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Thursday, June 14, 2001

OUR PLANET EARTH

When a little profit exacts a high price


Public-works projects, such as the bungled reclamation of Isahaya Bay in Kyushu and Tokyo's ill-conceived Ken'odo ring road, exemplify the bureaucratic myopia that is razing Japan's natural heritage. But the destruction is not always on a grand scale, nor solely the handiwork of public servants. Private developers, too, are plowing over, filling in and building on natural treasures of all kinds.

Gama-ike pond in Moto Azabu, Tokyo

A good example is Bullfrog Pond, better known as Gama-ike, nestled in a quiet corner of Moto-Azabu in Tokyo's Minato Ward, about a kilometer south of Roppongi Crossing. Gama-ike covers only 660 sq. meters, but it is spring-fed (a rarity in Tokyo) and plays an important role in the Azabu Plateau water system.

The pond is usually hard to see, unless you visit one of the surrounding residences. These days, though, the water and Gama-ike's lush foliage are easily visible across a bare plot on the north side of the pond. The view is clear because Sunwood Corp., a subsidiary of Mori Building Corp., recently purchased the land and demolished an existing three-story apartment building to make way for a new six-story complex.

Neighborhood residents are alarmed by the size of the new Sunwood complex, but even more concerned that it will mean the end of Gama-ike, its plants, birds and other wildlife. Gama-ike is part of the Sunwood parcel, and the company plans to fill part of the pond to build the complex.

More than Gama-ike is at stake. Pilings needed to shore up the Sunwood complex could destroy not only the pond, but also the groundwater system of the entire Azabu Plateau, according to Norihiko Dan, a local architect. Dan points out that the same underground water vein that feeds Gama-ike also feeds Arisugawa Park, Miyamura Park, Juban Onsen and Shuraku-en Park, the last small fishing pond within the Yamanote Line. Dan heads the Committee for the Protection of the Azabu Plateau Water System.

The Azabu Plateau water vein is similar to a vein running through a living body, according to Dan. "If you cut this vein," he says, "it will damage the entire system."

The pond was not always so small. At one time, Gama-ike covered more than 10,000 sq. meters, but years of reclamation have taken their toll. Today, the pond is a shrunken version of its former self.

The name, too, has loftier origins. Gama-ike was once part of the estate of Yamazaki Chikara-no-suke, an elite samurai who served the shogun during the Edo Period. Legend tells of a huge bullfrog that lived in the pond and once used its wet, icy breath to stop a fire from razing the neighborhood. Gama-ike is listed as a cultural treasure of Minato Ward.

Today, frogs remain, but the guardian bullfrog is gone. Lacking divine frog breath, local residents have sought other means to defend their neighborhood, including meetings with Sunwood and local officials, petitions to local authorities and even a lawsuit for an injunction.

Hoping to defuse public ire, Sunwood representatives have vowed to protect the pond's environment. They have refused, however, to change their plans, and have insisted to local citizens and officials of Minato Ward that filling part of the pond is essential to ensure "cost performance."

Putting profit before public concerns has not ingratiated Sunwood with local residents and ward officials, nor has Sunwood's haste to get started. Last month, Minato Ward asked Sunwood not to apply for a building permit until concerned parties had discussed the project in more detail. Sunwood ignored the request, and submitted its plans to the Building Center of Japan.

BCJ is a nonprofit foundation created by the Construction Ministry, which has the authority to issue building permits. Since builders can get construction permission from either the ward or the BCJ, Sunwood was able to bypass ward evaluation. BCJ approved the Sunwood plans.

Most of the top posts at BCJ are filled by former Construction Ministry bureaucrats who have "descended from heaven" under Japan's controversial amakudari system, but the coziness extends even further: Sunwood is a subsidiary of Mori Building Corp., and BCJ is a Mori tenant. Sunwood's end run illustrates how the system favors developers, making it even tougher to protect what remains of Tokyo's natural heritage.

One local resident notes that the president of Mori Building, Minoru Mori, has vowed to bring Tokyo into the 21st century and turn Minato Ward into the "Manhattan of Tokyo." The resident pointed out a particularly conspicuous example of this vow, a 29-story structure going up on a hill over the leafy streets, homes and embassies around Gama-ike. In a nation where "night views" are sacred, the new building will block the view of Tokyo Tower from Arisugawa Park.

Dan and his group met with the mayor of Minato Ward, Keimi Harada, June 4, and submitted a petition calling for the preservation of Gama-ike. More than 10,000 people signed the petition, 360 of them from overseas.

Harada told the residents he would "take the lead in resolving the situation," and would examine alternatives of buying the pond or swapping the land for another plot in Minato Ward. As for all of Japan's cash-strapped municipalities, however, financing such a swap or purchase will be difficult. Residents have asked the mayor to give the pond heritage status and make it a park, and have offered to help pay maintenance costs.

If local residents are willing to shoulder some of the costs of preserving Gama-ike, Mori Building might consider lending a hand as well. As one local pointed out at a recent meeting with Sunwood, "Businesses that concern themselves with the community, environment and public trust usually do very well where the bottom line is concerned." For Mori Building, with its rising presence in Minato Ward, respect for the word on the street could have a lasting impact on its own bottom line.

Perhaps more to the point, New York City may have hundreds of gleaming steel towers, but the undisputed jewel of Manhattan is Central Park.

E-mail Stephen Hesse at steve hesse@hotmail.com In my last column, the Web site for the Association to Protect the Wildlife of Mount Takao should have read homepage2.nifty.com/takao-san/


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