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Japan 2020

The Global Leaders in Construction Management (GLCM) program is a research initiative at Columbia University. Currently, there are eight student members from around the world; the program consists of students from the United States of America, Mexico, Indonesia, Taiwan, India, Lebanon, and Kuwait. Early in January 2020, students from the GLCM program visited Japan to learn more about the Japanese construction industry. The goal of the trip was simple: to immerse ourselves in Japanese culture and understand unique challenges affecting their domestic construction industry.


Cultural visit - Sensoji Temple, Akasaka

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Site visit - Obayashi Construction Institute

GLCM members spent their first day in Tokyo visiting cultural sites, such as Sensoji Temple in Akasaka and the Meiji-jingu Shrine, as well as modern hot-spots like Shibuya Crossing and Ginza.

Each workday began early in the morning, at a bakery called “Dean & DeLuca”. At roughly 8 AM each day, our team members, with piping-hot coffee in tow, convened at the eatery. Our itinerary for the day usually involved taking public transportation to one of four companies’ headquarters and research institutions. The corporations included JR Central, Obayashi Corp., Kajima Corp., and Shimizu Corp. From roughly 9 AM to 12 PM, we would engage corporate leadership in meetings regarding business operations and construction trends, including the in-progress job sites we would be visiting after lunch.


Some of the construction sites of interest included the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics stadium and the tunnels expanding the Tokyo Gaikan Expressway. Not much may be shared from visiting these works as many were highly confidential, but one thing was abundantly clear: the Japanese construction site is a productive, ordered, and clean one. By the close of our trip, a number of lessons were learned. The following article is a summary of the six major takeaways from the journey to Japan.


Starting Mornings at Shinagawa Station


Riding JR Central Bullet Trains

The Evolving Japanese Construction Industry - 6 Key Takeaways


Meeting in Obayashi Corp.

Lesson 1

Declining Population's Effects on a Developed Nation

Since Japan is a developed nation, much of the country’s public infrastructure has already been constructed. However, as the Japanese population continues to decline, the demand on public infrastructure has accordingly dropped as well. According to the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, the Japanese population may shrink to as low as 100 million people by 2049 from the current 127 million. By 2036, one-third of the population may be elderly. Compounding the issue is the fact that much of Japan’s younger population no longer aspires to work on construction sites. These trends have produced shockwaves throughout the Japanese construction industry with regards to how the public and private sector in Japan have handled the decline in population.

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In the private sector, Japan’s largest construction companies have decided to switch their operations from new construction to operating and maintaining already-built infrastructure. These companies (such as Obayashi Corp., Kajima Corp., and Shimizu Corp.) have also conducted and continue to perform research in order to constantly innovate in the construction field and decrease the number of workers on-site through automation and new robotic technologies. Accordingly, in the public sector, the Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism (the largest ministry in Japan in terms of employees) has promoted “information construction” through processes such as Building Information Modelling (BIM), as one of the benefits of BIM is the ability to perform facility-use and life-cycle analyses. The decline in Japan’s population is a well-known trend; it is particularly interesting to note how both Japan’s private and public sectors have responded to the trend: the public sector has promoted more construction with an eye on user-demand while the private sector has taken note of this and promoted more construction with an eye on automating labor.

Lesson 2

Rapidly Increasing Urban Concentration

The Japanese society is shifting towards urban centers, particularly the Tokyo Metropolitan area.  While the population of Japan has remained stable over the past two decades, the population of Tokyo has grown every year.  The growth rate seems to be accelerating, with 10% increases in migration year-over-year in 2017 and 2018. The current population of Tokyo is estimated around 13.5 million people, up approximately 25% since the start of the millenium.  When including the greater Tokyo Metropolitan area (Tokyo-Yokohama and the Kanto region), the population swells to 38 million, approximately 30% of Japan’s total population. This comes at the expense of rural municipalities, as only eight of forty-three prefectures have shown population growth in the past decade.  

Migration to Tokyo presents particular challenges for the Japanese population and national critical infrastructure network, as well as some opportunity for Japan’s heavy industries that are based in the greater metro area.  Japanese birth rates have dropped to from the 1970’s high of 2.15 children per household to roughly 1.4 2018. The Tokyo metro area sees an exacerbation of these birth rates, with nearly 1.13 children per household. This is frequently attributed to commutes that frequently exceed 90 minutes for working women, exhausting families that may otherwise have more than one child.  As the population of Tokyo continues to grow due to young and old Japanese moving into the metro area, the population decline of rural areas will continue to magnify.

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This population decline has led to most rural mass-transit becoming significantly non-profitable, requiring subsidies from urban infrastructure to continue operation.  The increase of older Japanese to Tokyo is straining the capabilities of medical and elder care services, as current facilities were not designed to handle the volume they are experiencing.  The increased population of Tokyo, its amenities, cultural appeal and significance, and continual urban sprawl have stymied corporate and governmental initiatives to relocate and decentralize the population.  This has led to a critical over-centralization of Japanese society and presents what may be the largest vulnerability to the island nation.

Governmental efforts to decentralize rely upon the ability to persuade the population to pivot to nearby cities such as Osaka.  The current bullet trains take nearly two and a half hours to connect Japan’s two major metro centers. A current superconducting maglev train project is under construction. With an operating top speed of 315 miles per hour, it is expected to connect the two metro centers in just over one hour.  The existing high-speed train lines account for 80% of the Central Japan Railway Company's revenue, with more than 80% of the passengers being business commuters. Japanese corporations have the opportunity to invest in healthcare, improved next-generation mass transit systems, and housing as the Japanese urban populations continue to grow.


Meeting at JR Central


Touring JR Gate Tower

Lesson 3

Attitude of the Workforce

The Japanese construction scene is one of the most productive and efficient in the world. What distinguishes this industry from other countries is the mentality of each and every individual that is part of a construction project. This can be attributed to the Japanese education system, culture and work ethic.

Visiting a construction site in Japan helps to develop an understanding of the country’s workforce. Ongoing and constructive communication between employees and supervisors is one of the trademarks on a Japanese construction site. The construction workers have a culture of pride and discipline: completing each day’s assigned work is considered a matter of honor. This culture and pride contributes to the noteworthy quality of Japanese products, a competitive edge that their construction industry enjoys.


The attitude of leadership in the construction process is evident when a worker is faced with a problem. Job site leaders ensure they are nearby and accessible to all employees. In Japan, leaders ensure employees are provided the training to possess the necessary knowledge, capability, and responsibility to deal with any issue.  This combination of individual capacity and access to leadership creates a positive and effective workplace; these characteristics are highly noticeable on Japanese construction sites. This positive atmosphere stimulates trust and cooperation, which in turn increases on-site productivity and propels continual industry growth.  


Meeting at Kajima Corp.

Lesson 4

Leading Development in Technology and Innovation

Japanese construction companies invest heavily in developing their own research facilities with the latest technology to explore, analyze, and develop construction materials  and practices. With these tools, they hope to predict the behavior of projects before they are built and overcome skilled labor shortage.


Some examples of the different disciplines being explored in these laboratories include:

  • Seismic and wind tunnel testing

  • Developing autonomous robots to execute basic construction duties

  • Remote and automated material excavation and material transport

  • Geotechnical centrifuge systems

  • Acoustics testing

  • Developing the groundwork for futuristic sustainable cities

  • Using Virtual Reality to practice complicated construction maneuvers and train workers


The driving forces behind these innovations are the challenges the construction industry is facing in Japan and elsewhere around the globe. One example of using technology to maintain productivity is the employment of autonomous robot teams to place and attach gypsum panels to ceiling structures or the welding of continuous steel columns.  Additionally, Japanese companies have used VR headsets maximize productivity and to simulate complicated project steps such as heavy tandem lifts, or teach job site safety. It is important to note that Japanese companies invest a significant percentage of their revenues on research and development, whereas in other countries, companies are substantially slower to reinvest profits into R&D, remaining dedicated to their current means and methods.


Using VR to simulate inspecting hard-to-access points on a job-site at Shimizu Corp.

Lesson 5

Japanese Values and Sustainability Standards

Sustainability is more than just a trend in Japan - it is viewed as a necessity. The awareness and acknowledgment of global warming by the Japanese construction industry has led to these companies to focus on building structures that are both environmentally and people friendly. After the United Nations launched Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, the Japanese construction industry has continued to introduce more sustainable practices. Whereas LEED prevails in the US and BREEAM in the UK, CASBEE (Comprehensive Assessment System for Built Environment Efficiency) is the  sustainability standard that is most commonly practiced in the Japanese construction industry.

There are four main certification categories in the CASBEE system including CASBEE for Buildings, CASBEE for Housing, CASBEE for Real Estate, and CASBEE for Cities(Urban Design). CASBEE was developed in 2001 through the collaboration of industry leaders, academics, and governmental policy makers under the support of the Japanese ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. To serve each stage of the design process, four assessment tools - CASBEE for Pre-design, CASBEE for New Construction, CASBEE for Existing Buildings, and CASBEE for Renovation -  were formed. Similar to other sustainability certification systems, assessment results are approved by accredited professionals who review designs and practices after the application for the certification and throughout construction. 


Learning about CASBEE at Shimizu Corp.

Lesson 6

Impacts of the 2020 Olympics on the Industry

With the 2020 Summer Olympics being held in Tokyo, the Japanese government has focused on developing the country’s infrastructure, which is expected to spur an appreciable growth in the construction industry. The total cost of construction related to the games is expected to be approximately JPY 182.2 billion. This growth has been fueled by several projects, including several new stadiums as well as redevelopment of the area surrounding Shibuya station to accommodate the large influx of international visitors.  Additionally, older venues (such as the National Olympic Stadium, where most of the sporting events of the 1964 Olympics took place), were renovated or rebuilt to support this Olympics. 

The National Stadium, amongst other new ventures to be used for the Tokyo Games, are either complete or are scheduled to be completed before the event starts in July. However, the Japanese government is still assessing the post-Olympics utilization of these stadiums and buildings. Some future plans include converting the residential buildings of the Olympic Athletes' village into apartments, and the Village Plaza will be dismantled so the reclaimed timber may be returned to the municipalities for use in local projects, helping to reach sustainability targets for the event. 

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The National Aquatic Center and Olympic Swimming Pool, Tokyo

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