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Historic Asakusa shopping street in danger as Taito Ward calls for shop evictions

49 Comments
By Dale Roll, SoraNews24

The Tokyo neighborhood of Asakusa is a major attraction for both tourists and locals, thanks to the iconic Sensoji Temple and its striking Kaminari Gates, but it’s also known to be a place full of delicious Japanese food, unique hotels, and traditional Japanese-style souvenirs.

Sadly, businesses in the area are in danger of closing, and not just because of the pandemic. Though a huge drop in tourists has resulted in the shops around Sensoji suffering from a huge drop in sales, there’s now a bigger threat on the horizon for shop owners on one Asakusa shopping street: the local government.

Asakusa has many shopping streets, the most famous of which is the street behind the famous Kaminari gates that leads up to the temple, Nakamise-doori, which is filled to the brim with souvenir shops and food stalls. But though shop owners on Nakamise-doori were shocked when the temple raised their rent by 16-fold in 2017, their livelihoods are not the ones in danger by the ward’s government. Rather, those who might be forced into eviction are those along the street that lines the grounds of Sensoji Temple and its neighboring Denboin Temple, Denboin-doori.

The shops that line Denboin-doori are the epitome of Edo-era Japanese style buildings, and many have operated for decades in the same family. They sell traditional Japanese trinkets and products like fans, hair combs and pins, and clothing, many of which are handmade. They’re a great place for international tourists to find that perfect souvenir or gift for a loved one at home, and some would say it’s even better than Nakamise-doori, which can sometimes be unbearably crowded.

Though the shops have been established for decades already, the local government of Taito Ward, which has jurisdiction over the area, claims they are illegal establishments. Officials say that the land they occupy is public land, and the shops have never been given permission to open there. The shop owners, on the other hand, claim they were given permission decades ago, without obligation to pay land taxes and rent, but the government doesn’t seem to have any records of such an agreement. Thus, after numerous warnings and conferences, Taito Ward is calling for their evictions.

The Association for Business Prosperity on Asukusa Denboin-doori, in an attempt to keep their family-run businesses, started up a petition in May which collected over 7,000 signatures. Locals were heard to voice their support for the cause, claiming it would be a terrible loss of culture and history. Japanese netizens were generally inclined to agree:

“Is there any benefit to throwing them out as opposed to the current situation?”

“I really don’t understand why they’re making a big deal about it now of all times. Those businesses have been there for 40 years.”

“Just let them pay the land taxes and the rent and leave them be.”

“The ward is the problem in my opinion, for letting them exist illegally for forty years.”

“Why not work out a compromise that isn’t as extreme as eviction? I can’t stand all this drama in my hometown.”

“Next will be Nakamise-doori.”

“Why are they doing this now to Denboin-doori? It’s tyranny.”

Some, however, speculated that the government might be reasonable in their demands:

“But it is kind of strange for the government to continue to allow these shops to operate illegally after 40 years. The ward has warned them about 10 times already after all.”

“It probably progressed slowly, from a black market after the war to stalls to street vendors to permanent shops, a symbol of the change of times but something that they can’t just keep letting them get away with.”

“How are the surrounding businesses okay with them not paying their rent and taxes?”

“Sounds to me like they had a verbal promise from a Showa-era official and that’s the problem.”

The Association intends to submit the petition to the government, with the hopes that it will help change their minds, but as the government has been allegedly trying to warn them since 2014, who knows what the outcome will be. We can only hope that a fair compromise can be met that benefits both parties, and that a historic part of Asakusa won’t disappear as a result.

Sources: Asakusa Station Guide, Tokyo Web, 0 Tere News via Livedoor News via Hachima Kiko, Twitter/@livedoornews

Read more stories from SoraNews24.

-- Asakusa’s Sensoji temple shocks store owners with sudden 16-fold rent increase in shopping arcade

-- Moving to Tokyo? Real estate agent picks five best neighborhoods for single residents

-- New gift shop featuring giant Hello Kitty storefront to open in Asakusa this spring

© SoraNews24

©2021 GPlusMedia Inc.

49 Comments
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Well, gov't officials can't rip off foreign tourists anymore by paying that leave Japan and travel tax. They gotta start ripping off locals. How else are they gonna get their pay?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

It's not "Taito Ward", rather it is "Tight Wad" government. Go ahead, and ruin one of the few charms greater Tokyo has.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

antiquesaving, none taken. Yes, I've been living in Japan for a long time. I have bought and sold real estate and own a standalone house in Taito ward, so I know a thing or two about building regulations here. The point is, you can't build a house / building on a street. The area in question is a street, not land you can build on. That is all.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I think there is more to it than just this story, how about some investment / development company pushing to evict the little shops so they can build a business district, could it be Chines cash behind this, or others?

Someone is driving this Eviction.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

You can't build a tower condo or shopping center on a strip of road. The area in question is a thin strip, maybe 2 meters wide. Each store is less than 10 square meters and there is a line of them.

No offense but have you been in Japan long?

They just built a 3 floor building near my place each room is 2.5 x 2 metres the stairs are more like ladders than stairs

A nearby Kisatens is called Sankaku ( triangle) because that it actually the shape of the building, it is no more than 3 metres at its widest point and maybe 3 metres on each side leading to the point you could maybe fit 5 people inside plus the owner.

This is Tokyo if space is available and the road infront is wide enough they will build.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

You can't build a tower condo or shopping center on a strip of road. The area in question is a thin strip, maybe 2 meters wide. Each store is less than 10 square meters and there is a line of them.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Lemme guess - pachinko, karaoke, game centre, shopping centre. They really want to get rid of the last remaining cultural heritage there. Of course, a verbal promisse will not be mentioned

0 ( +1 / -1 )

The question is what the government is trying to do with these plot of lands. That place attract both tourists and locals, so there is definitely something behind the government move to evict these shops.

Another real estate development schemes with the Chinese investors.

-4 ( +0 / -4 )

I am definitely in the camp of making them pay their taxes for the land at the current going rate, but not to evict them.

I do wonder why this is coming up now of all times, if this is a persistent issue for literal generations.

The only case I could see for the eviction is if there is more to this story than we see. If the government has been unsuccessfully trying to get them to pay taxes for years, then sure it makes sense to evict them.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Buying tat at Sensouji is half the fun of visiting the temple... I can't get enough of those little weather dolls with crash helmets :)

Seriously tough, the shops add to the atmosphere... tourists, girls in kimonos on a day out, conmen trying to get you to buy something they just shoved into your shirt pocket... it's all part of the Sensouji experience :)

2 ( +2 / -0 )

when the temple raised their rent by 16-fold in 2017

Wasn't the rent like ridiculously low in the first place? I do not like these tourist dumps myself but there should be a process. I have seen this strategy used before in Japan where they wait to strike when you are down and out and cannot fight back.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I think Kyoto has rules that require new construction to blend in with the historical areas looks.

It does not. And if you demolish a historical house like a Machiya (町屋/町家), you can't replace it with a new one. Modern build only.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I can't recall ever going down this street on the four or five times I must have been to Asakusa. I just walked down the main drag from the gate to the temple following the crowds. However I have just checked on Street View and

The shops that line Denboin-doori are the epitome of Edo-era Japanese style buildings,

is complete nonsense. The buildings are all Showa (=post-war) and only look traditional because of the street-level open frontage. They use such traditional Edo-era features as metal shutters, fluorescent lighting, corrugated iron, Western tiles, and aluminum framed windows. They may give off an older vibe, but only due to the usual Japanese lack of maintenance. If you ripped everything there down and built actual Edo-era Japanese style buildings, it would be an improvement.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I fully support the local government. These illegal shops have had wwarnings! and now they must leave, that IS the rules.

-7 ( +0 / -7 )

The problem in Tokyo is that there seems to be no or few rules regarding historical areas, yes there are rules regarding historical buildings but not areas.

I think Kyoto has rules that require new construction to blend in with the historical areas looks.

Something done in many other countries in historical districts but this does not seem to be done in Tokyo.

So you could in theory knock down these places and build a modern concrete 3 floor shopping plaza right infront of Sensoji Temple and as far as I know that would be perfectly legal.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

So long as you support the current economic system in place you have no grounds to complain, because the bottom line (in this system) is money people.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I hope there is a satisfactory conclusion. It seems like it’s gentrification for monetary gain as usual. Large parts of my home city London have been ‘improved’ recently. They are now soulless places filled with Starbucks and awful hipster real ale bars and cereal cafes.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

“Is there any benefit to throwing them out as opposed to the current situation?”

This is something too obvious to be just a mistaken, for anybody reading the story it is clear that some other reason that has not been exposed yet is behind the move. The city would not be shooting itself on the foot without getting back something much more valuable (to their eyes). Not making this situation completely open just makes it much more suspicious.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

Throw 'em out and knock 'em down. What Tokyo needs is more generic steel, glass, and concrete buildings, can't have too many of those!

0 ( +2 / -2 )

As those shops are great business for the temple's revenue, why doesn't the temple just buy up the land and let the shop owners continue business as usual?

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Whatever it is, we can be sure that it will involve concrete. Lots of concrete.

And it will be grey or some other drab color, for sure.

The building I used to live was bright white before. I could tell the taxi driver to drop me at the white building. Until during the major renovation they decided to paint it grey, like every other building in Tokyo.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

The question is what the government is trying to do with these plot of lands. That place attract both tourists and locals, so there is definitely something behind the government move to evict these shops.

Whatever it is, we can be sure that it will involve concrete. Lots of concrete.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

And if the motivation is financial, then work out a tax/rent schedule with the shop owners.

Due to my business, I actually know a couple of these business owners.

They have been trying and are willing to come to some sort of deal on rent but Taito ward has steadfastly held to the issue claiming the structures were illegally built so no deal.

One owner said if we are illegally built then how did the water, sewage and power get installed as the city had to have give permission at one point to these utility companies to do the work, no sewers can be dug without city permit.

He himself doesn't know because all this was done when his father was the owner and his father has long since passed away.

Not all these places have water or sewage but all have power as far as I know.

Something just doesn't add up!

5 ( +7 / -2 )

Short-sighted thinking on the part of Taito-ku, as removing those shops will change the nighborhood and impact tourism. And if the motivation is financial, then work out a tax/rent schedule with the shop owners.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

The Tokyo government/s won't be happy until every street in this city looks just as bland as every other street. They dream of endless concrete, and nothing but brand names, private apartment blocks, and car parks. Only a few places still holding out - they won't last long.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Seems like a Yakuza problem.

More like Yak takeover, if things go as usual in Taito, 5 minutes after these businesses are gone some "company" will be given the rights to the space and start renting at very high prices while Taito ward gets next to nothing under some multi decade long deal.

-3 ( +0 / -3 )

Seems like a Yakuza problem.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

One point not made in the article and most going on about not paying property tax/rent, those in these shops built these structures, paid for water, electrical connection, sewage connection, paid for all maintenance on these structures at no cost to the tax payers or Taito ward.

If Taito, wants to collect rent, taxes etc... Then Taito will also have to assume responsibility to maintain these places, doing repairs, etc...

( oh for those that don't know property tax in Japan is not like many western countries my home/land taxable value back home in a big city the taxes would be the equivalent of anywhere from $3000 to $ 10,000 US here in Tokyo it is ¥70,000)

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Yes its Taito, means very tight lol

1 ( +3 / -2 )

It's not " Taito ward" it's " Taito Ku " !

Ku in English is "Ward" we are writing in English here.

Though in recent years some of the 23 wards have started used "City" when referring to themselves in English publications, their websits, etc...

6 ( +8 / -2 )

Not a big fan of Tokyo because of the imminent threat of death by earthquake/tsunami, but I love wandering around the small streets in this area. Japan is slowly losing its heritage to concrete.

2 ( +6 / -4 )

It's not " Taito ward" it's " Taito Ku " !

-14 ( +1 / -15 )

The shop owners, on the other hand, claim they were given permission decades ago, without obligation to pay land taxes and rent

I wonder how far that line would get you in any other country.

That might surprise you how far!

Many older countries in Europe and even Japan have old long established squatters rights laws that are still in effect and legal.

So in theory in these countries someone can actually build live work on private or government land and if after a certain number of years no one has said anything they are then the defacto owner of the property.

Each country has it's own set of rules on this regarding how long they have to be there before they can claim this right but it is not as uncommon as people think.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

The article is misleading in my opinion, highlighting only the "this is an historic/traditional asset of Asakusa" side of the story. While I agree that these shops are a part of Asakusa "charm", I don’t think it is normal that they don’t pay a rent. They are taking advantage having been here "illegally" from decades, making huge benefits while selling cheap stuff for most of them, while the other shops in the same area pay high rental fees.

I don’t think they should disappear, but it would be fair that they pay a rent like anyone else.

6 ( +7 / -1 )

Nothing is free, full-stop. You earn money you pay taxes and rent just like any other person or company, nothing makes you exempt. In the same breath, I am sure there are plans to destroy those shops and put something new in and make some big time revenue loosing another traditional flavor of Japan and Tokyo..

4 ( +7 / -3 )

We can put condos here, an Aeon shopping mall there, a Starbucks over there ...

6 ( +7 / -1 )

Nakamise-doori is a national treasure, but then so was Harajuku station. They got rid of that and replaced it with a bland box.

Maybe someone like Masayoshi Son could put their hand in their pocket, sort this out and buy themselves some enduring popularity.

What next? Melting down the statue of Hachikō?

8 ( +10 / -2 )

I remember a similar thing happening in my hometown several decades ago.

A thriving market of tiny stalls and shops selling hand-made goods had sprung up in an old office building in the central city. It was officially 'rented' to a group of stall-holders by the City Council, but it was a "pepper-corn" rent - very cheap and only there to make their use of the building legal.

It was wild and eclectic, with all sorts of weird and wonderful corners, but it was incredibly popular with locals and tourists and that whole area of the city came alive with secondary shops and businesses benefitting from the market. It ran for just over a decade.

Then a new Council decided to tear the building down and construct a "proper" city center market - all pretty and squeaky clean. It caused a big outcry and a great many people argued against it, but the Council went ahead with it anyway.

That area of the city died completely and never recovered; eventually the Council was forced to close the market and the land just became an open park which is hardly ever used.

Taito will probably go the same way if they kick those people out.

14 ( +16 / -2 )

Next thing you know, Yakuza will be called in to clear the land of shops. Some accidental (wink, wink) fires and things like that...

3 ( +5 / -2 )

I have a feeling that the local government has a plan for the land!!! The fact that the shops have been there for 40 years and for the local government to bring this lack of permits ONLY now, is veeery suspicious!!! In addition, "temple raised their rent by 16-fold in 2017" makes me think that there is collusion between the temple and the local government to get these shops out. There has to be some secret development plan...

10 ( +12 / -2 )

It was certainly verbally agreed decades ago and it has not bother anyone since. That’s also why tourists go to Asakusa.

Now, what the Taito government wanna do. Replace these shops with brand shops like in every department stores, just because they will pay more.

1 ( +5 / -4 )

Maybe Taito ward is on a “Chinese cultural revolution” kick and wants to destroy as much of traditional Tokyo as possible. Let’s face it. Tokyo dearly needs more massive, faceless corporate buildings and dreary apartment blocks.

6 ( +8 / -2 )

@Tora That is what I was about to say! You beat me to it.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Evict them and build another tower mansion. That is the plan, or something to that effect. You can bet your bottom yen on it.

14 ( +17 / -3 )

It would be a shame to change it. In spite of how busy it was whenever I was there, it had a cachet that will be impossible to replace.

3 ( +4 / -1 )

I agree with many of the people who commented in the article. Work out an agreement, pay some form of rent and taxes, but don't backdate them, and move forward. It would seem the best solution all around, unless as Hiro said, the government has better and bigger plans for the land.

14 ( +15 / -1 )

The shop owners, on the other hand, claim they were given permission decades ago, without obligation to pay land taxes and rent

I wonder how far that line would get you in any other country.

12 ( +16 / -4 )

The question is what the government is trying to do with these plot of lands. That place attract both tourists and locals, so there is definitely something behind the government move to evict these shops.

23 ( +24 / -1 )

Hey Taito Ward, be nice !!..

3 ( +11 / -8 )

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