Most people are too buried in their cell phones to notice the banners. The signs snake alongside the track on the northern approach to Shibuya station, looking a little disheveled now: “Miyashita wa minna no mono [Miyashita belongs to everyone]! Park is Ours!” “No Nike!!!”
This is the frontline of a battle that might once have stirred up some public interest, maybe even indignation. By the time you read this, construction should have started on a new skate park and climbing wall in the sliver of central Shibuya hitherto known as Miyashita Park. The project isn’t part of some enlightened urban redevelopment scheme, but rather the brainchild of a sportswear conglomerate that was once synonymous with the evils of globalization, a sort of Lord Sauron of consumerism. Nike will cover the cost of construction work and get naming rights over the park for the next decade, at a rumored cost of 17 million yen per year.
It’s good news for skaters, less so for brand phobics and the homeless population that Miyashita has been supporting up until now. Recently, a small group of protesters camped out in the north corner of the park, where they did their best to hinder the start of construction, as well as holding film screenings and occasional gigs. Fenced-off areas where tarpaulin shacks once stood have been turned into junk sculptures by a sardonically titled “Artist in Residence.”
“Nike, under the guise of making a ’social welfare donation,’ is converting one of Tokyo’s principle [sic] parks into a purpose-built sports facility that will also serve as a lucrative advertising space,” reads a proclamation on the English-language website Nikepolitics.org. “Urbanites often consider public parks an oasis. On weekends they get used for picnics; on weekdays parks offer a place for workers to lunch; and at night, they serve as accommodation for the homeless… We want Miyashita Park to exist not as a consumer-oriented Nike Park, but as a park that defines itself through the practical social support it provides to all of the people who live there.”
Ahem. The rhetoric may be dead-on, but I find it impossible to imagine young couples picnicking in Miyashita, any more than I can picture city officials actively welcoming people to squat there. Squeezed above a parking lot between the train tracks and Meiji Dori, it must be one of the most depressing places in the whole of central Tokyo: damp, gloomy and a good few decades past its prime (assuming it ever had one). Official attempts to give it an overhaul have extended no further than installing a pair of futsal pitches, which makes me wonder why Nike is copping flak for proposing to do something more productive. Surely the Shibuya city office deserves some blame for letting the park languish for so long?
That and a few other things, as it turns out. The other objection raised by protesters — and one which strikes me as a lot more damning — is that the redevelopment project was pushed through with the involvement of only a handful of assembly members, and without any public bidding process. This is very iffy. Public space, however grotty, isn’t the kind of thing that should be relinquished lightly. Consider, too, that Suntory and Dentsu currently pay 80 million yen per year for the naming rights to Shibuya C.C. Lemon Hall, formerly known as Shibuya Public Hall. In Miyashita’s case, it seems that a select few officials have sold out a potentially valuable bit of turf, without really asking anyone, and they didn’t even get a good price for it.
The protesters are right to kick up a fuss about this. Their mistake is in assuming that anyone would care. At a recent meeting about the plans, one representative for local store owners recalled that Miyashita Park hadn’t ever been the kind of place that a woman would go to alone. If Nike was the solution, then bring it on.
Part of me wonders if most people here even have a problem with corporate encroachment — assuming they even notice it, of course. Tokyo’s residents are well inured to advertising, so extensively has it permeated every corner of life here. We spend our lives bombarded with adverts, shrouded in them: on billboards, trains, TV screens, sound trucks, balloons. In a country where even the baseball teams are named after their corporate sponsors, what’s the harm of a few extra swooshes?
On second thought, I’m heading to the barricades.
This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today