trademark humility, as well as to create warmth and texture.
Deference to the Surrounding Landscape
A stadium like this would have been unthinkable back in 1989 when I first visited Japan. This wasn’t the image the decision-makers would’ve wanted to project to the rest of the world as Japan’s ideal future. The scale, design and presence of this Japan National Stadium directly contrast with the many grand monuments built during the construction frenzy of the ostentatious 1980s, dropped uninvited into communities across the country.
Notably, Kuma’s design replaced the more flamboyant original design by the late British Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid. Described by them at the time as a “disgrace to future generations”, this oversized bike helmet was so expensive and intrusive in the surrounding cityscape that the Japanese cultural milieu (mostly architects) protested until it was abandoned in favour of Kuma’s more deferential creation.
The fact that Japan has chosen Kuma’s National Stadium as the iconic building to represent it to the world, despite the fact it was not the cheapest option, is highly significant. Key to this structure is the way it shows respect for its surroundings, including other significant landmarks like the nearby Imperial Palace. It seeks to express a strong sense of harmony – perhaps the most fundamental concept in understanding the ‘aesthetic of life’ in Japan, in which one strives to always maintain harmony within nature, the built environment and the community itself.
Additionally, many of this Games’ Olympic structures have been renovated, repurposed or otherwise reused from the 1964 event, indicating a renewed commitment to the sentiment expressed in Japanese as “mottainai” – an expression of regret at unnecessary waste.
While there has been some criticism that Japan’s architectural offerings for these Games are underwhelming and represent a lost opportunity, the (largely Western) perspective is entirely missing the point.
Since the last Tokyo Games, Japan has grappled with a 30-year recession, numerous natural disasters, a nuclear catastrophe, environmental degradation and a rapidly ageing population. These Tokyo Games are a platform in which Japan is showing us a fundamental shift in its sense of self, from a country hell-bent on becoming a fully industrialised economic superpower, to one that privileges humility, sustainability, and tradition.
The Olympic site is a symbolic representation of this new direction for this ancient culture. It may seem ambitious or idealistic, but in it I think we can be optimistic about Japan’s future.
A future shaped by craftsmanship, innovation and harmony with nature.