Dispute centered around redevelopment of historic Tokyo park, iconic stadiums


TOKYO—About 1,500 trees were cut down to build the $1.4 billion National Stadium for the Tokyo Olympics.

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. In the interim, the Tokyo Games have been sullied by a string of bribery scandals and insider deals.

Building new sports facilities is again at the heart of a redevelopment plan for one of Tokyo’s most beloved green areas. And Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike is as the center, as she was in promoting the Olympics.

This time it’s a famous baseball stadium and an adjacent rugby ground in a historic park area known as Jingu Gaien. The stadiums are to be razed and rebuilt, making way for a pair of nearly 200-meter (650-foot) skyscrapers and a commercial makeover.

The project highlights the ties among the main actors: the governor, the realty developer Mitsui Fudosan, and Meiji Jingu, a religious organization that owns much of the land to be redeveloped.

Koike, as other governors have been, is a member of the Meiji Jingu board of trustees. Hiromichi Iwasa, the former chairman of Mitsui Fudosan, joined Meiji Jingu’s board of trustees after he took over the company in 2011. He remains a director of Mitsui Fudosan.

“The apparent conflict of interest between businesses and policymakers rarely ever raises eyebrows here,” Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Tokyo’s Sophia University, said in an email to The Associated Press.

The conflict is sparsely covered by Japan’s mainstream newspapers, and an email about it to Koike’s staff went unacknowledged.

Nakano termed as “very cozy” the relationship between Mitsui Fudosan, Meiji Jingu, and politicians like Koike and former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori.

Mori is the former head of the the Japan Rugby Football Union, and was president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee until he resigned after making sexist comments about women. Nakano and others suggest Mori was potentially a key conduit in the deal.

“The redevelopment of the park is obviously a public issue,” Nakano said. “At the same time, they (politicians) can claim that 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.”

The long-term project will take more than a decade to complete, but minor construction has begun. Longtime residents say the project is quietly being pushed through, and activists have filed a lawsuit to stop it.

Nakano also raised the issue of separation of state and religion. He said religious bodies were detached from the state after Japan’s defeat in World War II, but still have hidden “umbilical cords.”

The central question is who controls public space, and does the public have a say? And have alternative plans been considered? Intertwined are questions about preserving the two venerated stadiums, and the encroachment on a 66-hectare (163-acre) park area designed 100 years ago to honor the Meiji Emperor.

Opponents of the multi-billion dollar development — an assembly of sports fans, preservationists and environmentalists — say Koike has the authority to stop the project.

“We who love rugby do not want to be part of ‘sportswashing’ that destroys the environment under the guise of sports,” wrote Tsuyoshi Hirao, a former Japanese national team rugby player who teaches at Kobe Shinwa Women’s University.

Hirao heads one of several online petitions opposing the redevelopment, which have gathered more than 250,000 signatures. The musician and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto also opposed the project, outspoken about it until his death on March 28.

Hirao and others say the rugby and baseball stadiums could be renovated, and some question the need for more high-rise towers in Tokyo, particularly since the pandemic and changing work styles. The city has more than 50 high-rises that exceed 187 meters (614 feet).

The green focus is on more than 100, century-old gingko trees, 18 of which seem sure to be felled in the redevelopment. The city says they might be transplanted.

Scientists fear others could be damaged by the massive building project. There are also questions over how much CO2 the green area will absorb after the redevelopment, critical in a dense urban heat island like Tokyo.

“The redevelopment of the Jingu Gaien baseball stadium and the sacred Chichibu rugby stadium is being justified under the guise of making it more comfortable for spectators,” Hirao said in an email. “The redevelopment project is being carried out under the pretext of development of sport.”

The city’s Environmental Assessment Committee has raised questions about the development, and a cross-party panel of 27 members of the national parliament has looked into the deal.

The new rugby venue would be an indoor, multi-purpose facility also used for concerts and other sports, with artificial grass and reduced seating from 25,000 to 15,000.

“I don’t think a complex that occasionally hosts rugby matches can be called any longer a ‘sacred venue’ for rugby,” Hirao said. “As most people believe, I also think that former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s wishes are playing out.”

Image credits: AP

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