November 2023

Intervention by international preservation body buoys campaign to halt Jingu Gaien redevelopment

Artwork by Julio Shiiki

The movement to stop a project to redevelop the Meiji Jingu Gaien (Outer Garden) in Tokyo received a boost recently when the International Council for Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) issued a Heritage Alert urging authorities to think again. Soon after, 40 members of a cross-party group in the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly added their voice to opposition to the plan.

As discussed in the June issue of the Number 1 Shimbun, the redevelopment would include a transformation of the century-old Meiji Jingu Gaien area. The venerated Meiji Jingu Stadium, built in 1926, and the Chichibunomiya rugby stadium - the sport’s spiritual home - would be replaced with new stadia, along with high-rise buildings and a hotel that would form part of a business and shopping complex. Several hundred trees are slated to be felled, and the iconic avenue of ginkgo trees could suffer serious damage.

The Gaien area is part of Tokyo’s natural heritage, developed along with the larger Meiji Jingu Naien (Inner Garden) as a tribute to the Emperor Meiji, who led Japan’s effort to modernize and engage with the world in the mid-19th century after a long period of isolation. Although the land is owned by the Meiji Jingu religious corporation, the park itself was created thanks to the generosity and hard work of the citizens of Tokyo, who donated, and then planted, the trees. Known as a “people’s park,” it has a special place in the hearts of Tokyoites.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government approved the redevelopment without holding a referendum or even conducting a survey of public opinion. A petition signed by 240,000 people called for the project to be canceled. Opponents to the plan include the author Haruki Murakami and the Academy Award-winning composer Ryuichi Sakamoto who, shortly before his death this year, called on Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike not to “sacrifice previous trees, which our ancestors protect for a century, for economic profit”. The popular rock group Southern All-Stars recorded a hit song about the plan, singing of “an oasis of peace transformed into a concrete jungle”.

ICOMOS is a highly respected non-governmental organization that works for the conservation and protection of cultural heritage around the world. Based in Paris, it was founded in 1964 and offers advice to UNESCO on the preservation of World Heritage Sites.

Occasionally, ICOMOS issues Heritage Alerts to promote the conservation of sites in danger. The alerts are the organization’s strongest possible expression of concern. To date, they have delayed the destruction of Stockholm City Library, the Stadio Artemio Franchi, Florence, and the historic center of Colón in Panama. ICOMOS has also voiced opposition to the partial destruction of the historical Takanawa Chikutei maritime railway track embankment in Tokyo.

ICOMOS issued its Heritage Alert for Meiji Jingu on September 5, hoping to prevent the “destruction of … approximately 3,000 trees, the loss of open park space and the construction of skyscrapers in a world-renowned park, without consultation with citizens and stakeholders”.

More than 500 of those trees are estimated to be over 100 years old, and an additional 500 are estimated to be over 50.

Jingu Gaien, ICOMOS said in a statement, “has a unique structure unparalleled in the history of parks around the world. Jingu Gaien was designed to create a ‘forest for the people.’ The park forms the core of the Garden City Park System in Tokyo and is an outstanding example of a citizen-owned park, unparalleled in the history of urban parks worldwide”.

In mid-September, under pressure from the public, the metropolitan government asked the developers to submit a review of their tree preservation policy. At the end of that month, the real estate firm Mitsui Fudosan, which is part of the redevelopment project along with Ito-Chu, the Japan Sports Council and the Meiji Shrine, said plans to start cutting down trees would be postponed until at least early next year. Officials have indicated that they could reduce the number of trees due to be felled by altering the design of the new rugby stadium, which at present features a domed cover and artificial turf – hardly ideal conditions for a rugby match.

However, they also voiced hostility towards the ICOMOS Heritage Alert, accusing the body of having an “incomplete understanding” of the issues. This led some observers to believe that the delay is just an attempt to buy time until opposition dies down and people stop humming the Southern All-Stars ode to Meiji Jingu.

The group in the Tokyo metropolitan assembly - roughly one-third of the legislature – was launched in early October. It is led by Ikuko Tanoue, who accused the TMG of ignoring public sentiment. The group said they would meet developers in an attempt to persuade them to halt the project. In addition, two separate lawsuits to stop construction are making their way through the courts.

Meanwhile, Jingu Gaien’s future has attracted interest around the world. More than 300 articles on the subject have appeared in newspapers and other media, including Le Monde and the Guardian

But how this will play out is still anybody’s guess.

Robert Whiting is a best-selling author and journalist who has written several successful books on sport and contemporary Japanese culture, including You Gotta Have Wa (1989), The Meaning of Ichiro (2004) and Tokyo Junkie (2021).