On April 29, 2022, about 30 Nishi-Ogikubo residents and visitors filed into the Nishiogi Cinema, for the inaugural film showing in the small theater space in the newly renovated Koto Building (Koto Biru) on Shinmei Street in Nishi-Ogikubo. The documentary film they were so eager to see was “Citizen Jane: Battle for the City,” the story of how the journalist Jane Jacobs fought against plans for urban renewal in the iconic neighborhoods of New York City, halting plans to demolish aging structures and replace them with broad highways and high-rise buildings. The choice of this film was no coincidence. The organizers of Nishiogi Cinema – and many of the audience members – were mobilized precisely by a similar plan to widen a highway through the middle of their own neighborhood. Although much smaller in scale than the Lower Manhattan Highway, the plan to widen the North-South “Auxiliary Line 132” through Nishi-Ogikubo also threatens the human-scale architecture of Nishi-Ogikubo and the fabric of social life in this part of the city of Tokyo. The origins of the cinema, and also of the Koto Building itself, lie in attempts to cope with the challenges of urban renewal and urban change, not simply through discussion but also through action.
The Koto Building in Nishiogi is a white building with a distinctive outdoor spiral fire escape staircase. It opened last year as a hub of discussion and ideas for Nishiogi residents invested in designing the future of Nishi-Ogikubo. The building is the brainchild of the Nishiogi Research Institute (Nishiogi no Koto Kenkyujō) – Koto-Ken for short. Despite the formidable name, Koto Ken is less an academic society than a group of residents concerned about the future of the neighborhood, including people with a wide variety of interests and backgrounds, some of whom have been active in community organization for over a decade. The group is working to preserve the unique qualities of Nishiogi – a town that is currently facing a major crossroads of redevelopment and road widening project. To discuss the significance of Koto Biru for Nishiogi’s future, we interviewed three core members of Koto-Ken who manage and maintain the Koto Building: Kei Okuaki, Aya Okuaki, and Yuki Ishii. (We interviewed Kei and Aya Okuaki for an earlier report on the Nishiogi Lover’s Festival which they also organized.)
First, Ishii, an architect, explained how the group formed around an event called the Nishiogi Imagination Project (Nishiogi kusō keikaku) held in June 1-2, 2019, a project aimed to encourage residents to proactively envision the future of their town through creating posters (Nishiogiology also participated in this event with a poster envisioning a multicultural Nishiogi.). “The Nishiogi Imagination Project originally covered several topics,” Ishii said, “but I had the impression that it coalesced around a rumor about the redevelopment of Nishiogi station’s South exit and approval of the urban planning for road widening. You know, there was a lot of opposition to those projects, but it felt to me that raising our voices against the projects wasn’t enough. I mean, even if we visit the mayor of Suginami-ku, nothing will happen. Though road widening is a matter of the city government, redevelopment of the South exit has to do with the landowners. So, if we simply show our opposition, it will hurt the relationship between the residents and landowners. The last thing we want is landowners deciding to build new apartments after removing the existing shops. Instead, we want to tell them how much we all love our Nishiogi by envisioning this town’s future and raising our voices together.”
While the right to determine how to use the land lies in the hand of landowners, Aya emphasized the importance of making the residents’ voices visible. She explained, “Deciding what to do with the land is up to the landowners, so what we can do is just say ‘This is the kind of town we love’. Through Nishiogi Imagination Project, we asked a lot of people what they would like to see in the future of Nishiogi. They all have amazing ideas and take the future of this town very seriously. I think it was meaningful that we were able to put those different ideas into shape.”
Aya’s husband, Kei, further explained how the Nishiogi Imagination Project led to the creation of a Nishiogi Imagination Newspaper (Nishiogi Kusō Shinbun). This inspired the launch of the research group aiming to discuss more concrete counter plans for the road widening project. He says, “As for Nishiogi Imagination Newspaper, we originally just wanted to introduce the ideas people pitched for Nishiogi Imagination Project and move on to something new. But, as we were making the newspaper, we realized how diverse people’s views were depending on their positions, which led us to continue what we were doing. Then, we launched Nishiogi Research Institute in May 2020. What the research group does is to think of counter plans for the road widening project and ways for the residents themselves to have a say in the content of the project.”
Kei told us that at first only few residents knew about the road widening project. Therefore, the members of Nishiogi Research Institute started off with issuing email newsletters on the details of project and interviewing people of different positions about their opinions. He explains, “People hardly knew about the project at first. So, we have been issuing online newsletters about twice a month, which will mark the 40th issue next issue, aiming to inform people of the project. Also, we want to know what those living along the streets have to say about the road widening. When Suginami word widens the roads, they only ask the opinions of landowners, failing to reach out to the business owners [who rent spaces]. The officials only ask the landowners if they want to sell their properties or not, which makes the shop owners very concerned about the potential impacts on their businesses. So, we wanted to conduct a survey on what people in different positions – those who rent and live, those who own the place and live, those who own the place and run the business there, and those who rent and run business – to visualize the voices of everyone about the project.”
However, Aya says that it is the reluctance of the Suginami local government to listen to the residents’ voices. She argues, “No matter how strongly we insist that `This is our streets and town` or `What does it take for you to listen to our opinions,` all they say is `It has all been decided already, so can you not bother us anymore? Well, the most we can do is to consider your opinions about the kind of roadside trees and the color of the sidewalk bricks`.”
Kei points out that the city’s road-widening project itself is obsolete and no longer suitable for the current Nishiogi. He explains, “The plan itself is more than 40 years old, and it is still in place today. The plan was designed at the time of Japan's rapid economic growth, but they are still trying to implement it without making any changes in the contents. So, I am saying that we need to stop here once and reexamine the contents of the plan, but the administration is reluctant to listen to me, saying, `It's already decided.` They don't listen to us.”
Ishii tells us that in the process of figuring out the ways to get the city listen to the residents’ opinions, they have come to realize one important thing. He says, “One thing we have learned is that it does not work well without support from important people, such as the president of the shopping arcade and the chair of the town council. The 'people of Nishiogi' perceived by the city officials are the old town council heads and store chairmen, but in fact, if you look at the classification of the actual people of Nishiogi, such people are really only a small portion. Most of the residents have moved in recently, so why not listen to them more? It is not only the landowners who are building the town, so I would like the people who live here to think more about the town's development as an extension of their daily lives and to be more proactive. The city's policy is that residents should take the initiative in maintaining and managing their town in cooperation with other residents, but the system is not yet in place, so we need to work together to build the system first. But we have not yet found an effective first step for that.”
Aya laments that even the shopping arcade, which serves as the core of residents' daily lives, is now in jeopardy, and that the charm of Nishiogi is disappearing.
Aya laments that even the shopping arcade, which serves as the core of residents' daily lives, is now in jeopardy, and that the charm of Nishiogi is disappearing. She says, “If the situation continues as it is, there will be no more shopping arcade. If the road is widened and the stores are removed, there is almost no guarantee that the stores will be able to rebuild there. If the buildings are torn down and rebuilt, the rents will go up for those who rent the new buildings, and for those who are currently operating stores there, it may be more beneficial to become landlords than to continue their business. If the rent goes up and people start looking for larger spaces, new stores are more likely to go in after the road widening project is completed. As a result, unique individually owned stores might not be able to run business in Nishiogi anymore, while those shops are exactly what make Nishiogi attractive. When the city officials visited us, they asked, 'But do they all really want to run their stores for another 10 years?' I felt frustrated and disrespected, so we created a map that shows how individuals and stores are connected and take pride in what they do. After making the map, I realized that the pride and uniqueness of the people who have maintained their stores for decades according to their own ideas are what make Nishiogi such a great town.”
In the meantime, a new challenge has begun to preserve as many stores in Nishiogi as possible. Kei told us about the building that serves as its base: “So, what can we do? For instance, when a new building is built, instead of some real estate company renting it out to large chain stores to generate revenue, people like us could rent the entire building and divide it up into smaller sections to accommodate relatively smaller stores so that they have a place to run their business. This Koto Building became available at the time when we were talking about the possibility of making a shopping district building with many stores inside. The building itself is fifty years old. At first, it was a place where a beauty salon was run and some of its apprentices lived, but after less than twenty years, a cloth store rented it and ran its store for thirty-two years. It was like a `Mecca` of quilt shops, where people came from all over the country to visit. After the quilt store owner left, the original owner of the building, Mr. Otani, did not live in the area, and although she inherited the property, she was not in the business of building management and was apparently thinking 'I don't really know about this building, so let's just tear it down.'"
Currently, the first floor of Koto Building has a café called “Nof Coffee,” the second floor has “Nishiogi Cinema” and a handicraft store, and the third floor is used as offices of a web design company and a landscape company. Since there were more than twice as many applications for tenants as they were looking for, they interviewed and finally settled on the current structure. In fact, in creating the Koto Building, they have officially developed Nishiogi Research Group into a joint-stock corporation. Thirteen people invested in the company, which became Nishiogi no Koto Kenkyujo (Nishiogi Research Institute) Inc. in May 2021. We asked Kei how the thirteen members manage the building.
He explains, “There are several people who do not live in Nishiogi, two real estate agents, about four architects, two or three people who have worked in urban development, and university researchers. We wanted to create an open environment where anyone could do whatever they wanted to do. So, although we have a board of directors, a representative director, and a board of directors, anyone can do whatever they want to do, regardless of the amount of investment. We have never really managed a building before, so we have a Slack account for everyone from the first to the third floor of the building to communicate with each other. One of the recent conversations we had was like, `There is no more paper in the bathroom.' A current topic is that there is not enough electricity capacity on the third floor. The breaker goes off as soon as you turn on the heat. So, we are now talking about doing some work on the electricity.”
Nishiogi Cinema on the second floor came into shape as a result of several proposals about making a cinema in Nishiogi among ninety or so ideas submitted by residents for the Nishiogi Imagination Project. Although the ultimate goal is to open it as a commercial cinema, it is currently used as a meeting place for Nishiogi Research Institute and as a venue for yoga classes. Kei told us more about Nishiogi Cinema. He says, “Movie theaters are subject to the Entertainment Facilities Act, which requires that they be equipped in accordance with this law. The most important thing is that the standard for ventilation, such as the speed of air circulation, is a little bit strict, and we have installed ventilation fans here, but that is not enough. So, we are now hosting yoga classes on Saturdays in the mornings, and from April we are planning to start flower arrangement classes. Also, every week, we use this room to have our weekly meetings for Nishiogi Research Group. Other than that, this is just a tentative plan, but we are thinking of having a screening event here when we have the morning market at Shinmei Street. Also, and this is also something for the future, we may invite people from the neighborhood and hold speaker events.”
Ishii explains the role of Koto Building in preserving the important elements of Nishiogi. He says, “It is also an experiment to see if people can start a business on Kita Ginza Street if they succeed in running their stores here. We want to make it easier for individuals to start their own stores in Nishiogi. I hope this building serves as a place for people to try first and then initiate an official business somewhere else in Nishiogi. Since opening a store is a risky business, we think that we can support start-ups by renting a building at a reasonable price or accepting shop owners who are forced to move due to the road widening project.”
Aya told us what she thinks is the uniqueness of Nishiogi: “If you ask what Nishiogi style is all about, it's about someone who has the confidence to say, `This is my store, I take full responsibility for what happens here, but if you don't like it, you don't have to come here.` They don't listen to others' advice. They stick to what they want to do and what they want to serve, and no matter what happens, they have the courage to say, `But that's my decision,` and this is what shop owners who have been in Nishiogi for years all have in common, because customers come to support such confidence and courage.”
Aya further explains how Nishiogi style was also one of the important factors to welcome Nof Coffee as a new tenant on the first floor. She says, “They are not a chain restaurant, and they decide the menus on their own to some extent. I really liked it when the owner told me that he wanted to put down roots in Nishiogi.”
In the corner just by the entrance of Nof Coffee is an exhibition space managed by Nishiogi Research Group. There, visitors can enjoy a photo exhibition of Zempukuji Pond, as well as booths by an Indian bandana shop and a chocolate shop in Nishiogi. The bookshelves are lined with books about Nishiogi that Aki and Kei have collected, which are changed once a month according to a different theme. Many of these were collected in the days when the couple ran a private Nishiogi Information Center for the neighborhood from an office near the JR Station.
Lastly, Aya told us about the future goals of Nishiogi Research Institute. “At the opening event of the Koto Building, we invited Professor Nakajima from the University of Tokyo, who specializes in urban planning, to give a talk. She said, `Whenever there is a change in a town, people always want to talk about prescriptions for what should be done, but unless we start with a diagnosis of what the town is like, we won't know where to go. So, I think we first should do a basic survey of the town of Nishiogi.` Well, I thought that was certainly true. So, this year, I would like to conduct activities to collect data on the current state of Nishiogi and what is necessary. For example, how much greenery there is, where people can sit, what the conditions of the stores are, and so on. One of our ambitions is to get a variety of people involved so that we can all work together on this project. Another goal is to interview people who have lived in Nishiogi for decades. I would like to share this information with everyone, and I hope that the government will join us in thinking about what is good for Nishiogi.”
It is very rare to see a group of people who think so seriously about the future of the city they live in. The members of Nishiogi Research Group are not just looking at plans being promoted by the local government, but are discussing and implementing ways for residents to express their opinions and proactively participate in town planning. (James Farrer and Naho Kimura, June 20, 2022)
(Interview by James Farrer and Naho Kimura Feb. 11, 2022; transcription and translation by Naho Kimura; Japanese editing by Fumiko Kimura; copyright by James Farrer, all rights reserved.)