Prime minister’s quarters to get update

by Sayuri Daimon

Staff writer

Former Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa remembers enjoying tea often in the courtyard of the Prime Minister’s Official Residence and serving espresso to important guests in his office when he was prime minister.

But there were problems with the residence.

“The prime minister’s office was like a stationmaster’s office in an old railway station,” Hosokawa said, adding he could never get used to the building’s old, musty smell. “The wallpaper had not been changed for a long time, so it had turned a sooty brown from cigarette smoke, and the prime minister’s working desk was a small mediocre one like those in any company office.”

So Hosokawa searched for better furniture in a warehouse and found a bigger and more worthy desk that once belonged to Shigeru Yoshida, one of Japan’s leading postwar prime ministers.

“The officials who managed the building did not know the quality of things. I was really ashamed to say that this was the prime minister’s office,” he said.

The residential quarters behind the main building also had a problem with cockroaches and spiders.

But future prime ministers and their families will have it much better with the government’s reconstruction plan for the complex. After more than a decade of planning to renovate and expand the current residence, built in 1929, officials will hold a ceremony today to celebrate the laying of the new building’s cornerstone.

The government plans to complete the new 43.5 billion yen main official residence, to be built on a plot of land extending over a hillside adjoining the existing building, by the end of fiscal 2001. It will feature modern high-tech buildings with two heliports.

The prime minister’s private residential building will also be rebuilt on the same plot by fiscal 2003.

For the reconstruction, the site of the Prime Minister’s Official Residence will be expanded to 46,000 sq. meters, or nearly twice the size of the current site. The floor space will be 2 1/2 times greater, at about 25,000 sq. meters.

Although the reconstruction plan was formally approved in 1987 by the Cabinet of then Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, preparations were delayed until just recently by debate over whether to relocate the nation’s capital outside of Tokyo and the bubble economy, which triggered soaring land prices in late 80s.

Government officials say they are currently selecting a candidate site to relocate the Diet and central government bodies, but they estimate it will take another 14 to 20 years to execute.

Some charge that given the controversial relocation plan, the renovation and expansion of the Prime Minister’s Official Residence will be a waste of taxpayers’ money.

But supporters counter that even after the capital is relocated, Tokyo will still need facilities to receive foreign VIPs and hold conferences.

Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Teijiro Furukawa, who has been in charge of the reconstruction plan, said the government has focused on four main points in designing the new building — convenience for the prime minister’s daily work, receptions for visiting VIPs, crisis management and durability.

“For example, a new reception hall, which can accommodate up to 300 people, will adjoin a courtyard with a dome-shaped roof to facilitate use on even rainy days,” Furukawa said.

The design was drawn by the Construction Ministry, adopting the opinions of such people as Japan’s leading architect, Kenzo Tange, and Shuji Takashina, director of the National Museum of Western Art.

According to the plan, press rooms and conference rooms will be located on the first floor, a reception hall connected to the courtyard will be on the second floor, and the building’s main entrance and offices for government officials will be on the third floor.

The fourth floor has rooms for Cabinet meetings and the fifth floor, or top floor, will have offices for the prime minister and chief Cabinet secretary.

The center for crisis management will be created in the basement, serving as a command center in case of natural disasters and emergencies.

The center will be equipped with cutting-edge technology, and will be able to gather information quickly from the Defense Agency and the National Police Agency.

There is concern among some that there could be security-related problems at the foot of the new Prime Minister’s Official Residence because the site is surrounded by tall buildings in Minato Ward’s busy Akasaka district.

The Sanno Building, a 44-story commercial building now under construction next to the new official residence, with only a narrow road running between the two, is considered the biggest potential threat.

“By the time the reconstruction plan was approved, it was impossible to stop the construction of the Sanno Building under the current legal framework,” Furukawa said, adding that he spent much energy trying to reduce possible problems.

Furukawa said he asked the owner of the building not to create windows on the eastern side of the building to block views of the new residence.