Built more than 70 years ago, it had only three rooms for private use that get little sunshine and was inhabited by mites and cockroaches. A previous occupant had been assassinated there.
Two half-broken television sets and dial telephones only. No computers. Requests for renovations would be turned down because there was no budget.
Few would be willing to rent a house like this. But that was the condition at the prime minister’s quarters in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, for decades.
“I was shocked when I entered the house for the first time. It was so unsanitary that our helper who cleaned up the house was bitten all over her body by mites,” said Kayoko Hosokawa, whose husband, Morihiro, occupied the residence between August 1993 and April 1994.
After shocking and displeasing many top government leaders and their wives, the new prime minister’s new residence is finally about to be completed. A two-day opening ceremony starts Monday.
The ceremony will be attended by former prime ministers, including Yasuhiro Nakasone, who first floated the idea of rebuilding the Prime Minister’s Official Residence and its living quarters annex in 1984.
A Cabinet decision was made in 1987 to rebuild the complex. But the project was delayed because the government cut back on spending due to its tight finances.
The Prime Minister’s Official Residence, despite its name, is in fact the office for the prime minister and aides. The old living quarters annex was connected to the office.
A brand-new office complex opened in 2002 adjacent to the old one. The old office building was moved 50 meters to the south and renovated as the prime minister’s living quarters. The old living quarters have been demolished.
The shell of the former office building and some of the old rooms that were used to welcome foreign guests have been retained due to their historic value. They stand witness to Japan’s modern political turbulence.
Many prime ministers since the 1960s had considered having the residence renovated. But because the bulk of them served for such brief periods, primarily due to the fierce postwar power struggles within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and feared facing criticism for wasting public money on their living space, the revamp was continually put off.
The bloody history of the old complex discouraged many prime ministers from living there, further delaying renovation.
On May 15, 1932, then Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai was shot to death in an attempted military coup while he was sleeping in the old residential quarters.
On Feb. 26, 1936, young military officers entered the residential quarters in another coup attempt and killed a brother-in-law of then Prime Minister Keisuke Okada, who narrowly escaped the attack. The brother-in-law, who was serving as Okada’s secretary, was reportedly mistaken for Okada because the pair resembled each other.
After the 1936 coup attempt, 20 successive prime ministers refused to live in the residential quarters until Eisaku Sato moved in in 1968 after being elected four years earlier. But he only chose to live there because leftwing students were staging antigovernment demonstrations near his private home in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo.
Of the 42 prime ministers who have served since the old residence was completed in 1929, only 18 lived there.
“The residential quarters had long been vacant. I think that’s one reason the condition of the house had deteriorated so quickly,” wrote Yasuko Hata in her book published in 1996. Her husband, Tsutomu, was briefly prime minister after Hosokawa resigned in 1994.
The relatively weak power wielded by a prime minister in the consensus-based, bureaucrat-controlled political world might have been another reason why the older residential quarters remained in such ill repair.
“My husband once told me there is no country as terrible as this, because there was no crisis management. There was not even a single computer at the residence,” said Kayoko Hosokawa, now chairman of nongovernmental organization Special Olympics Nippon.
She repeatedly asked those who managed the quarters to repair the half-broken old TV sets that her husband watched news programs on.
Officials turned down her request every time, citing budget constraints, she said.
“There was no room for our family to get together and relax,” she said.
After taking a look at the three rooms designated for private use by the prime minister’s family, her daughter refused to move in, she said.
Hata said in her book that the terrible living environment could cause a prime minister to fall ill.
“It’s as if you were ordered to get sick by being forced to work excessively hard, then unable to relax at home,” she wrote in her book.
One evening in April 2000, then Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi suffered a stroke at the residence and died the following month.
The government has refused to release details about the new residence until the opening ceremony.
The Cabinet Office has said the private space for the prime minister and family has been increased to 870 sq. meters from the 620 sq. meters available in the old quarters.
The new quarters are also equipped with state-of-the-art facilities, including the world’s first commercial fuel-cell units for household use, as well as solar energy and wind-power electricity generators.
The main hall, entrance hall, main guest room and main dining hall and smoking room of the former office building have been preserved as spaces to entertain guests.
An apparent bullet hole in a glass section of the main entrance wall from the 1936 coup attempt remains as a reminder.
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi currently lives in temporary quarters in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo. It has not been decided when he will move into the new residence. Officials say it will be after the Golden Week holidays at the earliest.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.