The fight to preserve a renowned tree canopy and legendary sports facilities in one of Tokyo’s beloved urban forests is pitting cultural icons, activists, and regular citizens against corporate titans who are said to share “cozy relationships” with powerful politicians.
The trees would be lost just as Tokyo and surrounding areas find themselves getting hotter, faster and at risk of becoming urban heat islands in an era of rapid warming.
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The dispute centres around redevelopment plans for the Jingu Gaien District, a green oasis in the heart of Tokyo, opened to the public in 1926. The neighbourhood is resplendent today with many kinds of indigenous trees, including cherry, Japanese bay, and gingko, having been deliberately planned as an urban forest where Tokyoites could come for respite from their fast-paced city. The district is also home to the Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium, built in 1947, and the legendary Meiji Jingu Stadium—where American baseballers Babe Ruth and Joe Gehrig played in 1934—and which has acquired an almost mythic status over time.
But the crowning glories of the Jingu Gaien are its gingko trees, especially four rows that line a 300-metre avenue running through the district. Multitudes of Tokyoites and tourists gather there every autumn to witness the awe-inspiring sight of the trees, many of them over a century old, transformed to bright gold.
The Redevelopment of the Jingu Gaien District Project, partially greenlit in February by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike with a completion date of 2036, will see both stadiums razed, and new ones built in a different configuration. The plan also involves construction of two high rises, each roughly 190 metres tall—a height that would accommodate 50 to 60 stories in Japan—plus another smaller, 80-metre building.
Proponents of the project like the Tokyo Metropolitan Government (TMG) and developer Mitsui Fudosan say the redevelopment will replace aging sports facilities, solve the problem of access to greenery, and address “insufficient walking space for pedestrians, and a lack of continuous barrier-free passages.”
‘Tokyo Would Lose Its Soul’
The first stage of redevelopment began in March with the demolition of a smaller stadium north of the Meiji Jingu, despite vocal resistance from residents who regularly petitioned Koike to withdraw her consent and allow time for further review and public consultation. Some 69.5% of respondents in a poll conducted by the left-leaning newspaper Tokyo Shimbun last year said they were against the project, reported the Associated Press.
The move to build skyscrapers in Jingu Gaien is like building them “in the middle of Central Park,” said Mikiko Ishikawa, an emeritus professor of environmental design at the University of Tokyo who is now director of the Japan National Commission for the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), an advisory body to UNESCO on world heritage sites.
Ishikawa, who has become an important voice for the opposition, added that “Tokyo would lose its soul,” describing the area as “the showroom of the Japanese nation” when it was opened.
An eclectic mix of influential figures, ranging from renowned pop stars to esteemed politicians, have voiced their support for maintaining the district in its current state. “To build towers 190 metres and 185 metres tall in that area will ruin the atmosphere and scenery,” said Conservative lawmaker Hajime Funada, who is otherwise staunchly pro-development. “I think a lot of people will be sad about this, not just me.”
Days before he died of cancer in March, beloved electro-pop icon Ryuichi Sakamoto wrote an emotional plea to Koike, urging her to suspend the project.
“We should not sacrifice the precious trees of Jingu that our ancestors spent 100 years protecting and nurturing just for quick economic gain,” Sakamoto wrote.
The developer’s lack of transparency about exactly how many trees will be sacrificed to the project is compounding opposition to the project. Mitsui Fudosan says 793 will fall, but other estimates find that as many as 10,000 trees will ultimately be lost between now and 2036.
Tokyo’s government, TMG, took issue with Mitsui Fudosan’s lapse in communicating how it plans to preserve the treasured trees, writing a letter in April addressed to the group’s president and CEO, the chief priest of Meiji Jingu—the religious foundation that owns the land in question—and other stakeholders.
“With regards to the dissemination of relevant information, it has not gone any further than transmission via the project-related websites, thus falling short of gaining the understanding and empathy of Tokyo citizens in the project,” the letter states. “This is evidenced in the failure to sufficiently convey the efforts to preserve the rows of ginkgo trees and increasing the greenery there.”
It adds that the failure to win residents over is “the biggest problem of all.”
Lost Green Spaces, Endangered Gingko
In emails to The Energy Mix, an alliance of Tokyo-based climate activists called the Gaijin [foreigner] Squad called the communications failure on the fate of the trees a “numerical sleight-of-hand.” The Squad says tree mortality figures supplied by Mitsui Fudosan “are based on dubious reclassification of many of the trees as ‘likely to die on their own during the construction period’.” Moreover, the rough estimate of 1,000 originally cited by the developer referred only to trees “over three metres tall.”
“In a recent filing for construction permission for the portion of the project in Shinjuku Ward (the project straddles three wards), it was revealed that 3,000 trees will be sacrificed in that area alone when shorter trees are included,” wrote the activists, who include members of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps, 350.org, Amnesty International, and Extinction Rebellion.
There are also concerns that the gingko trees will find themselves sharing their root systems with the 40-metre-deep footings of the new baseball stadium.
At a news conference last August, Ishikawa invoked the disparate survival rates of gingko near the construction zone of Tokyo’s Shinjuki Gyoen Tunnel in the 1990s to advocate for a minimum 15-metre buffer between the gingko of Jingu Gaien and any kind of construction. In the current plan, a mere eight metres separates the gingko from the stadium wall.
Another concern is that the cherished gingko may not fare well in shadows cast by the new stadium and 190-metre skyscrapers, said local reporter and activist Jun Inukai, whose presentation on the project was shared [Google Doc] with The Mix by the Gaijin Squad. Even the short third building is much taller than the original 15 metres mandated for Jingu Gaien by the Metropolitan District Government’s “scenic district” regulation.
And the greenery in the district serves as much more than scenery. As things currently stand, Jingu Gaien runs 2°C cooler than the surrounding area, the Gaijin Squad said. This makes it vital in protecting Tokyo from becoming a “heat island” of higher temperature compared to outlying areas with less dense built environments. The redevelopment could cause a loss of trees that would worsen the heat impact on Tokyo, which is already getting hotter faster than other major urban centres, including New York City, said Takehiko Mikami, an emeritus professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University.
Tokyo has already lost 2% of its tree cover between 2000 and 2021, the equivalent of 566 kilotonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, according to Global Forest Watch. The city already stands fourth from last for its percentage of green space, beating only Istanbul, Bogota, and Taipei in a survey of 40 cities by the World Cities Culture Forum, Bloomberg reported.
Last August, the developers and TMG said the project would increase the “percentage of greenery” [pdf] in Jingu Gaien by 5%, a claim dismissed as “complete deception” by Rochelle Kopp, a longtime Tokyo resident whose Change.org petition on behalf of Jingu Gaien is closing in on 200,000 signatures.
“In the plan, lawns and low plantings are considered equal to trees that have lived for 100 years,” writes Kopp. “Although the simple square footage of greenery may be going up, the volume of greenery is going down.”
The developer has failed to explain how the redevelopment is “in the public interest and why it is necessary and economically viable for the citizens of Tokyo,” Kopp adds.
“All the sports facilities in the park that can be used by the general public, such as a softball field, golf driving range, futsal [indoor soccer] courts, and batting centre, are to be eliminated,” she writes. “It is not fair that the only sports facility to remain is an expensive membership-only tennis club.”
Last December, the Japan Times dug more deeply into the controversy, which it said was forcing Tokyo to define exactly what it means by “public park” in an age when such spaces are bankrolled by private entities.
The country’s inclination to involve private investors in public park development dates as far back as the early 1990s, but the door to corporate involvement swung wide open when the TMG “revised its parks and green spaces policy in 2011 to harness the power of the private sector to develop ‘unused areas’ in parks that had been established 50 or more years ago,” Japan Times explains.
“Under this kōen machizukuri (park town development) system, parks or green spaces can be abolished or changed based on proposals from the private sector.”
There have been multiple cases where private sector interests, including past cases where Mitsui Fudosan was involved, led to a loss of trees and other green space, replaced by concrete emblazoned with the developer’s brand, the news story states.
The rise of private finance initiatives (PFIs), or “deregulatory measures through which governments outsource the development or management of public facilities such as parks, ports, and airports to private sector entities,” helped to accelerate corporate buy-in to public spaces.
“PFIs can cost 40% more than using public money, and there was scant evidence that investment in more than 700 public-private projects had produced benefits,” found a 2018 survey of PFI use in the United Kingdom.
Nor is this the first time that plans for a sports arena have aroused dissent in Japan. “About 1,500 trees were cut down to build the $1.4-billion National Stadium for the Tokyo Olympics,” reported AP. “Almost two years after the Games ended, the graceful stadium sits largely unused, has no major tenant, and could cost taxpayers a reported $15 million annually in upkeep.”
Koike, Tokyo’s governor who signed off on the Jingu Gaien redevelopment, had also promoted the Olympic games, reports AP. She is a member of the Meiji Jingu board of trustees, as is Hiromichi Iwasa, the former chair of Mitsui Fudosan, who joined Meiji Jingu’s board of trustees after he took over the company in 2011. He remains as a director.
“The apparent conflict of interest between businesses and policy-makers rarely ever raises eyebrows here,” said Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Tokyo’s Sophia University.
Nakano termed as “very cozy” the relationship between Mitsui Fudosan, Meiji Jingu, and politicians like Koike and former prime minister Yoshiro Mori, who AP reported was suggested to be a “key conduit in the deal.”
‘Obviously a Public Issue’
“The redevelopment of the park is obviously a public issue,” Nakano said. Politicians can claim it is a private decision of a religious organization and the developers, but because Jingu Gaien is also a public park with sports facilities, “politicians can—and do—meddle in the decisions.”
Which “results in the cozy, probably collusive relationships among the insiders that are unaccountable to the public,” he added.
Allowing the project to stray further from the public interest is the fact that environmental assessments, which depend on reports prepared by the developer, are carried out only after a project has been given approval. Such an arrangement “assumes that the project will move forward regardless of the assessment’s findings,” the Gaijin Squad said.
So far, the objections seem to be falling on deaf ears. The Gaijin Squad said the ICOMOS commission’s 80-page analysis of Mitsui Fudosan’s environmental assessment found mistakes “as fundamental as whether a group of trees is evergreen or deciduous.” Yet the company pronounced the report free of both “error or falsehood,” adding that “the impact of redevelopment on the environment cannot be evaluated or predicted.”
The ongoing battle to stop the redevelopment goes “far beyond” the desire to save trees, Kopp says. “It’s really a question of democracy and public participation in decisions about the environment around them.”
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