After 30 years, Kodomo-no-shiro (National Children’s Castle), the venerable children’s arts and sports complex in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, is set to shut its doors.
“I’m really sad it’s closing,” Hiroko Ogura from neighboring Setagaya Ward said last Friday as she and her 2-year-old daughter Hanaki took part in a music session at the state-run complex.
With a grieved look on her face, she said it would be their last visit to the giant facility, which occupies a 13-story building and a five-story annex. It closes for good on Sunday.
“I was surprised and shocked last summer when I heard it would close,” Ogura said, adding she liked the carefully planned programs that allowed children to actively take part.
“They enjoyed singing and dancing to the songs that the staff played live,” she said.
The music programs at the facility made use of melodies and instruments from all over the world, including countries in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean, she said.
Over the years, the complex has offered various art- and sports-related programs. It houses two well-known theaters, a video library and a molding studio, as well as a swimming pool and gym.
Although the facility has put on a wide variety of programs throughout the years with financial support from the central government, it said it has to close for two reasons.
In September 2012, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, which is in charge of the complex, announced it had decided to close it down, primarily because the buildings are too old. To keep the complex open, the ministry said it would have to undergo major renovations that would cost nearly ¥12 billion, an expense it said it could not afford.
The government also said that, since the quality and quantity of municipality-run play centers for children have improved, similar facilities that receive state funding have become less important.
Many parents disagreed with the decision and said the facility still has a big role to play.
“Kodomo-no-shiro does not look that old to me. I think there is far more demand for this facility for families with children than one can imagine,” said Ogura, adding there must still be ways “to use the facility rather than just to demolish it.”
Government officials have yet to announce what they will do with the site, which is in Aoyama, a prime commercial district.
Akiko Saji, also from Setagaya Ward, said she felt “absolutely deserted,” because she and her 3-year-old son Hiraku have visited the facility many times. Private children’s facilities are too expensive and less convenient, she added.
Admission to Kodomo-no-shiro is free for babies under 3, ¥400 for children 3 to 17, and ¥500 for adults.
She said she appreciates the availability of the indoor facility particularly during the winter, when she feels hesitant to take her kids to the park in cold weather.
“I’ve felt relieved whenever I visit Kodomo-no-shiro, because I can let my son play freely, without worrying about him running around and raising his voice, whereas I have to be careful when visiting other public spaces in town,” Saji said.
Kodomo-no-shiro opened in 1985 to commemorate the 1979 United Nation’s International Year of the Child. At the time, it was Japan’s first and only national-level recreation and education center for children and had the aim of supporting their well-being and development.
As of November 2014, at least 28 million people had visited the facility. It also has played a special role among regional play centers.
Kodomo-no-shiro is staffed with experts in music, art, and sports who plan special programs throughout the year, execute them, and teach and train staff at local children’s facilities throughout Japan.
Many people oppose the decision to close the facility, including actors, producers and people involved in running the two theaters housed in the complex. They say the government should not close such a rare national facility, given its track record in nurturing talent in countless children.
In 2012, a citizens’ group organized a petition opposing the facility’s closure and collected 60,000 signatures. The petition was submitted to the health ministry in May that year but failed to change the bureaucrats’ minds.
Momoko Yamamoto, a public relations official at the Foundation for Child Well-Being, which was commissioned by the government to run the facility upon its establishment, said that while the government should continue its policy of helping mothers get back to work by building more day care centers, it should also help stay-at-home moms who need a place to visit with their children during the day.
“It’s difficult for parents to find a place like that, especially in the middle of Tokyo,” she said, adding she had heard from parents that they felt at ease meeting and talking with other mothers and fathers at the facility.
“When mothers came to Kodomo-no-shiro, they could feel that child-rearing was fun — not burdensome,” she said, adding that many who visited the complex as children will miss it.
“Some of them have come back to become volunteer staff at the facility. They have grown up with Kodomo-no-shiro.”