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Renewal : A Tokyo Shopping Street in Transition (Part 2)

(This article continues the discussion of the Nakadori Shopping street, moving from its lively past to an uncertain future.)


Recently there have been many rumors about urban redevelopment in Nishiogi. Nishiogi has repeatedly been recognized as a good place to live and an area of lively independent small businesses. As in many cities, however, this very reputation for livability seems to be threatening a small-scale urban ecology suited for quirky independent businesses. Nishiogi’s most prominent community shopping is Nakadori, directly in front of the South Exit of the Station, with some buildings dating to the 1930s when it was built as a model modern shopping area. With significant demolition and rebuilding, and the noisy signage covering them, little can still be recognized of their once elegant facades. Because of their age, proximity to the station, and low-rise architecture, the Nakadori shopping arcade (and the Willow Alley Bar Street directly West of it) is most frequently mentioned as a target of urban renewal. We asked Mr. Kobayashi Masatoshi, the head of the Nakadori business association (shōtengai), about the prospects for redevelopment.


“Actually, I am the chairman of the redevelopment committee,” Kobayashi said. “The people in the neighborhood want it to naturally evolve in a way that retains its culture and individuality. If you just widen the roads and build a tall apartment building, it will end up being the same as anywhere else in Tokyo. In Nishiogi there always have been a lot of small yakitori places, and a lot of salarymen would stop off and have a quick drink at these places.”


Some residents of Nishi-Ogikubo don’t care much for the old low-rise areas around the station, he said, known mostly as drinking streets, but most want to keep them. “We have asked a company to do the planning. The people who live here want to be able to preserve it while also creating a new image for it. There will be some people who see this idea negatively. But in some way, we want to keep this individuality.”


“Most of the buildings here are only ten tsubo [33 square meters] in [ground] area. It is impossible to build a new building on that,” Kobayashi said. “The other problem is that even in the shopping street it hard to find Japanese people with a lot of experience. Everyone is now going to a high school that belongs to a university and then, through connections going straight into a job. Everything comes easily. But people have no life experiences.”


Kobayashi’s complaint seems to be that there really aren’t many people who are able to take leadership in the community, and he has been the head of the association for some years. That’s why I did a survey of the people in the community,” he said. “I took it to the [Suginami] District Office and said, ‘ This is how the people see this and this is what we want to do.’ And if you don’t do it this way, then you ought to at least appeal in this way to the people in the community. We created an organization, and gathered materials from people in the community, and took that to the government. For example, Ogikubo is like that but Nishiogi should be like this. The developers really don’t understand these things. We are the shopping district business association, and we represent the interests around the station. The area around the station is the most likely to be redeveloped. But we don’t just represent the interests of the business association, we are trying to think of the interests of this lively part of town. Because the people involved are also landlords they those most involved.”


Because he has been living in the business district since he was a child, Kobayashi’s conception of the community focuses on the business owners and landowners. This also is the group he has worked most closely with. “So we got together the people in the business association and created a plan. The and we asked people what they would want in a possible plan. Then we want to take this to the community in a broader framework. That was how I saw it. Then we can take this to the district government. We can take this plan to the district and tell the district counselors, ‘These are the ideas of the local people; somehow, please take this into consideration.’  I know all of the local counselors. But we still haven’t taken anything to them. Now I am trying to work on this with the people in the local shopping district. There might be some experts in there, architects, or experts in disaster prevention, artists, designers, booksellers, getting that kind of expert involved would be good, I think.”


We asked him if the current shopping street is simply not good enough as it is. “The buildings are all old,” he replied. “People can’t do anything efficiently with just the buildings they own. You can’t build a building on just ten tsubo of area. So if you take them together, four of five shops, then you get sixty tsubo of area. Then people can have their own space on the ground level, and the upper levels can be common property and rented out. People can share in the rental income. It will be a jointly owned building, jointly managed.”


Kobayashi took us on a walk down the arcade in Nakadori, showing us what might happen.  According to a long-standing city plan, the main North-South Ginza Street should be widened. This would affect all the buildings on the East side of the arcade, he explained. “If the street is widened then one-third of the area of the buildings on this side of the street will have to go,” he said, pointing to the structures on the Eastern side of the arcade, those that abut onto the busy Ginza Street. The government wants to broaden this street all the way from Ōmekaido [or Ōme Highway]. There are many people who are opposed. The shopping street would disappear. If you only have ten tsubo of area and three are taken away for the street, the rest will be unusable.  That’s why we have decided to take this as a plan to the district government, to create a jointly owned building here. I can get a large developer to create a building.”

It’s not easy to get the district government officials to focus on these long-term issues, Kobayashi said. “The private business people have been here forty of fifty years,” he said. “The people in the district office, don’t stay their forty of fifty years. They change their territory every two or three years. So, their attitude is, ‘I am only going to focus on the work in front of me.’”


The problem is not only with government officials. Kobayashi also believes that the changing population structure of the neighborhood has reduced concern for local community developments. “It doesn’t matter where you are talking about,” he said. “About half the people are just renting. They are not going to become property owners. They are living here because it is a convenient commute to work. If the workplace changes, they will move on. In Nishiogi at least forty percent of the residents are renters. These people don’t have the consciousness of becoming a member of the local community. So they will think, ‘I don’t know if I am going to be living here in the future, so I don’t know if I am for this or against it. They don’t have property here, send their children to school here, or feel they need to protect this community.”


Rising land prices and rents also are affecting considerations about redevelopment.

“It’s now 60,000 or 70,000 yen for a tsubo (3.3 square meters),” Kobayashi said. “It's amazing that it's 60,000 a tsubo. If you rent ten tsubo (33 square meters), it's 600,000. My shop space is eight tsubo, but I can rent it out for 500,000 yen. It's directly in front of the station, just twenty seconds It's rising little by little compared to ten years ago, but now I can't go any higher."


The rising land prices and the popularity of the neighborhood have also attracted interest from real estate speculators. We also interviewed Mr. Tada Hiroaki whose family has owned the well-known Jeans Shop Aukland since the immediate postwar period.  “There is talk of redevelopment,” He said. “And there are people who are trying to buy up the land.”


Tada described how a land speculator had purchased the land starting on Shinmei Road all the way up to halfway inside his own shop. The speculator had recently purchased the land from a cleaning shop on the corner, demolishing the building that had been there since before the war. The situation for Tada is complicated, he explained, because he only owns half the land under his Jean’s shop. The other half of the land under the shop was rented in his father’s time. After this land was purchased by this speculator, he was never informed and continued paying rent to the previous owner. The new investor then stepped out and lodged a case against him. He counter-sued. The flower shop next door was in the same situation and also sued. Both of them won, but the court costs were extraordinary. “This is a kind of pressure from a land speculator,” Tada said. “It’s really dangerous. They are trying to buy this up. I own this part of the store outright, but not this part. But this building is connected here. I only own half. Actually, I only own about forty percent of the land, but I am hoping that he will give me about then percent, then I will rebuild my shop.”

The rest of the people on the street are renting, he said. If someone pays them to leave, most will leave. “The goal is to clear out the land and sell it to some big developer, like Mitsubishi. This is what the real-estate speculators do. They buy low and sell high.”


Tada said that real estate speculators had targeted this area before. In another episode that started around 2011, a speculator had tried to buy the corner store. In doing so, he forged all the “stamps” [hanko] of the shops in the neighborhood in an application to shut off the entire arcade and drive the other businesses out. The head of the business association at the time was the owner of the gyoza shop, Tada said, and a very capable man. He was able to hire a lawyer who specialized in these cases and spot this forgery. The business association paid 500,000 in lawyer’s fees at the time. The speculator wanted to buy up the whole area on both sides of the arcade and including the street behind. It would have been a very large scale development. However, because of the solidarity of the neighborhood association, that attempt by a crooked land speculator to buy up the street ended in failure.


In the current case, the speculator was able to purchase the corner land from the aging landlord, including the parcel under sixty percent of the Auckland Store. This time, however, the neighborhood business association regarded this was a private case. There is no financial backing for his case, and Tada is managing it alone. He is also having to pay for all the costs of the lawyer alone. He also had to pay the back rent on the property. Although not complaining about the stance of the business association, Tada feels a bit isolated. “The goal [of the speculator] is to break up the group, to scare you with lawsuits, and just make you give up.” In the end, Tada won his suit, but he found himself shouldering all of his legal fees. If it keeps up like this he said, anyone, would give up.


Although there has been a plan to widen the street for many years, the land speculators are seeing an opportunity now to make a move on the neighborhood.  Tada doesn’t believe the redevelopment plan can really be eliminated, but it can be delayed, as has a similar plan in Koenji for some time. He doesn’t have much confidence that the efforts of Mr. Kobayashi will produce many results.

Tada san feels he was targeted because he is in the middle of the arcade. His grandmother used to own that piece of land, but she “lost the rights to it,” after she died. This speculator was able to purchase it from the owner, and also purchase the land from the cleaner. “Even if you think of building a two-story building there, this owner will not do it. It will remain an empty lot. Even when he purchased the land here [ under Tada’s shop] he didn’t want to make a contract. They don’t want to make a contract as a new landlord. If they do that you have rights, and they won’t be able to get you out.”


The goal of the speculator is to wear people down, Tada explained, with a tone of tired exasperation. “You have the court costs and the retainer for lawyer….. This is how they harass you, mentally and financially. Every day, I have to go to the lawyer’s office and discuss. It is incredibly detailed work. We have been here since my father’s time. Back then we turned this into one building [a building covering both the borrowed and the owned parts of the property]. So we have had residency rights here for seventy years. It didn’t just start renting this land yesterday. We have been doing business here….They did the same thing to the Cleaners [on the corner]. They paid a lot to get him out and then arranged in exchange for a house [nearby]. Those were the terms of the exchange. For the sake of that corner property, they were willing to pay more. [The goal is to buy all of it] and then sell it to a big company.”


Tada’s complicated property rights made him a target of the real-estate speculator, he said. “The speculator wants to buy cheap. It does seem like the district is thinking of buying up land and widening the road. But why did he only want to buy this piece? This is all private property. There are also renters. My land is also half rented. This made it complicated. In the same shop, one part is on rented land, and part is on land I own. That is why [the speculators] went after me. The person who owns it was an old landlord here named Yokoyama. He used to run a bathhouse here. He had moved here from Kochi Prefecture before the war. This used to be called Yokoyama Street. He didn’t have any children, so this all passed on to his niece. That old lady also had passed away. “  In short, the speculator bought the land from this old woman before she passed away.


While Tada was fighting for the right to keep using his property upon which half his shop is built, he also recognizes that the larger environment of the shopping street is changing. The postwar pattern of family-owned and operated businesses has nearly completely vanished. Only three shops in the entire shopping street of more than thirty shops are still operated by the owners of the buildings. Everyone else rents the property. (To be clear, this is different from Tada, whose family actually built and owned the building out of which he operates his clothing shop, but rented the land under half of it, which was also the case with the neighboring flower shop.)  “There‘s only me, and the flower shop, and that’s about it.” He said. “And there are no successors to run these shops. So it’s difficult for them to stay in business. There are now more large-scaled businesses in the neighborhood. So it is difficult to run a flower shop or something like that. People will just go buy it at Seiyu.”

The other problems are economic Tada said. “Also demand is dropping. For clothing, people will go shopping at Uniqlo or one of the fashion centers. But they won’t buy much in the old shopping streets. Consumer spending is becoming tighter. People are worried about the future, so they don’t want to spend it. If they have money they want to save for the future. It’s been this way for ten years. Recently the sales tax went up. Right before. that people were spending a huge amount. For example, cosmetics went up from eight percent to ten percent. The shop on the corner had record sales right before it went up, then afterward it dropped drastically.”


We asked Tada how he sees the development of the shopping street. “I was hoping for the plan in which a major real estate developer would come in to redevelop the area,” he said. “There plan from the beginning was to buy up everything. These bad guys [speculators] came in. Then the anti-development movement came out. People inside the company didn’t want to be part of it, and some people didn’t want to invest here.”


According to Tada, that’s why the plan to have the developer lead the renewal project is at least temporarily on ice. “They have withdrawn from the Nishiogi Town-making Committee. But not completely. They are still hired as a consultant by the district government. They hold meetings once a month on the second floor of the Mitsuya Liquor Store. They gather only the landowners, and there was a good feeling about it.”


One of the obstacles to this locally developed renewal plan has been the emergence of an opposition movement from a broader segment of society. “An opposition movement has emerged,” Tada said. “There are some private homeowners directly on the Northside of the station who don’t want to move. There several people who live between here and Ōmekaido. So the guys from [a local bar] started a demo. After that, the people from the developer didn’t want to have anything to do with it. Had that demo not happened, then the developer would have done the renewal, and the bad guys wouldn’t be involved. It was all supposed to take about ten years. There are too few daycare centers in the area now, so we thought we could rebuild with a simple three-story structure and have a daycare center on top. I was thinking, that’s okay, even if I end up with a narrower shop. That was about two years ago.”

According to Tada, the unraveling of the plan began with a leak of a draft plan from the developer that was never intended for circulation. “The strange was that when they were beginning the road widening plan in earnest, the owners of a shop passed a draft copy of a renewal proposal to people in the so-called opposition group. The owners of that shop were actually on the ‘approve side’ themselves. But when the opposition group showed up at a meeting they got a copy of this draft proposal. On this proposal, the whole bar street [Willow Alley and the area surrounding it] behind the shopping street would be flattened. This was passed around [on Twitter]. This was just a proposal by the developer. It was really just a rough draft, but people began asking, ‘who did this?!’ When that happened, the developer withdrew from the group. The developer was trying to do a renovation while keeping the good points of Nishiogi. There might be something larger built in the future, but for the time find a fix that is a kind of compromise. But there was this fumble, and they dropped out of it. They hadn’t intentionally let out this plan, but they were blamed for it. Actually I thought it was a good plan. Everyone agreed. Not to change everything at once, isn’t that good? All the buildings here are old [some ninety years old]. And there is a need for a daycare center in front of the station. The district might have put in the daycare center. It would be two or three floors, right in front of the station. On the first floor, there would be shops, and on the third floor there would be a daycare center.”

It is clear that demographic change has already permanently altered the social structure of the old neighborhood shopping street. There is no going back to a time with owners lived above their shops, and residents bought daily necessities locally from locally-owned small shops. The buildings in the area are also old, and some type of renewal is likely. Unfortunately, few of the prewar facades are preserved. It is quite difficult, however, for people in the city to come together on a plan. For those of us who appreciate the lively atmosphere and social organization of this part of town, however, the activities of the real estate speculators are worrying. There is the possibility that with the uncertainty about business due to COVID, these speculative activities will increase.  (James Farrer, May 11, 2020)


(Interview with Kobayashi by James Farrer Feb. 10, 2020;  interview with Tada by James Farrer and Fumiko Kimura Feb. 19, 2019, and April 4, 2020; Japanese transcription and Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura; translation by James Farrer; copyright by James Farrer, all rights reserved)


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