Tokyo 2020: Masa Takaya on Japan’s Olympic challenge

The Rio 2016 Olympic Games are over and the organisers of Tokyo 2020 are already aware that the countdown has begun to their event.

Tokyo 2020: Masa Takaya on Japan’s Olympic challenge

The Rio 2016 Olympic Games are over, but even as Brazil faces up to the huge challenge of executing the Paralympics amid massive budget constraints, the organisers of Tokyo 2020 are already aware that the countdown has begun to their event.

While few expect the Japanese capital to face the same problems suffered by its predecessor - and a closing ceremony handover involving prime minister Shinzo Abe gave a hint of the quirky sense of fun that will be brought to proceedings - the project has faced its share of difficulties. The original design for the Olympic Stadium, created by the late Zaha Hadid, was scrapped in July 2015 and replaced with a similar, cheaper concept. More embarrassingly, Kenjiro Sano's original design for the Tokyo 2020 logo was scrapped after its similarity to that of the Théâtre de Liège in Belgium led to claims of plagiarism.

Nonetheless, Tokyo 2020 was able to use the Rio Games to project a sense of purpose and assurance about its own Olympic programme, as well as getting invaluable real-world experience of the operation of a Summer Games. SportsPro went to the organising committee’s base at Tokyo 2020 Japan House to speak at Rio’s Cidade das Artes to speak with communications director Masa Takaya for an update.


With four years to go, how are preparations going for Tokyo 2020?

I think the preparations are going well. Of course, organising the Games is the most complex project in the world so there is a unique challenge that we are facing but in the meantime, 50 per cent of the competition venues already exist after the venue masterplan review – which was also reinforced by the Olympic Agenda 2020, which promotes the maximum use of existing facilities.

So the preparation is going well. We still have some major projects, including new permanent venue constructions, but the schedule is right on track. I believe the Games in Tokyo 2020 will be a fantastic Games.

How has the organising committee reacted to some of the difficult episodes that you’ve had in the past year?

It’s about how you want to light the issue. One can have every unique perspective on what is going on. Of course we had issues around the Games emblem at one time. As you know, we launched the old emblem in July last year but it was withdrawn because of the issues we had.

But after the withdrawal we realised how important it is to engage people across Japan. The new emblem development process was absolutely open to the general public. We decided to organise an open design contest on the new Games emblem and we were able to receive nearly 15,000 candidate designs - which was a massive number. In the meantime, we also asked the general public to complement their own feelings and opinions on the final candidate design.

We successfully launched the new emblems in April this year, and the perception of the new one has been well recognised across - people love it.  

And, of course, in the Rio 2016 Games there are athletes who are also waiting to compete in Tokyo 2020 and are performing very well so far. Thanks to all the athletes’ performance, I believe, people in Japan are so encouraged to welcome people from all around the world. So I would say that the preparations and the project are absolutely right on track and we are ready to welcome athletes and spectators in four years’ time.


What about those issues with the stadium and the withdrawal of that initial design? Do you think that has changed the relationship the organising committee has with government and public bodies, or is it something you’ve moved past?

The stadium project purely belongs to the national stadium [owner Japan Sports Council] so I cannot comment on that further, but what I can say is because of the experience we had last year I think the relationships among all the key stakeholders have become tighter.

And right now we are reviewing the exact scopes and roles that each entity should take in, with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and the national government and, of course, Tokyo 2020. This review process will be finished some time in the near future and with this defined scope and roles, I think we should be able to focus on our project in the lead-up to the Tokyo 2020 Games.


What were the lessons that you learned from those two episodes - particularly the emblem: what went wrong in that process where you ended up with an emblem you couldn’t use?

Our senior leaderships are now very keen to become more visible about every single development of our project because of these experiences. We are trying to be as visible as possible. I believe that such a revamped attitude of Tokyo 2020 has been well received by the general public, so I’d like to keep showing such an attitude to the people in Japan in the lead-up to 2020.

What are your objectives from Rio 2016? You’ve had quite a heavy presence here on the ground. What are you hoping to learn and what are you hoping to gain from the experience?

This is the very last and unique chance to actually observe what is going on in these Summer Games before Tokyo 2020. Combining the Olympics and Paralympics, we have about 260 staff members flying into Rio to observe these Games. Up until now, we have been establishing our operational plans on tables, but this is the opportunity where we have been able to finally observe what’s going on on the ground. So these experiences will absolutely become important assets to deliver the Games.

And in the meantime, here at Tokyo 2020 Japan House, we have this hospitality area as a hub for communicating and telling our story to international audiences. For the first two days after the opening, we had already received close to 10,000 local members of the public, from Rio de Janeiro, to visit, which is a great number. We would like to keep doing that, and we’d like to let people feel some of the atmosphere that they may be able to experience in four years’ time in Tokyo.

What’s the make-up of the operations team you have here in Rio and what are the priorities that you have while you’re on the ground here? What are the things that you want to know most about?

From my perspective, of course, I am in the communications team so I would like to work closely with the Rio 2016 comms team and also the IOC comms team to see how they have been able to manage a massive amount of media enquiries, in and out of the competitions. That’s something I’d like to observe.

"Once the Rio 2016 Games is over, it’s our turn."

What about Japan House? What’s the concept here and what are you trying to communicate to those visitors who have been coming to the Cidade das Artes?

Organising the Games is, as I said, one of the most complex projects in the world. In four years’ time the Games will be organised not only by the Tokyo 2020 organising committee but it’s going to be a joint effort with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, national government, the Japanese Olympic Committee, Japanese Paralympic Committee, and other relevant parties. This Tokyo 2020 Japan House is also a joint effort by those key delivery partners. We’d like people to feel such a ‘best of Japan’ effort to see what the Games will look like in four years’ time.


Given the geographical location of Japan, and how difficult it will be to reach for a lot of visitors outside Asia, how important is it to try and get your message out there early to get a commitment from international audiences to attend?

Of course, our delivery of every aspect of the Games has to be successful. Once the Rio 2016 Games is over, it’s our turn. So compared to the past two and a half years, the Tokyo 2020 comms needs to be more internationally oriented and telling our story to the worldwide audience.

We are very keen to engage people not only in Japan but across the world. It’s an era where you can find every single story from every single corner of the world by looking not only at traditional media but also social media. Living in this era, I would like to be more active in terms of international communications as well to invite as many people as possible to our hometown, Tokyo.


Let’s talk about the commercial programme. The organising committee has had an enormous amount of success there - it’s really surprised some people in other markets, where practices and conditions are different, how many partners Tokyo 2020 has been able to attract.  How do you prevent clutter? How do you make sure those companies are able to promote their association with the Games effectively?

What I can say is from the past Games, London 2012 had more than 50 partners. We are trying to be close, and of course we’d like to engage as many corporate partners as possible.

As far as I understand from the past Games experiences, all those corporate partners joining were pretty successful in terms of their publicity and communications and establishing their positions, and how they were able to contribute to those successful Games.

I would say the same applies to Tokyo 2020. We have strong marketing teams. We also have strong exclusive marketing agency partners. By working closely together with those corporate partners, we are absolutely keen to help them to be as visible as possible to the general public so they are able to establish their strongest possible position in the market.

What can we expect from Tokyo 2020 that we’ve not seen before at an Olympic Games? Most people are expecting a well-organised and executed Games based on Japan’s strong history of major events, but what will we see that will surprise people?

In Tokyo 2020’s vision it says that these Games want to be the most innovative in history. So by leveraging Japan’s cutting-edge technology, creativity and youth culture, we’d like to integrate this essence into sports, to show how the Games will be unique to international audiences.

We do not have very concrete plans that we can show at this stage, but one example I can mention is the face recognition security system that we have in the press conference room in Japan House. It is very hands-on and we haven’t been able to have the actual security measures for the Games yet, but I just wanted to mention that. Such an essence can be a unique asset and differentiator from other Games.

And of course, people are so passionate about sport and the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Japan is recognised as a country that can always record a massive number in TV audiences. They are so much looking forward to welcoming people from all around the world with a unique spirit of omotenashi - we don’t have a direct translation for that word but it is a sense of warm hospitality which, I would say, is more than just that. We would like to have people feel engaged within such an atmosphere, and that will be a great memory for anyone who will travel to Tokyo.


What are the challenges ahead of you – what are the things you’re most concerned about? And what’s the timeline for you now?

In terms of the timeline, all the projects are going right on track. But in the meantime, we set a lofty Games vision. We’d like to be the most innovative Games in history, so in order to meet and exceed people’s expectations everyone needs to dedicate themselves to this project even more.

All the timelines, it looks like the projects are absolutely right on track. So we are very much confident of the delivery of the Games.