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Isabel Reynolds

Baseball Fans Join Activists to Save 1,000 Trees in Heart of Tokyo

A massive redevelopment project that is threatening to destroy a beloved avenue of trees and important sports grounds in central Tokyo has prompted an unlikely coalition of environmentalists, conservative lawmakers and baseball fans to campaign for a halt to the plans. 

The neighborhood of Jingu Gaien, or “outer-shrine garden,” is best known for its rows of ginkgo trees that draw hordes of locals and tourists alike, particularly in the fall. It’s also a mecca for sports lovers as it is home to historic sporting venues for baseball and rugby, as well as public facilities for softball, futsal and golf. It neighbors the flagship Olympic stadium that was built for Tokyo 2020 in the face of opposition and only after a radical change in the proposed design.

Under a plan awaiting final approval by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the existing buildings are to be razed and replaced with a complex that incorporates two skyscrapers alongside new stadiums and a hotel. The rugby and baseball stadiums are both among the buildings slated for demolition, and campaigners say the plan will be a death sentence for about 1,000 trees.

Opposition to the project reflects simmering concerns over Tokyo's redevelopment in recent decades. Developers have been accused of disregarding the environment and architectural heritage, and of insufficient consultation with local residents. The prominence of the Jingu Gaien site in the public’s psyche has helped bolster the campaign to preserve it.

“To build towers 190 meters and 185 meters tall in that area will ruin the atmosphere and scenery,” said Hajime Funada, a lawmaker with the ruling Liberal Democratic Party who has set up a cross-party group of politicians against the development. “Looking at the plan for redevelopment, I can see it will be destroyed to a great extent. I think a lot of people will be sad about this, not just me."

Funada is an unusual voice of opposition in Japan. His party, the LDP, has been in power almost continuously since 1955, and has embraced a constant cycle of urban redevelopment that’s helped keep the economy ticking over. Getting members to sign on to his campaign has been a challenge, he said, adding that some of those who joined have not given permission for their participation to be publicized. Others said they sympathized, but would rather not get involved.

He became active in the campaign because his wife first got involved — his Tokyo home is near the area and he walks his dog there. Funada has called for the project to be abandoned in favor of refurbishing existing buildings, with a preservation order to be placed on the zone to protect its trees. 

Funada has public opinion on his side. A survey by the Tokyo Shimbun paper conducted in June found almost 70% of respondents were opposed to the felling of trees in order to redevelop the area, while less than 6% were in favor. 

Some experts are also concerned that a further loss of trees will worsen the impact of heat in Tokyo. Takehiko Mikami, an emeritus professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University who has examined the heat island effect in the capital, said that Tokyo is getting hotter faster than other major cities such as New York. A survey of 40 cities by the World Cities Culture Forum found Tokyo was fourth from last in terms of percentage of green space, beating only Istanbul, Bogota and Taipei.

Developers and the city government say the most famous rows of trees will be saved, but detractors say the new buildings will be close enough to the ginkgos to damage their roots and eventually kill them off.

Lead developer Mitsui Fudosan Co. Ltd. said in an emailed response to questions that the plan was based on a Tokyo Metropolitan Government policy laid out in 2018 as part of the Olympic legacy and that the redevelopment is necessary in the face of “deterioration” of the sports facilities. Mitsui's plan also indicates that there will be more trees than before, with some preserved and some added. 

“The plan is to plant new trees, but big trees have a broad canopy and it takes time for them to grow,” said Mikami. “If you cut them down, you lose that effect. And there will be high-rise buildings, which will increase the amount of artificial heat and weaken the sea breeze.”

Another cohort that is mounting strong opposition to the plan is baseball fans. 

Sports writer Robert Whiting launched his own campaign to save Jingu Stadium, home of top-flight team Tokyo Yakult Swallows. Built in 1926, the stadium is one of the few remaining venues where Babe Ruth played, and Whiting argues that Boston’s Fenway Park and Chicago's Wrigley Field, both older than Jingu, were restored rather than replaced. Whiting called the plan “a betrayal of the expectations of baseball fans” in his campaign statement.

The timeline going forward is unclear — while developers have already started setting up barriers around buildings to be demolished, the city government has yet to give the final go-ahead. Rochelle Kopp, a Tokyo-based consultant whose petition to stop the redevelopment has more than 110,000 signatures, said she wouldn’t give up.“If there is enough public outcry that makes things sufficiently uncomfortable for the city and developers, they could still change plans,” she said. “There’s still plenty of possibility to stop it.” Grassroots opposition to redevelopment projects rarely yields results in Japan, though there is one successful example in Tokyo. A 1980s proposal to demolish the red-brick central train station, which opened in 1914, was abandoned due to sustained opposition. The renovated station complex is now a popular backdrop for wedding photos. 

For Funada, there is a deeper significance to the locality, which he has emphasized in trying to persuade conservative lawmakers to join his cause. Most of the land in Jingu Gaien belongs to the nearby Meiji Shrine, built to honor the emperor who oversaw Japan’s transformation from feudalism to a modern society in the 19th century. Following his death in 1912, a network of young people across the country donated the trees that now swathe the shrine grounds and parts of the outer garden.

“The respect of the people of that time for the emperor made them collect and plant these trees. So they are trees with soul,” said Funada. “Just to cut them down or to destroy that wonderful scenery is a cold way to treat the Meiji Emperor. I wouldn’t call it blasphemy, but it’s cold.”

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.

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