Photo/IllutrationConceptual drawing of the New National Stadium (Created by a joint venture consisting of Taisei Corp., Azusa Sekkei Co. and Kengo Kuma and Associates. Provided by Japan Sport Council)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Dignitaries at the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games will obviously get the best seats--those made of wood--but ordinary common folk will have to make do with plastic.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party, along with other entities, called on the government in February and May 2016 to install wooden seats for all the spectators. One consideration was that it would give visitors from overseas a feel for Japanese aesthetics as well as promote the forestry industry.

The stadium, which straddles the capital's Shinjuku and Shibuya wards, is now under construction.

But when the bean counters got involved, it was determined that wooden seating for all would prove hugely expensive with costly maintenance overheads.

In the end, the Cabinet Office decided that less than 1 percent of seats will be wooden. Those will be allocated for the best views of the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as track and field events.

“We're very disappointed (with the decision),” said Yasuhide Nakayama, a Lower House member of the LDP who heads the federation of Diet members for the promotion of Japan's timber industry. “We will still continue to propose that wooden seats be introduced, as making use of this domestic natural resource will prove beneficial to maintaining the mountain environment and preventing disasters (such as landslides).”

The stadium has a seating capacity for 60,579 spectators. Domestically grown lumber will be used for the armrests and backs of 268 luxury seats set aside for especially important dignitaries. Plastic will be used for 1,395 spaces set aside for VIPs as well as 58,916 seats for visitors and others, according to the Japan Sport Council.

A joint venture headed by Taisei Corp., whose main areas of business are building construction, civil engineering and real estate development, placed an order in July for the plastic seating.

Timber will be much in evidence, especially in the roof section and the underside of eaves, when the stadium is completed.

“People will go to the stadium for the sports events, so it is doubtful that wooden seating will dramatically increase numbers of repeat visitors,” said Munehiko Harada, a professor of sport sciences at Waseda University.

“It is reasonable to abandon the plan to install costly wooden seats," he said. "If you want to promote the forest industry, why not hold a forestry promotion event instead?”

Harada called for more discussion on how to attract as many visitors as possible and avoid ending up with a deficit once the Games are over.

With construction costs budgeted at 149 billion yen ($1.32 billion), the initial design for the stadium in December 2015 envisaged plastic seating for all.

After it was proposed that wooden seats be installed, Toshiaki Endo, the minister in charge of the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games at the time, called for more discussion on the issue, even though it would add billions of yen to the final bill.

“Wooden seats roughly cost about twice that of plastic ones, once maintenance expenses are taken into consideration,” said an executive of Tokyo-based Kotobuki Seating Co., which specializes in making seats for public facilities.

“Some spectators might be willing to pay well over the odds to be assured of luxury seating,” the executive said.

Shigeaki Wada, who heads Tenryu Forestry Cooperative in Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, makes no bones about his hopes that more timber will be used in the stadium's construction.

About 70 percent of national land is covered with trees. Ten million hectares, or about 40 percent of forested areas, were artificially planted, according to the Forestry Agency.

These artificial forests are not getting the attention they need due to labor shortages and a fall in lumber prices, so roughly 70 percent of total demand is now met from overseas.

Installing wooden benches and group seats for spectators is hardly new. For example, Kincho Stadium in Osaka, the home ground of Cerezo Osaka, a J1 team in Japan's professional soccer league, has converted 300 of the 18,000 seats to wooden ones since fiscal 2015.

“You can feel (the wood’s unique) texture and warmth. We're sure that visitors will return again and again after realizing how good the wooden seating is,” said a Kincho Stadium official.

The Kamaishi Unosumai Fukko Stadium (Kamaishi Unosumai reconstruction stadium) in Kamaishi, Iwate Prefecture, is now being built on land previously occupied by schools for the 2019 Rugby World Cup. The prefecture was one of the worst-hit areas in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster.

Wood is expected to be used for 4,990 seats of the permanently-installed 6,000 seats.

“We are trying to promote the forestry industry by using local timber and making the best use of nature,” said a municipal government official.