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Sunday, Feb. 5, 2006

MEDIA MIX

When building bridges becomes a fruitless endeavor


Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi prides himself on his plain-spoken approach to politics. His popularity guarantees that people listen to everything he says, and because what he says tends to be simple it has the power of a pronouncement, regardless of whether or not it makes any sense.

Last October, Koizumi had dinner at the Imperial Hotel with Shigeru Ito, a professor of city planning at Waseda University. Ito told the prime minister that the section of the Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway over Nihonbashi represented one of the great "flawed legacies" of the city.

Koizumi was moved and right there over his entree declared that he would endeavor to open the sky above the famous Nihonbashi bridge. He has since charged a panel of business leaders and academics to come up with a feasibility plan before he leaves office in September. He said that if the expressway can be removed and the "prosperous atmosphere of Edo restored," then the project can stand as a model for urban planning that stresses open-sky views.

According to the Yomiuri Shimbun, with "one voice" the prime minister elevated the notion of removing the expressway to an issue that merits government attention.

For years, it has been the dream of a group of Nihonbashi merchants to have the expressway removed, but given the amount of money, time and trouble such an undertaking would require, it didn't seem plausible.

There is much to be said for the idea. Historically and culturally, the Nihonbashi bridge and the river that passes under it are significant geographical artifacts. The river was the center of commercial activity in old Edo, and the bridge was the starting point for all five of the great thoroughfares that connected the capital to the rest of Japan.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Expressway was hastily constructed for the 1964 Olympics, and since there was no time to negotiate with land owners the highways were built over existing roads and rivers, including Nihonbashi, which was designated a cultural asset in 1999, despite the fact that the bridge is darkened by the highway above it and the river below it is dead.

The recently privatized Metropolitan Expressway Company is cool to the proposal. Estimates for the project range from 300 yen to 650 billion yen, and since the company is deep in the red the government would have to pay for it. That's just fine with the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport. In recent years public works projects have been reduced, so the ministry will take any job in order to justify its existence.

The media has been quick to make comparisons with a similar project in South Korea. A Mainichi Shimbun reporter cornered Lee Myung Bak, the mayor of Seoul, at the Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and asked him what he thought of Koizumi's scheme. Lee staked his 2002 election campaign on recovering the city's rivers, which had been paved over for 30 years. The project was completed last October, the first time in the world that a city reclaimed buried waterways. Lee predicted that Koizumi's plan would lead to "improvement of life" in Tokyo.

But the two projects differ significantly. Seoul's purposes in uncovering its rivers stem from its attempts to limit automobile traffic and make the city more sustainable. Koizumi's idea is just to create a pleasant view in one spot. In order for the project to become a "model" for future development, related laws would have to be strengthened and enforced.

Only a block away from Nihonbashi is the new Mitsui Tower, which rises 195 meters into the air. The building would violate height codes if Mitsui hadn't qualified for an "exclusion" by not demolishing an older, historically important building next door. So much for open-sky views.

The current Toyoko Inn scandal is the product of lax construction rules. According to a law passed in 1994, public buildings that include facilities for disabled persons can receive tax breaks and have capacity rules waived; meaning developers can build larger buildings if they include facilities for the disabled. Toyoko built such facilities to qualify for the tax breaks and capacity exclusions, and then replaced them with more profitable features once the inspectors had left.

This sort of cynicism is the rule. For years there has been a seesaw battle between residents of Kunitachi City in Tokyo and a developer that built a condominium the residents said violated local height codes. The first judge agreed with the residents. Then the appeals judge sided with the developer. Now the developer is counter-suing the city for all the trouble it has put the company through. Kyoto residents have been battling developers for decades to preserve their world famous cityscape and have continually lost.

Koizumi's brainstorm is an expensive one-shot deal. It means nothing without legislation that sets clear limits. As a taxi driver said in a letter to the Asahi Shimbun, they should keep Nihonbashi as it is so as to remind everyone of how the public and private sectors think only of short-term economic benefits.

In that regard, no one has expressed himself more cynically than Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, who dismissed the Koizumi plan as a waste of money. If people are so obsessed with Nihonbashi, he said, they should just move the bridge to another river. The money saved could be used for more important things, like the governor's own current pet project, which is bringing the Olympics to Tokyo again. Of course, that's how the Nihonbashi expressway got built in the first place, but who cares about the past? Or the future, for that matter.



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