National

Citizens petition Tokyo to save trees amid Ueno Park face-lift

by Tomoko Otake

Staff Writer

As a planned face-lift for Tokyo’s Ueno Park goes forward in preparation for the 2020 Olympics, residents are asking that the government refrain from cutting down decades-old trees.

A group of citizens called Ueno Koen no Ki wo Mamoru Kai (Group for the protection of Ueno Park trees), submitted a petition to Gov. Yuriko Koike on Friday asking that the metropolitan government not cut down any more trees in the park.

The petition that was initially submitted bore the signatures of 1,217 people, which the group said had been collected in about 24 hours. As of Monday afternoon, more than 20,000 people had signed it on Change.org.

While passing by the park earlier this month, Miwako Sakai, a 70-year-old housewife who lives nearby, noticed a sign informing the public of the planned removal of the trees, and decided to start the petition.

“A sign was wrapped around a thick ginkgo tree, saying it would be cut down as part of park development on Dec. 19,” she said by phone Monday. “I saw another sign saying several others would be cut down in January.”

The trees, which are just a crosswalk away from JR Ueno Station’s Park Exit, had been scheduled to be felled as part of the park’s redevelopment project ahead of the Tokyo Olympics.

The plan has been put on hold in the face of opposition from citizens, official Kenichi Natsume said, adding that the metropolitan government is now “reconsidering” the project so the trees can be saved.

Natsume confirmed that some gingko and other trees in the park have already been removed.

The redevelopment project, which also involves the Taito Ward and East Japan Railway Co., calls for “reviving” the park as a cultural center and tourist attraction. Under the project, based on a 2008 report compiled by a panel of experts, the train station’s current Park Exit will be moved 50 meters to the north.

Also, a road with heavy traffic that runs between the park entrance and the station will be rerouted to eliminate a traffic signal, which now causes serious congestion during the cherry blossom-viewing season in spring.

Instead, a long walking trail will be created, leading visitors directly from the station into the park and extending all the way to Ueno Zoo in its center.

The trees marked for cutting were considered to be “blocking” the envisioned trail, Natsume said.

Sakai, however, says the tree-removal plan never had the support of the people who actually use the park.

“The tree-felling has been underway under the (2008) policy, which prominent cultural figures, intellectuals and experts participated in drafting and which everyone supposedly agreed on,” Sakai said. “But after that policy was created, the opinions of residents, park users or the public were never heard. Nobody knew about the plan to cut trees until just a week or so ago, when officials suddenly posted a sign saying these trees would be felled.”

The resistance from the citizenry follows a similar campaign against the removal of trees in Chiyoda Ward, where the fate of some 300 gingko and platanus and keyaki (Japanese zelkova)trees remains in limbo.

The metropolitan government had been planning to cut down 27 gingko trees by the end of this month, but a citizens’ petition submitted to the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly was passed Thursday, the last day of its December session, averting the worst case scenario at the last minute.

The 27 trees — all on Hakusan Street — were part of plans to remove some 300 trees in the ward in preparation for the 2020 Olympics.

According to the metropolitan government, the removal of the 27 trees is necessary in order to bury electric cables. The petition, which calls for a suspension of the project and a thorough public explanation, had the backing of 67 members of the 127 assembly, with everyone except the 60 members from the Liberal Democratic Party voting in favor.

Michiko Ai, who headed the petition drive, said that while the ultimate fate of the trees is still uncertain, it is remarkable that the petition survived the assembly’s vote, because it had earlier been voted down in the assembly’s environment and construction committee.

“I’m relieved, as we can have Christmas and New Year’s without having to hear the chain saw,” Ai said.

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