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‘Like building skyscrapers in Central Park’: Tokyo redevelopment plan sparks protests

By Emiko Jozuka, Francesca Annio, Saki Toi and Daniel Campisi, CNN

Tokyo, Japan (CNN) — Tokyo resident Hiroshi Ono was shocked when he heard about plans to redevelop Meiji Jingu Gaien, the famous Meiji Shrine’s “outer garden,” which serves as one of the Japanese capital’s most beloved parks.

“The Jingu Gaien is ours — and our kids’ — cultural inheritance,” he told CNN last month at a rally organized to oppose the project. “Pushing through a redevelopment plan without properly consulting citizens is unfair. It felt like the decision was made behind closed doors.”

Located in the heart of Tokyo, the landscaped district lies just east of the Meiji Shrine, one of the Shinto religion’s most important sites. Completed in 1926, it was built exclusively with public donations and volunteer labor to commemorate Emperor Meiji, great-grandfather of the current Emperor Naruhito. It is also home to the Chichibunomiya Rugby Stadium, the sport’s spiritual home in Japan, and a baseball stadium where Babe Ruth famously played in 1934.

Its centerpiece, however, is the Ginkgo Avenue, a promenade lined with ginkgo trees, many over a century old, which campaigners argue are now at risk.

In February, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government approved a 349-billion-yen ($2.3 billion) plan to redevelop a 28.4-hectare portion of the site. The project, which will take over a decade to complete, will see the aging rugby and baseball stadiums razed and rebuilt. A new hotel by the latter stadium will stand next to a pair of almost 200-meter-tall (650-foot) skyscrapers containing office space and upmarket serviced apartments, as well as another 80-meter (260-foot) tower.

Work officially commenced in March, and developers have since pledged to protect the iconic row of ginkgo trees and “preserve and improve” greenery around the proposed sports hub. But the plan has sparked public anger, demonstrations and even lawsuits from outraged Tokyo residents. Since last February, over 225,000 people have signed a petition calling for authorities to withdraw support for the project.

Last month the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), a UNESCO advisory body, issued a “heritage alert” for Jingu Gaien. Citing the potential destruction of approximately 3,000 trees and open park space, the organization warned of “irreversible destruction of cultural heritage.”

Tokyo authorities called the ICOMOS alert “one-sided,” though it subsequently asked the project developers to present a “more detailed” plan before felling any trees. Last Friday the real estate firm Mitsui Fudosan, which is leading the project, issued a response saying it would elaborate on conservation efforts and that plans to plant new trees would ensure Jingu Gaien is “sustainable for the next 100 years.”

‘Peoples’s forest’

Straddling Tokyo’s downtown Shinjuku and Minato districts, the Jingu Gaien was designed as a “forest for the people,” according to ICOMOS Japan (while the Jingu Naien, or “inner garden,” contains a sacred “Eternal Forest”).

From its creation until the end of World War II, the outer garden was owned by Japan’s national government (and managed by the shrine). But after the country’s surrender, the American occupation controlled the site until Meiji Jingu’s religious leaders took responsibility on condition that it remain open to the public, explained Naoko Nishikawa, a campaigner and editor-in-chief of Kenchiku, a Japanese architecture journal. Nishikawa believes that the commercial nature of the redevelopment “breaks the promise” of keeping the Jingu Gaien as a public space.

But Shinji Isoya, a landscape architect and member of the Meiji Jingu board of trustees, argued that the project is essential for the shrine’s management to generate income — especially as Japan‘s post-war constitution stipulates that, as part of the separation of religion and state, the so-called “religious corporations” that own Shinto shrines cannot receive funds directly from the government.

Shinji says that, today, rental and lease income from the baseball stadium, the cafes along the Gingko Avenue and the Meiji Memorial Hall, an events venue, generate roughly 90% of the organization’s revenue. He added that private funding is essential, as closing the baseball stadium — even temporarily — for renovations will severely hamper shrine leaders’ ability to raise the funds needed to maintain operations and the Eternal Forest.

In an email to CNN, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government said the developers had stated their “commitment to protecting and conserving” Meiji Jingu’s inner and outer areas gardens, “while undertaking the necessary renovations and improvements” to make them “more accessible” for future generations. Mitsui Fudosan meanwhile said via email that it planned “to handle each tree with care,” and “preserve and transplant as many as possible.”

However, not everyone is convinced. During a recent press conference in Tokyo, lawmaker Hajime Funada, of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said that because the Meiji Jingu does not publicly disclose its finances, the corporation gives the impression it is “trying to preserve the inner garden by using the outer garden to earn money.”

Cultural asset or commercial hub?

The Meiji Jingu Stadium, which is still used as the home of professional baseball team the Yakult Swallows, is something of an icon among sports fans — and has even featured in several manga and anime series.

According to Kiyotatsu Yamamoto, an associate professor in landscape planning and tourism at the University of Tokyo, opposition to the redevelopment has been fueled by authorities’ “lack of clarity” over the park’s value as a cultural asset.

He pointed to recent controversy over the neighboring Japan National Stadium, which was built for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. Although heralded in some quarters for eschewing carbon-intensive concrete, the project was constructed using timber from around 1,500 felled trees and is estimated to have cost around 157 billion yen ($1.4 billion).

Rochelle Kopp, a Tokyo-based management consultant who organized the aforementioned petition, said that the public is “fed up” seeing trees “sacrificed” for large building projects. She also argued that city officials used the Olympic stadium as a “pretext” to remove building height restrictions that once applied to Jingu Gaien. This, she wrote in her petition plea, “paved the way” for the approval of skyscrapers on the proposed site.

ICOMOS director Mikiko Ishikawa likened the plan to “building skyscrapers in New York’s Central Park” and a stadium next to its avenue of American Elms. She fears that plans to build the new baseball stadium’s foundations at a depth of 40 meters (131 feet), just 6 meters (20 feet) away from one side of the Ginkgo Avenue, will interfere with the trees’ roots and block their access to sunlight and water.

“The national government, local authorities, developers and citizens should all sit down together at one table and think about what we should do to protect this important park,” said Ishikawa.

Blueprint for the future

Tokyo’s government has designated more than 30% of the city as “protected areas,” which include conservation zones and green spaces that help promote biodiversity. However, according to data published by the World Cities Culture Forum, parks and gardens occupy just 7.5% of Tokyo’s land, compared to 27% in New York and 33% in London.

Campaigners argue that more legal protections are needed to conserve scarce greenery in the Japanese capital.

Last week, Kopp filed another petition — this time calling for the city to renovate the two stadiums instead of razing and rebuilding them. Both she and ICOMOS director Ishikawa have urged authorities to designate the Gingko Avenue as a “place of scenic beauty” under Japan’s Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties.

The developers have previously promised to replant more trees than they fell, but architect and campaigner Nishikawa questioned the value of replacing decades-old trees with new saplings. (Studies have shown that large, old trees are disproportionately better at absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than younger ones.) She argued that, as the world confronts the climate crisis, Japan must place more value on urban conservation.

“It seems logical to redevelop an area if a factory there has shut down and can no longer be used, but Jingu Gaien has acquired cultural value over its 100-year history — so why does that (heritage) need to be tampered with?” she asked.

Nishikawa pointed to Kobe’s Koshien Stadium, which was built in 1924 and painstakingly renovated over the last 15 years, as an example of how historic structures can be updated rather than torn down.

Yamamoto, the national parks expert, said restoring (rather than razing and rebuilding) public facilities can shift how people perceive architecture in Japan. Greater emphasis on renovation, he added, could help challenge the practice of designing buildings with finite lifespans — an approach to construction known in Japan as “scrap and build.”

Campaigners, meanwhile, argue that a lack of public consultation on the park’s future has deepened mistrust in developers and authorities, fueling concern about other green spaces in Japan.

“(Developers) will never capture the hearts and minds of the public with this current plan,” Kopp told CNN. “They need to go back to the drawing board and use a much more democratic process to decide the future of Jingu Gaien.”

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