Miyashita Park, depending on your point of view, is an emerald oasis in the midst of a concrete desert blooming in the most crowded mile in the human world, Shibuya Crossing. One of the few green spaces within the city center, Miyashita is a microcosm of the larger setting of Tokyo. Built in the 30s as a ground level park lined with trees and actual green grass, it follows the Saikyo and Yamanote train lines in a narrow strip along Meiji Dori. The current incarnation of the “park” was a prototypical example of Futuristic Tokyo remodeling a city for the 1964 Olympic games, with little input from the public. In one fell swoop the city ok’d turning Shibuya River into a drainage conduit, and the park was redeveloped on man-made land above a new parking lot just behind the infamous Nonbeiyokocho, Drunkard’s Alley. Removed from ground level and public sightline, once the 90s recession hit, the disenfranchised real estate speculators turned homeless who couldn’t pay back the usurious rates the yakuza offered loans at moved into their own penthouse walkup. Talk about prime location.
But it started well before that. Even as early as the late 60s, activists on both the left and the right used the park as a starting point for marches and protests, while locals who frequented Miyashita said that undesirables were beginning to occupy its steps and bathrooms, leaving them feeling unsafe in their own neighborhood. Once the park became the crux of a superficial battle for old Tokyo to keep its traditional ways versus the new age of Times Square-like remodeling in Japanese society, the larger question of what is public space left the public out of picture. To some, who would say that with Yoyogi Park and Meiji Shrine just north, and picturesque Shinjuku Gyoen Garden and the manicured grounds of Akasaka palace beyond that, there is plenty of “green space” available, what does the public want with a relatively unimportant little strip of land filled with rats, roaches and homeless drunks on top of a parking lot?
Homeless Makeover of Miyashita Park
Others might counter that since the Meiji-dori entrance to this green space has long been the gathering point for local protests and grass roots activists, and that the park belongs to everyone–including the j-pop dance teams rehearsing choreography, embarrassed rockabilly greasers not ready for the Yoyogi spotlight, as well as scores of Rojousha or “road people” that populate its narrow boundary–not just whomever can pay the 200 yen to skate or climb the rock wall that local council members helped facilitate through their neighborhood beautification program sponsored by Nike Japan. Peter Shimokawa from The Coalition to Protect Miyashita Park from Becoming Nike Park wrote in Open Letter: Park Development Threatens Local Community that, “though Miyashita Park is publicly owned by the Shibuya Ward, local residents were not involved in the negotiations of this project. Rather, only the head of the Shibuya Ward and a few local congressional members made the deal with NIKE Japan, without consultation with either residents or the local congressional assembly. The project will transform Miyashita Park from a public space, available to all, to a private, consumer-oriented space.”
The public space was co-opted by Shibuya Ward at the behest of greater Tokyo Prefecture during the preparation for the 1964 Olympics. It was transformed from a public to consumer-oriented space at that time. If you consider that everyone has not only the right, but the duty to defend it from private takeover, isn’t it a bit late? Unless, consumer-oriented space is exactly what most everyone wants. Looking at the layout of Miyashita Park, it could be said that it finally conceptually matches Tokyo as the vast urban sea of concrete and glass built during this formative period. The romantic notion of cherry trees decorating simple pastures of green alongside any number of tiny waterway veins lining the greater Tokyo basin is a delusion, as that too is a mere false construction of an imaginary past. Now–beyond the rock wall–there is a futsal pitch and a skate park over which elms shade the multitudes of both young and old who come here to play, exercise and escape the megalopolis surrounding them.
Similar to other public works projects ostensibly meant to benefit the citizenry–the covering of Tokyo’s waterways as well as a designation of no-homeless zone–converting Miyashita from a public to a commercial site would seem to benefit a only relatively small percentage of the population: those interested in activities Nike deems shoe-worthy: footballing, rock-climbing and skating. The question is, is that good or bad? And according to and for whom? It is undeniable that since the renovation, the park is more crowded, the Futsal pitch lined with professionally clad players and spectators, the rockwall seething with anxious queuers, and the skatepark brimming with both young and old skaters. The park has become a gathering place for youth to partake in activities not related to sliding, swinging, or spinning. People have returned. It seems the park is, once again, in bloom. Even if it is a bit contrived and covered in bits of day-glo colored plastic.
Personally, I have history here. The first time I came to Tokyo in 2000 a group of pale-faced graduates and I walked from Shibuya station to Shinjuku through Harajuku’s Neko-dori, and never have I been so inundated with garish signage and obnoxious visual noise as in these few miles. After finally finding an okonomiyaki place and navigating the menu, we walked back the same route and as we approached the intersection where Neko-dori meets Meiji-dori and the train tracks cross the road, I saw a man lying on a piece of cardboard on the sidewalk near some stairs that led up to the overcross, and just beyond were a grove of trees. Noticing the stairs I led the pack of us up to the park and as we walked through the dimly lit grounds, our clamorous voices quieted to whispers. The interior was dark, a shadowy shanty town of cardboard houses covered in blue tarps, both small and large with locking doors and curtained windows, even space for their shoes just outside. These, along with two-man dome tents and other more coffin-like creations, lined the various nooks of the park, the luckier of the squatters filling them out with patio areas complete with plastic chairs, tables covered in beer and sake one-cups, and even gas powered barbeques. We passed piles of garbage loosely collected in plastic convenience store bags overflowing from the unattended trash cans, where ravens and rats openly competed for bits of instant noodle and old onigiri. Noticing the perimeter of the park was cordoned off with fencing, our crew grew silent as we shuffled through what seemed more and more like a kind of prison. One girl approached a clothesline with hundreds of translucent plastic umbrellas hanging and touching one, made a joke that if we were ever caught in the rain…when suddenly a machinegun of angry Japanese emanated from some dark corner of the bushes, saying roughly, “Get the fuck away from my umbrellas you stupid foreigner!” Smiles faded into fearful looks as the neon glow from adjacent restaurants glittered in our eyes. We quickly and quietly exited the park, coming out into Nonbeiyokochou, the tiny conglomeration of old-Edo style restaurants and bars populated with a contrasting cast of well-heeled salarymen and stylish young people eating and drinking, shouting and laughing, smoking and putting the night cap on yet another day. Just steps from the one another, two distinctive worlds co-existing, both pretending the other wasn’t there.
Years later, I moved to Tokyo and Nonbeiyokocho became my second home. I worked as bartender in one of the same tiny establishments for more than a year and became one of the home crew, so to speak. It didn’t take long before I grew immune to the “neighbors upstairs” and came to understand how the locals view them as invisible. “Shogganai ne…” everyone would agree if it ever happened to be brought up. As a member of the itinerant “Tokyo Beats” joke photo crew, I used the park as an ad-hoc photo studio background on numerous occasions, after which we would drink numerous cans of Asahi Super Dry whilst fixing the world’s problems in its comforting environs. I came to find it as cozy, and despite the wafting odor of the accumulated garbage piles on especially humid days, I would stroll end to end in a comfortable escape from the manic and vapid consumerism of Shibuya whenever I could.
I myself have always had moments of inner dilemma with homelessness, the intractable problems created by modern society and the detritus of super-capitalism. Despite the luxury lavished on the few, some make it and some don’t, while most just struggle to make it day to day. That pragmatic, socializing voice in my head, warned me, “If you don’t keep up, that’ll be you screaming at some young lady about your umbrella collection from your cardboard condo!” Scary as that may sound, I have courted the thought as well, foolishly romantic as it may be, to chuck it all–the job, the apartment, the rent, the clothes, the bank account, the iPhone, the social security card, the internet, the media, TV, movies, marriage, kids, vacation, school, doctors–all of it, to go and be Rip Van Winkle somewhere in the unpopulated foothills and forget the absurd nonsense of modern life. But I don’t. Not many do. Certainly not by choice. Mostly because it wouldn’t be all that romantic–what with police persecution, social stigma, and the ever-shrinking area of land that is free, or public, space. Taking that final step scares me. Mostly because I don’t feel I have the specific strength of character to look into the faces of most everyone without self-pity, or shame, or not being able to hold eye contact. A thing which is not as inherently important, and my even be insulting, in Asia, but after sitting down with some of the same guys living in Miyashita park, and having some beers together, when they want to hammer something home–to be understood–they do it, they hold your eye. That, and they almost all say the same thing: they’re not from Tokyo.
“I’m not from Kanto, none that I know here are.” says one man, ashing his Mild 7 smoke into the park’s dirt floor. Kyushu, Kansai, and Tohoku-bred sons (and to a lesser extent, daughters) line the narrow lane where they are allowed to sleep. Which is no longer in the park itself, but below in the thin strip of land between the concrete exterior of the parking garage and the railing demarcating the uncovered motorcycle/bicycle parking in the alley behind Meiji-Dori. “Things happen. Time passes. I was unlucky. I have money now, but I choose to live here. Why not?” Some nod, others merely me, distrusting me for my interest in them, and my foreignness. They are at heart, still Japanese, and nurse a healthy skepticism of all things outsider. And being from a country of roughly 90% homogeneity, they could easily blend in to the monotonous crowd of black- and grey-clad salary-folk daily scurrying throughout the Shibuya station tableau. In some respect, this homelessness–or antagonism toward being easily labeled–is a more longterm form than the other more straightforward form of public protest, a modern kind of civil disobedience, for a society that disdains full frontal confrontation.
The headline reads: Politician Creates Commercial Venture On Public Site With Major Corporation – Does Not Consult Public. That in itself does not seem very new or controversial, to Japan or any other Super-Capitalistic Society. The fact is that space is limited in a market-based world economy, and as the homeless are seen as non-economic contributors to society (they don’t have much in the way of lobbyists, advocates-excepting the excellent Sanya-based NPO Sanyukai, or marketing campaigns), they get pushed to the red edges of the ledger, a fact with which we have all learned to live. But on an island whose capital city fringe grows ever more crowded, as the distinction between the legislative branch and the corporate world becomes more and more blurry, the deep pulse of humanity’s desire to benefit all becomes clouded over by fiscal goals to benefit the ultra-rich corporate minority and bury the mistakes of the past. So Miyashita Park becomes Miyashita Nike Park (although the change never officially took place, it remains the de facto name) and the blue tarp cardboard dwellers get moved to a neat row along the bike park below. For now. What happens to them when the municipality begins work on renovating the nearby Yoyogi National Stadium in preparation for the Handball Finals at the 2020 Olympics? Pass legislation funding the expansion of train lines, stations, expressways and stadium compounds. Attach discretionary funding to hire more police. Begin food program to round up homeless and ship to Gunkanshima. Produce Reality TV Show where homeless people battle for stash of Sake One Cups titled: Road People Battle Royale. In a mechanical commercial society of spiritless automatons where building Babel TV Towers (Skytree) and Olympic handball courts take precedence over providing sustenance to its totality of citizens, the question remains, is that what we want?