|

Battle over Shibuya park heats up as Tokyo Olympics loom

by Michael Penn

SPECIAL TO THE JAPAN TIMES

Just a short walk under the tracks from Shibuya Station’s iconic scramble crossing is the long and narrow Miyashita Park, which runs alongside the Yamanote loop line. In recent years the Shibuya Ward government has grown increasingly determined to redevelop this space, which in turn has sparked criticism from advocates for the homeless and others wary of the direction the ward’s plans have taken.

The site, one of the few public green spots in Shibuya Ward’s business district, has a history stretching back to 1930, but it was developed into its current form — a ground-level parking garage with an “airborne park” on top — in 1964, the year of the first Tokyo Olympics.

There is a distinct sports theme running through today’s Miyashita Park, with its futsal field, climbing wall and skate park, all of which are available for rental. At the same time, the park is undeniably rather shabby in some respects, too. There are large patches of brown dirt where green grass should be, and in many corners of the park you will find down-on-their-luck homeless people sleeping or milling about quietly.

The local authorities would like to see Miyashita Park get a new, gleaming face-lift in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. While many would welcome a renovation of this run-down urban park, two key points of contention have dogged the ward’s redevelopment plans: the local government’s intensifying efforts to run the homeless off the park grounds, and the involvement of major corporate sponsors.

According to Nojiren, a volunteer homeless-support group that runs a soup kitchen, goes on patrols in the area and tries to provide for their medical needs, most of the homeless in Shibuya Ward gather in public parks — and Miyashita Park is their most important hub. Since Nojiren began its operations in 1998, the group says it has seen a decline in the number of homeless living in the park from around 100 people to perhaps a couple of dozen today.

Some members of Nojiren, such as Naomi Hiroyama, say the ward government has effectively abandoned the homeless.

“The homeless get a small amount of money per month, but a lot of them have drinking or gambling problems, so they spend it all,” she says. “Instead of money, these people need help, but the government doesn’t provide it. The government does nothing to help these people. During the Christmas break they hand out candy to the homeless, but what good is that?”

Yuki Takahashi, the manager of Shibuya Ward’s welfare section, challenges this view. She says there is a robust program in place to help the homeless get back on their feet and return to normal lives, but for the most part the remaining homeless themselves reject this kind of help. She admits the program hasn’t been “100 percent effective.”

The struggle over Miyashita Park began in 2008 when local politicians, encouraged by local businesses and residents, made a deal with Nike Japan under which the company would build the new rentable sports facilities mentioned earlier in exchange for naming rights that would have rebranded the site as “Nike Miyashita Park.”

Fearing the negative public reaction to a partnership that was unprecedented in Japan, however, Nike and the local government decided to take things slowly and hold off on the name change.

About a year later, in August 2009, ward officials began their efforts to drive the homeless out of the park, but fierce opposition from local activists largely stymied these efforts. In April 2011 the activists launched a lawsuit against the Shibuya government claiming that the homeless were being treated too harshly and that the decision to hand naming rights to Nike had been carried out improperly. At the end of last year, ward officials began to lock the park at night, thus depriving the homeless of the living space they had become accustomed to.

Last month saw two major developments in the story. First, the ward signed a new agreement with Mitsui Fudosan Co., a major real estate developer, to reinvent Miyashita Park in time for the Olympics.

Naruhiro Yoshitake, the manager of Shibuya Ward’s Parks Division, explained to The Japan Times that the new Miyashita Park is envisioned as having five stories, as opposed to the current two. The basement and ground level would be used for car parking, the second floor would be for shops, and the third would house cafes and shops with sports themes. As is the case now, the park itself — including a new and improved futsal field, an athletics track and other facilities — would be spread across the top level of the structure.

At the northern end of the park, the plans call for the construction of a 17-story hotel. If approved, Mitsui Fudosan’s lease would run for 30 years and would involve annual rent payments to the ward government of approximately ¥600 million.

However, one major snag in the development plan is that it is appears to be illegal under the existing City Planning Law, which stipulates that buildings inside public parks must not have basements and should be no taller than two stories. So far, Shibuya Ward has failed to clarify how it intends to overcome this legal obstacle, and the ward assembly has so far refused to endorse the plan largely for that reason.

Also in March, the activists who sued Shibuya Ward won their case at the Tokyo District Court. The judgment found that official actions against the homeless had been too heavy-handed and that the bidding process for naming rights had been insufficiently transparent and open.

Outside the courthouse on March 13, the activists celebrated their legal victory.

“The issue is about what ‘public’ means,” Misako Ichimura, an artist and long-time opponent of the redevelopment plans, explained to The Japan Times. “In a park that is supposed to be for the public, private enterprises shouldn’t be given priority in designing the layout and creating facilities that the people must pay for in order to use.”

One of her activist colleagues, Munenori Yamakawa, criticized the local authorities for overreaching themselves and disregarding the views of the public.

“The Shibuya bureaucrats need to recognize these issues as human beings and to work together with the ordinary citizens,” he said.

Meanwhile, Shibuya Mayor Toshitake Kuwahara made plain his annoyance with the situation at a recent press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, pointing out that local officials make frequent street tours and directly offer the street people help in rebuilding their lives, not to mention with medical care. In spite of this, he said, echoing the view of city welfare official Takahashi, there are usually no takers.

The mayor went on to suggest that the issue isn’t really about homelessness at all but rather “a political movement.”

“There’s nothing that Shibuya Ward need do for them,” he said, referring to the remaining homeless in the park.

The mayor said the ward would appeal the Tokyo District Court’s judgment.

Members of the local foreign community expressed mixed views about the struggle over Miyashita Park.

Briton Rich Keywood, 33, was skeptical about Nike’s involvement in the project and said he basically supports the right of the homeless to use the park freely. He also wondered whether the redevelopment would lead to higher prices for services in the area.

On the other hand, Olafur Benediktsson, 65, who hails from Iceland, said he was unimpressed by Miyashita Park in its current state and that it “needs some work.” He believes it is acceptable to move the homeless to another location, and the idea of Nike having naming rights doesn’t faze him.

“Isn’t everything sponsored these days?” he said.

Considering the legal hurdles that remain to be overcome, and with opinion among residents divided, the ward’s goal of developing the park in time for 2020 is looking increasingly ambitious.

Michael Penn is the president of the Shingetsu News Agency and Jasper Tolsma is a contributing writer for the news service. Your comments and story ideas: community@japantimes.co.jp