Ever since troops who later created the Meiji government set up camp to attack Edo Castle in 1868, Ichigaya in Shinjuku has witnessed many of Japan’s critical moments.
In 1934, the Military Academy was built on the site after its predecessor was destroyed by the Great Kanto Earthquake, and became the general headquarters of the Imperial Army and the Army Ministry during the war.
After the war, the symbol of the nation’s militarism was used as the venue of the International War Tribunal for the Far East, where Japanese war criminals were tried by the Allied Powers.
The building, which has since housed the Ground Self-Defense Force eastern headquarters, is also the place where Yukio Mishima, prominent novelist and nationalist, performed harakiri in 1970 after failing in his attempt to talk GSDF troops into staging a coup d’etat.
The new occupant of the site will be the Defense Agency, which has spent 274 billion yen over seven years to build its new headquarters there. It plans to move 7,000 service members from the current headquarters in Roppongi during the Golden Week holidays.
The 23-hectare site has several buildings surrounding a 19-story central complex and is about three times larger than the Roppongi site housing the current headquarters.
Situated in the basement, the New Central Command System, the heart of the agency’s emergency operations, is ready to take over from Roppongi at 5 p.m. on April 28, according to Defense Agency councilor Tetsuya Nishikawa.
The relocation was initially scheduled to be completed in 1995, but preconstruction digging unearthed relics of the past, “cultural assets,” said Nobutoshi Miyazaki, chief of the agency’s facility division.
Since 1658, Ichigaya hill had been a premise of the Owari clan of what is now Aichi Prefecture, one of the three major families of the Tokugawa shogunate.
Palaces and residences of the lord and retainers, as well as gardens, used to occupy about 300,000 sq. meters.
When Shinjuku Ward’s Board of Education conducted preconstruction digging in 1990, the ruins of buildings as well as other ancient artifacts were discovered.
Unlike Kyoto and Nara, both known for their cultural heritage, agency officials said they did consider Ichigaya a potential archaeological site.
“We actually had no idea what had previously existed in Tokyo’s Shinjuku Ward,” Miyazaki said.
Owari clan buildings existed until about 130 years ago, and what is left of them is protected by law.
According to Tadashi Uchino of the Tokyo Metropolitan Archaeological Center, who was engaged in the study of the ruins from the outset, the arrangement and size as well as certain features of the structural ruins strongly suggest a feudal mind-set.
The complex also represented a swollen bureaucracy, which Uchino believes was a consequence of internal power struggles during the relatively stable Tokugawa shogunate.
Ceramic tableware and other household items from the Edo Period excavated from the ruins are kept in thousands of boxes in the center’s Otsuka office in Toshima Ward. “Few of them are financially valuable, though,” Uchino said.
Preservation of the former Imperial army building also became an issue of controversy. Although the building was initially slated to be destroyed, many voices from across the political spectrum called for its preservation.
Conservative lawmakers claimed that the building should be kept as a relic of what they considered an unfair trial by the victorious countries in the war.
Liberals maintained that it should be preserved so that future generations could learn about a dark period in history.
As a result of the clamor, the impressive facade of the building and the grand auditorium that was used for the Tokyo War Tribunals were rebuilt and will be open shortly to visitors.
Damage is clearly visible to a wooden door frame of the former office of the commanding general of the GSDF eastern headquarters.
“These are marks left by swords when Yukio Mishima and his men broke in,” Yasushi Inoue of the GSDF’s public relations explained. He corrected himself later: “No, actually he did not break in because he visited here after making an appointment.” He still damaged the door, invitation or no.
Meanwhile, the agency’s relocation, which is believed to be the largest project in recent history to move a central government institution, is likely to affect business in Ichigaya and Roppongi.
The impact may be considerable, especially for a number of restaurants and bars located around the agency in Roppongi. According to the agency’s officials, about 40 percent of some 7,000 workers at the present Roppongi complex eat out for lunch.
A female shopkeeper in her 60s said her business with the agency dated back to the prewar days, when an Imperial army infantry regiment was stationed there. The shop also supplied the Allied Forces during the Occupation.
Apart from the financial considerations, she is also worried about street safety as the presence of so many officers and guards gave her a feeling of security in one of Tokyo’s busiest entertainment spots.
Control of the agency’s Roppongi site has already been transferred to the Financial Ministry, and it is supposed to be sold off as soon as possible once the relocation is completed. But nearby shoppers fear full redevelopment of the site could turn out to be a lengthy process, requiring compliance with a city planning guideline to be set by the metropolitan government.