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Shibuya Mayor Ken Hasebe Photo: Rena Takeuchi
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'Turning differences into strength': An interview with Shibuya Mayor Ken Hasebe

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By Alexandra Homma

“Building a city on a par with London, Paris and New York. A truly internationally developed city.”

This slogan — printed in bold letters amid colorful illustrations in a brochure that looks more like a children’s book than a basic plan issued by a Japanese municipality — is among the first oaths Ken Hasebe, mayor of Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, made after assuming the post in 2015.

“To achieve this,” it continues, “we (must) value diversity and inclusion — and turn them into our strength.”

I take another look at the brochure, skeptical, reminding myself that governments are usually big on words and less powerful on implementations, but something takes me aback and makes me curious. While “diversity” is often an overused watchword in politics, here it is used by the same man who became the first regional official in Japan’s history to recognize some sort of same sex partnership through the introduction of the “Same-sex Partnership Certificate” ordinance in 2015. Though not legally binding and rather symbolic, the certificate — a document issued to homosexual couples to “Promote a Society Respectful of Gender Equality and Diversity” — is the closest to a marriage document gay couples can be issued with in Japan.

"Diversity is no longer something rare," Hasebe insists.

A former employee at a major Japanese advertising firm and a friendly, open-minded individual, Hasebe passionately speaks of his vision of making Japan more diverse by starting from the city he was born and raised in — the city we all know well as Tokyo's hub of entertainment where people from all over the world gather at any given time of the year.

Japan Today catches up with Hasebe, 45, at his office near Shibuya station to hear more about his ambitions, thoughts on diversity and the future of Shibuya.

When people think of Shibuya, they often think of the scramble crossing and Hachiko. Is that the image you wish for Shibuya?

In line with the policies I want to implement in the future, I would like people to think of Shibuya as Japan’s center of “incubation” — a place where new cultures are born and cultivated. Shibuya gathers people from all over the world and serves as a place where new trends are born. It is this side of Shibuya that I want people to know more about.

"Rather than excluding each other, I want to do something that brings us together."

How do you plan to achieve this?

I want to make Shibuya a creative entertainment hub. We need more entertainment venues, such as multipurpose event hall buildings, for example. Enforcing Shibuya’s street culture by creating traffic-free pedestrian zones where art events can take place, is also something we are aiming for. Currently, it’s not allowed to make profit out of business taking place on public roads, but, finding a way to monetize public events such as Halloween or New Year’s countdown, for example, can lead to positive changes.

Speaking of Halloween, does the event make you nervous every year? Despite the hassle, do you still want people to keep gathering in Shibuya to celebrate?

It’s a tricky one (laughs). While there are no organized public events, people keep gathering. It isn’t easy to deal with it — cleaning up takes a lot of tax money. But can we — and do we want to — really prevent that? It would be too expensive to start implementing policies against it. But what we can do is set clear rules. Thanks to our decision to close two streets for traffic during Halloween last year, there were less accidents and incidents in comparison to before. Interestingly enough, the day after, people also started cleaning up. Many foreigners also took part in this, thinking it’s part of the fun. If we monetize the event in the future, or at least start collecting donations, we can make these events even more entertaining and safe.

What are your plans to help foreign visitors during the 2019 Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics?

One of the projects we are currently working on is called the “Shibuya Arrow Project,” in which we partner with artists to create street art through arrows that would lead people towards evacuation centers in cases of natural disasters. As of present, we have already incorporated this concept at two locations, but we are working to expand that. I think this is a unique nonverbal approach that can benefit all foreign visitors. In the next couple of years, you will see more of this around Shibuya, Harajuku, Ebisu and other areas.

Apart from that, luckily, Shibuya is also home to many universities we have partnered with to gather students volunteers who will help in various ways during the Games.

IMG_6443.jpg
Mayor Hasebe shows a mockup of Shibuya's "Arrow Project" aimed at collaborating with artists to create evacuation routes through arrows across the city — an intriguing "non-verbal" approach instead of a "multilingual" guidance. Photo: Rena Takeuchi

This also includes foreign volunteers, I assume?

Of course. To be honest, I don’t like to distinguish between “foreigners” and “Japanese.” My job is to work for the residents of Shibuya and I believe that what makes a city good is a city where people who have pride in it gather. It this sense, nationalities don’t matter. We live in times when having a diverse background is no longer rare. There are over 10,000 registered foreign residents in Shibuya, from over 100 countries. Rather than differentiate among each other, I want to do something that brings us together.

How did you push forward the Same-sex Partnership Certificate ordinance? What was the drive behind it?

Again, this is something that I perceive as absolutely normal. But, to be honest, I didn’t know much about homosexuality until I went to the U.S. in my 20s. I was asked out by gay men on a number of occasions and started noticing how open gay couples there were. I remember thinking that it was so different from Tokyo. But after I came back to Japan, I started noticing that there are many gay couples here too.

After quitting my job in advertising, I launched an NPO through which I met a person who had underwent an operation to become a man. We became close and he told me many stories about himself and his friends. The more I learned, the more I started realizing that the so-called “majority” is being challenged to change its perspectives.

"The more I learned, the more I started realizing that the so-called “majority” is being challenged to change its perspectives."

So I started thinking about what I could do. I remember the feeling of being actually married when my wife and I submitted our documents at the city hall. I asked my transgender friend if there were a similar certificate for gay couples, would he be happy — and he said yes. So I started planning it step by step, and brought up the issue at a local assembly about five years ago. When pitching it, I said that this shouldn’t be a matter of only human rights, but that it’s also essential for Shibuya in its process of growing as an international city. At the time, among all G8 countries, only Japan and Russia hadn’t made any steps toward same sex equality. It was about time.

What is the greatest benefit of the partnership certificate?

That it served as an incentive for the private sector to become more progressive. More and more companies are now promoting family discounts, real estate deals, insurance policies... Other municipalities also began following our example.

How many couples have been issued the certificate so far?

Twenty-four as of this October.

You have done a lot since becoming a mayor — how has your life changed?

I have no privacy nor free time now (laughs). I wish I had more time to play with my children.

Weren’t you busier when you were working in PR?

I wasn’t married at the time. I did a lot of overtime work, but I was enjoying it. Everything I learned back in the days is the base of what I am now. But it wasn’t something I could go on doing forever.

What’s the project that stands out in your memory the most since you became a mayor?

I would say, the same sex partnership certificate. I also changed the Shibuya Basic Plan for the first time in 20 years. I used the tagline: “A city that turns differences into strength” and made this booklet to make it more appealing to everyone. This is the base of our vision. It’s essential for everyone to understand it.

Last but not least, what’s your favorite spot in Shibuya?

It’s hard to pick one, but if I had to, I’d say Yoyogi Park. I like jogging there in the morning.

© Japan Today

©2017 GPlusMedia Inc.

3 Comments
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He seems like a good enough guy.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Ken Hasebe for Prime Minister of Japan!

0 ( +1 / -1 )

The idea of Japan being characterized as inclusive makes me smile in amusement. An admirable sentiment, but is it shared by many? At least there is a conversation, and that is a start.

I live in Southern California. I love the diversity here, but many Whites do not. Thus, the Trump phenomenon. I think that people who actually live in areas that are diverse and inclusive tend to accept and enjoy it, while people who do not live in such places are more subject to fear-mongering over the subject. Here in California, in the areas that are inclusive, we voted overwhelmingly against Trump. The areas of the state that are less inclusive voted for Trump. An interesting phenomenon. In my opinion this subject of inclusivity and diversity is an important one. If we are to have peace in the world, we must respect all cultures, races, and whatever else divides us.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

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