Akihabara split on whether to reopen pedestrian strip

by Kazuaki Nagata

A year after a man went on a murderous vehicle and stabbing rampage in Tokyo’s Akihabara district, business owners and local residents still traumatized by the attack are split over whether to again close off one of the area’s main streets to cars on Sundays and holidays.

Local residents in particular want more safety assurances before they warm to the idea, as the blocked-off area on Chuo Dori made an easy target.

Business owners, on the other hand, want the practice reinstated so more people will shop there and revive the district.

Tadashi Fukutani, chief of the secretariat of the Akihabara Denkigai Shinkokai (Electrical Town Organization), said his group of 48 electronics-related businesses wants Chuo Dori again closed off on Sundays and holidays.

“We hope the district will become a place to attract more people,” he said.

Although it has been reported that Akihabara has had fewer visitors since temp worker Tomohiro Kato rammed his rented truck 2-ton past traffic barriers and into pedestrians before proceeding to stab others, ultimately killing seven people, at 12:30 p.m. on June 8, 2008, Fukutani doubts the attack is the only reason for the decline.

“It is unclear if (the potential danger of) the pedestrian-only practice” is the cause of the drop in visitors, he said.

Fukutani also questioned the accuracy of a newspaper article reporting the drop, saying shop owners have told him otherwise. “The Akihabara district was going through redevelopment, and it has calmed down. I don’t think people share the image that just the attack itself had that kind of effect.”

Fukutani also said the global recession may be one of the reasons for the slowdown.

Kato, a 26-year-old temp worker, reportedly told the police that he was a regular visitor to Akihabara and knew Chuo Dori would be thronged.

A week after the attack, the Tokyo Metropolitan Public Safety Commission resumed vehicular traffic on Sundays and holidays. The 800-meter stretch near Akihabara Station had been pedestrian-only on those days since 1973.

According to a February-May survey conducted by an information center for Akihabara tourists near the station, 97 percent of the respondents want the pedestrian-only practice reinstated.

But Masuda, who works at the visitor information center and only offered her last name, said it is important that local residents and visitors agree on the decision contribute to energizing the district.

Last August, Chiyoda Ward set up a panel with about 30 members, including local residents, businesspeople and police, to discuss how to brighten Akihabara’s image again.

A ward PR official said the panel has been discussing whether to reinstate the pedestrian strip but has yet to reach a conclusion.

The spokesman said the panel has decided to start doing what can be done, such as having regular patrols and installing surveillance cameras.