How Tokyo is transforming for the 2020 Summer Olympics

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Japan's most famous architect, Kengo Kuma, wanted the New National Stadium for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics to be as low as possible. At just over 47 metres, it is well below the main stadiums built for the Olympics in London and Sydney, both closer to 60 metres. It is one-third shorter than the initial winning design, which was scrapped after a public backlash against its exorbitant budget. With a flat roof made out of wood and steel, and eaves spilling over with greenery, the idea is for Tokyo's new stadium to blend in with the lush surrounds of the Meiji Shrine gardens.

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But right now, the stadium stands out as a giant construction site, just one of many scattered across the city in the lead-up to its second time hosting the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games. It may be comparatively low-rise, but it represents the city's high ambitions.

From the skyscrapers popping up above the shopping district of Shibuya to the creation of new train stations and the conversion of the old Tsukiji fish market – one of Tokyo's premier tourist attractions – into a giant car park for the Olympic Village, the coming Games are dramatically altering the city. Giant posters of table tennis players are plastered across shopping malls and daily newspaper reports keep track of budget blowouts and deliberations on changing the marathon's start time to avoid the stifling midday heat. Just over a year-and-a-half out from the opening ceremony, it is already almost impossible to escape the Olympics.

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There is no standout infrastructure project like in 1964, when Japan used its hosting of the Games to unveil the world's first high-speed train network. But there is the tantalising prospect of driverless cars to ferry around athletes, multilingual robots to guide the expected 600,000 foreign visitors, and man-made shooting stars to wow spectators at the opening ceremony. There is also this makeover of Tokyo, the country's window to the world, and an underlying shift in monocultural Japan's approach to foreign workers and visitors, which the government hopes can fuel its nascent economic recovery.