Wednesday, January 09, 2008

As a member of the wedding - for Janne Morén

A little over a year ago I was attending the wedding reception of one my colleagues. She seated me next to one of her personal friends, a city council member of Hachiōji City.

As the parade of courses flew past, I teased him about incipient move of the Tama area courthouse from Hachiōji to Tachikawa. He did not take the teasing kindly, becoming glum and complaining that losing the courthouse was a disaster for his city.

(Now if you have ever seen or been in the Hachiōji District courthouse, you could not have disagreed more strongly with him. Eyesore hardly begins describe to the exterior of the building...and the interiors! Tawdry, dingy, unimpressive--choose your favorite expression of derision. The demolition of the courthouse will instantaneously raise property values in the immediate area 5%.)

I brought up the matter of the courthouse move because it is a significant symbol of a reversal of Tokyo's westward expansion--and an admission that even Tokyo has had to start to consolidate. Turning the conversation to the subject of the relationship between Hachiōji's economy and its politics, the council member told me of his troubles:

"We have two expressways that have just opened. Where they meet, at the interchange, would be a perfect place for a shopping center and commercial district. However, whenever we try to broach the subject, the chōkai (neighborhood associations) at the center of town go completely nuts, threatening the party with a withdrawal of support. So discussion of the project get postponed."

I was puzzled by his story. "But the merchants in front of the train station have nothing to complain about. They have tremendous foot traffic coming out of the station. There is no parking anyway. A shopping center off the expressway would not compete with them at all."

He looked serious. "The merchants of the stores in front of the station are not in charge of the chōkai. The merchants with their stores on the Ōtsuki Kōshū Kaidō are."

"But..but...that's preposterous!" I spluttered. "Hachiōji Station is over a hundred years old. How could the merchants of the Ōtsuki Kōshū Kaidō still be in charge of the chōkai? "

"Unbelievable it may be," he replied. "But they still are."

The scale of the problems facing Japan in an anecdote...it is not that the merchants of Hachiōji had not yet adjusted to the economic and social realities of the Heisei Era. They had not yet adjusted to the realities of even the Meiji Era.

This post has been revised and improved with helpful hints from readers.

4 comments:

Gen Kanai said...

Fascinating account. This sort of story reinforces my feelings that Japan is it's own worst enemy wrt the changes that would need to happen for Japan to be more competitive nationally or internationally.

Anonymous said...

I think you mean Koshu Kaido, but everything else about that story is true. The reason the chokai (actually shotengai) people have been against the large department stores has been that their parents told them to, for fear their wide selection, etc. would put the small folks out of business. Of course, when there are no big stores, no one comes at all, and this is playing out very clearly in Hachioji.

When the inherited money runs out sometime while this generation of owners is alive, they might start to allow more development, but by then Tachikawa will be even farther ahead.

Being heavily involved in Hachioji politics, I am highly curious to know who your assemblyman friend is, because chances are I know him well.

Janne Morén said...

Not surprised. I guess this is the kind of thing which ultimately will determine which communities will thrive and which will wither.

I read recently about another variation on this: A roofed shopping street in a regional city (forgot which), with most stores closed and only a few holdouts trying vainly to keep the street alive.

Turns out that it wasn't a drop in then umber of customers that doomed the street. The street was "founded" shortly after the war, and so many of the shop owners were of about the same age. Some years ago, that age was beginning to take its toll, and with a lack of willing descendants to take over they simply closed shop when they retired. And since they lived in the shop buildings they were not willing to rent the space to somebody else, or if they were, they imposed so harsh conditions that nobody was willing to take them up on it.

As shops closed, customers started leaving, prompting more owners to call it a day and retire. So, the street has effectively turned back into a sleepy residential street with mostly retirees. The few people trying to kep it alive as a shopping street are probably too late.

MTC said...

anonymous -

Would love to tell you who. Cannot.