Living near the Diet as it awaits newcomers

by David Nakamura

It was about 10 a.m. on a recent morning when, riding my bicycle to work, I saw a man dressed as a horse and carrying a plastic bow and arrow gallop toward the Diet building. I stopped to watch. Tourists pointed and gawked. Two baton-wielding police ran over to rein the horse-man in.

Turns out, this real-life Sagittarius simply wanted his companion to snap a picture of him, which the police nervously allowed before shooing him away to other pastures.

Ahh, just another day in Nagatacho, where, since arriving in Japan in May for a one-year international affairs fellowship, I have been living in an six-story apartment complex just around the corner from Japan’s political nerve center.

I’m soon to have some new neighbors. Kyodo News recently reported that, because of all the new politicians elected from the Democratic Party of Japan, a special 300-unit residence in nearby Akasaka reserved for out-of-town Diet members is suddenly hot property. There are so many newcomers, Kyodo reported, that they probably won’t all fit.

Let me be the first to say: Welcome to the neighborhood! I would normally offer some space to those who might need a place to crash — except that my living quarters measure 22 sq. meters, just slightly bigger than my wife’s walk-in closet back in our Washington, D.C., condo.

Let me offer, instead, a few observations about your new neighborhood.

The first thing to understand is that Nagatacho — and to a lesser extent Akasaka — are not really neighborhoods in the traditional sense. No one really lives here. Except us.

What that means is that, unlike most residential areas that grow quiet when people leave for work and get noisy again in the evening, ours are the opposite. Daytime is full of bureaucrats streaming off the subway, tourists and student-groups hogging the sidewalks and guards positioned every few meters, looking to cut off the occasional protester or nationalist van driving past.

But you’ll get used to that. Nighttime is harder to get used to, when the place can be eerily quiet, almost desolate. Nagatacho, in particular, is bereft of people, which means you are usually the only one climbing the subway stairs at Nagatacho Station after about 5 p.m., while everyone else descends. Akasaka, with its pubs and pachinko parlors, is livelier, but when people stumble home the place quickly becomes a ghost town.

Weekends are even stranger: There is almost no one around. There is so little happening that sometimes I forget I live in one of the world’s most-populous cities.

In my apartment complex, the lack of other humans is disorienting. Of the roughly 50 units in my building, fewer than 10 appear to have anyone living in them. The others are rented out to small businesses (or, if you believe my Dutch landlord, are used by Diet members as private retreats at the expense of lobbyists — but we won’t talk about that).

Anyway, on most evenings, when I open the door to my tiny balcony, I don’t see any other lights on in my building or the one next door. On weekends, the only sounds I hear are the students playing sports at Hibiya High School down the block. The Mexican Embassy across the street is usually shuttered.

On the plus side, I can do pretty much whatever I want without much hassle: play my stereo loudly, park my bike against any post, walk in the middle of the street. No problem. No one seems to be watching. Expect the guards near the Diet — but as long as you don’t look like a threat, they leave you alone. Once in a while, one gets on the bullhorn to yell at me for biking through a red light, but so far none has bothered to ticket me.

The other good thing about living where we do is the proximity to the trappings of power. I recommend the 5-kilometer run around the Imperial Palace, or a bike ride along the streets, which are blocked to traffic on Sundays.

There aren’t a lot of good grocery options, but I recommend the Food Express, which is small but a bit more upscale than the others. The Lawson near the Diet offers a better selection than does the Seven-Eleven across the street, the McDonald’s is open 24 hours, and the Excel Hotel Tokyu in Akasaka offers free wireless Internet if you sit on the second floor in one of the folding chairs near the pay phones (but don’t try to eat while you are sitting there because the hotel staff will get upset).

That’s about it — oh, except for the endless nighttime street repairs, with all the orange cones and flashing lights and too-many-workers-by-half standing around pointlessly directing the sparse traffic after midnight. But that’s part of Japan’s public works stimulus package so generously approved by the Diet. So I guess that’s something you can live with.

The author is a Washington Post reporter currently spending a year in Japan on a Council on Foreign Relations-Hitachi fellowship.