Government plans to cut down 300 ginkgo and platanus trees lining the streets of Tokyo ahead of the 2020 Olympics have sparked an online opposition campaign seeking to prevent their removal.
Chiyoda no Gairoju wo Mamoru Kai (The Group to Protect Streetside Trees in Chiyoda), a citizens group with connections to Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward, launched a petition on Change.org two weeks ago.
The petition has so far garnered more than 38,000 signatures, with many complaining the trees should not be removed for a mere two-week sporting event. They say the trees — a number of which are more than 80 years old — offer a much-needed respite from Tokyo’s concrete jungle.
A total of 300 trees are scheduled to be felled on three major roads in Chiyoda Ward, long known as the nation’s cradle of higher education and literary culture.
On Hakusan Street, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government plans to bury electric cables underground on a 700-meter stretch from the Jimbocho intersection to JR Suidobashi Station. The project involves cutting down 50 of the 130 ginkgo trees there.
Tokyo Metropolitan Government official Hiroshi Okamura said the city has done its best to minimize the number of trees to be removed, but needs to go ahead with the plan as burying power cables underground is essential to ensuring the road is safe in the event of a major disaster.
Okamura acknowledged that the upcoming Olympics has affected the timing of the plan to bury the cables, but noted that the removal of the trees had already begun in mid-August. About 20 have already been cut down along the 700-meter stretch, with the remaining 30 to be removed by December, he said.
The Chiyoda Ward government, meanwhile, also plans to widen sidewalks to make more room for cyclists and pedestrians.
To that end, 185 ginkgo, platanus and keyaki (Japanese zelkova) trees that dot the sidewalks over a 1.4-km route along Kanda Keisatsu Street, covering the Kanda and Hitotsubashi areas, are scheduled to be removed.
In addition, 71 more platanus trees on a 500-meter stretch of Meidai Street, connecting Ochanomizu and Jimbocho, will also need to go, ward official Keisuke Minegishi said.
He explained that the move to widen the sidewalks along Kanda Keisatsu Street was originally proposed by area residents and decided upon after consultation with other locals, including merchants.
After the existing trees are felled, trees that bloom are slated to be planted along the roads, he said. He added, however, that removing the trees was part of redevelopment projects tied to the Tokyo Olympics.
The ward started trimming branches in July on Kanda Keisatsu Street, but has suspended the work after it faced opposition from local residents. A petition to halt the move has been submitted to the ward’s assembly.
“The plan is on hold, as we are still examining the petition,” Minegishi said.
Michiko Ai, a university lecturer who is also a graduate of Kyoritsu Women’s University in Chiyoda Ward, started the campaign to save the trees.
One night in July, Ai noticed that contractors were about to cut down trees that were lining the front of her alma mater, prompting her to plead with them to stop.
Ai, whose campaign is supported by environmentalists and others with local ties, is opposed to the plan for multiple reasons.
“For one, trees are alive, and they should not be treated like mere utility poles or road barriers,” she said.
The trees — many of which were planted soon after the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake — have long been an integral part of the local history and landscape, she said.
The area is known as the birthplace of Japanese academia, having spawned the predecessors of premier institutions such as the University of Tokyo, Hitotsubashi University and the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies.
The trees also play an environmentally important role by providing shade and keeping the areas cool, she said.
But perhaps more importantly, the project is problematic as few people are aware that it is taking place, Ai said.
“The day after I learned of the plan, I called up several Chiyoda Ward Assembly members,” she said. “None of them knew such a plan had been underway.”
The reactions of locals approached in the Jimbocho area Thursday were mixed.
A woman in her 50s, who said she works for a nearby company, said she had heard of the plan in the news but wished the ward government had given a better explanation on the importance of the project.
Another passer-by, a man in his 40s, said he walks by the area every day, but says the trees are not a priority for him.
“I didn’t know about it, and I don’t have strong thoughts on it,” he said, before hurrying off to cross the street.
The citizens’ group aims to collect around 50,000 signatures, and submit them to key policymakers, including Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly Chairman Shigeo Kawai and Chiyoda Mayor Masami Ishikawa.