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Saturday, March 7, 2009
Cultural monument or replaceable relic?
Debate is heating up between Japan Post Holdings and the internal affairs ministry over whether to raze or preserve a landmark building in front of JR Tokyo Station.
The building is the five-story Tokyo Central Post Office, a 78-year-old structure Japan Post wants to transform into a 38-story skyscraper wrapped in the mail building's preserved facade.
Internal affairs minister Kunio Hatoyama thinks the building has too much cultural value to be destroyed. But what is its real worth, and will canceling the demolition affect the privatization of Japan Post?
Following are basic questions and answers on the issue:
Why rebuild the post office?
Japan Post Holdings wants to replace the post office with a state-of-the-art building that will include office space it can rent out. The post office is now dwarfed by the Marunouchi Building, New Marunouchi Building and other structures in the district, which commands some of the highest land prices in Japan.
Japan Post Holdings spokeswoman Kaoru Wada said the new building, scheduled for completion in 2011, is expected to generate ¥25 billion in rent and ¥10 billion in profit a year.
Japan Post Holdings plans to use the money to maintain unprofitable post offices in rural areas, she said.
The substandard quake resistance of the current structure is another reason behind the ¥91.98 billion revamp, she said.
In December, the company began removing asbestos from the post office and strengthening the parts it plans to keep in place. But it has not yet decided when it will begin full-scale reconstruction.
When Hatoyama saw the building in its initial reconstruction phase, he said it was being "destroyed" and called for immediate suspension of the work.
In response, Japan Post Holdings decided Friday to suspend demolition work. Japan Post said it would limit any work on the building to maintenance for now to ensure it won't collapse.
Why is Hatoyama opposed?
He believes the Tokyo Central Post Office has important cultural value.
According to the Cultural Affairs Agency, the pre-World War II structure is a rare example of modernist construction methods in vogue at the time in central Tokyo.
Kenji Kamitani, an official at the Cultural Affairs Agency, said the post office can be categorized as a Tangible Cultural Property under the Cultural Properties Protection Law. This would oblige public and private entities to maintain the building.
A Tangible Cultural Property is defined as one that has historical and artistic value, and recognition does not require owner approval, Kamitani said.
He also said the agency has asked Japan Post Holdings to be thoughtful about preserving cultural properties, but that request does not carry legal weight.
Hatoyama is in charge of postal privatization. Doesn't he have the power to stop the project?
No. Hatoyama has to have other Cabinet allies in order to halt the dismantling process.
As posts minister, Hatoyama is in charge of overseeing the privatization of the postal services. It is the education ministry that handles the preservation of properties with cultural value. And Japan Post Holdings is owned 100 percent by the Finance Ministry.
Hatoyama said Tuesday that he, Chief Cabinet Secretary Takeo Kawamura and Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Minister Ryu Shionoya want the Tokyo Central Post Office listed as an Important Tangible Cultural Property, a category that would prevent it from being rebuilt without government permission.
But Kawamura and Shionoya later corrected Hatoyama.
The trio have only agreed the post office is probably worth Important Tangible Cultural Property designation and will try to come up with a way to preserve it, Cultural Agency official Kamitani said.
But to get the post office that designation will require the agreement of Japan Post, which has so far refused.
Also, those who favor postal privatization are expected to welcome the plan because the whole idea of privatization is to reorganize national postal operations to enhance efficiency.
The holding company has four companies, engaged in the postal services, insurance, banking and postal operations businesses. It has to sell two of those businesses — banking and insurance — by September 2017.
The government has to reduce its stake in the holding company to less than a third "as soon as possible," according to the Japan Post Corporation Law.