Moves afoot to restore Nihonbashi Bridge district

by Yuzo Suwa

Kyodo

Citizens’ movements are underway to restore scenery around Tokyo’s Nihonbashi Bridge that was lost when an expressway was built over it 50 years ago in preparation for the Tokyo Olympics.

The beautiful Renaissance-style stone bridge with statues of lion and “kirin” mystical creatures came second to the national project of hosting the 1964 Summer Games.

But now that the country is set to host the Olympics again in 2020, the citizens’ movements are gaining momentum. Calls are also mounting not to repeat the same mistakes when the country constructs new facilities for the forthcoming Tokyo Games.

“We felt we had no other choice but to accept the authorities’ decision” to build an elevated section of the Metropolitan Expressway over the bridge, said Kei Hashimoto, recalling the time when the 1964 Tokyo Olympics was nearing. Hashimoto, 79, is the fourth-generation owner of the time-honored Japanese restaurant Nihonbashi Toyoda.

Hashimoto, head of citizens’ group Nihonbashi Renaissance, formed to revive the area as “chic town,” said public works took place across the country in disregard of scenery after the expressway was built over Nihonbashi Bridge, a symbol of the capital since the 17th century. The bridge is located in a central Tokyo business district.

After being rebuilt a number of times, the existing 49-meter-long, 27-meter-wide stone bridge was completed in 1911. It survived the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake and the 1945 Tokyo air raids, and was designated as a national cultural property in 1999.

Yasushi Aoyama, 70, a graduate school professor at Meiji University and a former vice governor of Tokyo, said that in the run-up to the 1964 Olympics, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government hastily constructed highways over rivers and canals to connect Haneda airport to main venues of the games as there was no time for negotiations with landowners.

The Olympic Games were the biggest opportunity for Japan to show off its postwar reconstruction to the world and many facilities built at the time are still in use, such as the Tokyo-Kyoto bullet train line and the Yoyogi National Gymnasium. But the capital lost its riverside scenery due to the building rush.

“We’d like to regain the scenery of the bridge without the expressway,” said Nobuo Yoshida, president of Ibasen Co., a producer and retailer of paper fans operating in the Nihonbashi area for more than 400 years.

Before the construction of the expressway, people went boating from restaurants on the banks of the Nihonbashi River or goods were carried on the river, Hashimoto recalled. But the Tokyo Olympics paved the way for the creation of an expressway network running over rivers.

As the aged expressways fell into disrepair, a group of people, including members of Nihonbashi Renaissance, called for removing expressways over rivers in 2008. In 2006, a government-appointed council of experts proposed moving the elevated expressway under the Nihonbashi River. Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe, 65, voiced support for the proposal this May.

The proposal would cost ¥300 billion to ¥400 billion more than an estimate by Metropolitan Expressway Co. to rebuild the aged expressway in its current form.