Recently, in the online edition of TBS Television, I encountered a news story on Miyashita Koen in Shibuya, Tokyo. It appears that Nike Shoes have negotiated a deal with the Shibuya Ward Office to $200,000 per year for naming rights and permission to perform a large renovation on the park, including a project to create a large slide in the shape of the Nike swoosh. In effect, the park will end up being a giant billboard for the massive shoe manufacturer. The incursion of private enterprise into a public space immediately raises suspicions of back room corruption and shady dealings amongst Ward officials, not to mention the cheap price of for complete control of a publicly owned space. Why Nike? Why not Adidas or Birkenstock? And why should tax payer funded areas promote one particular privately owned business?
Of course, Ward officials and some local residents are happy to have the park renovated at someone else’s expense, but the implications of this are that private business merely needs to flash money and it can then post it’s trademark on just about any public space it likes. Soon, we’ll be seeing Disney billboards on the Imperial Palace, or worse, Tommy Hilfiger signs on the Diet building itself. Of course, Japan is no stranger to billboards and advertising, which are ubiquitous throughout Japan. Until now, however, business advertising has been limited in publicly funded spaces, outside of that on vending machines.
However, Miyashita Kouen is significant in that it has become home to a small but present squatter community of homeless persons in addition to providing a home base for local community and political groups. The Ward office has begun the process of forcibly evicting the homeless individuals this month, some of whom have resided in the park for years. Local community groups have come the park residents’ aid, vocally protesting the eviction, surrounding the park and creating problems for the clean-up crews through large art installations and signboards. Interestingly, the article I read on TBS made not a single mention of the homeless issue, inferring that the community groups were merely a group of misdirected troublemakers without a specific agenda. This struck me as interesting, given Japan’s predilection to ignoring the homeless, almost as if they do not exist. What one does not see, does not exist. More disappointing however, is TBS’s lack of spine.
The quandary, of course, is that the park is paid for by taxpayers, for the use of taxpayers. Local residents will not use the park specifically because of the presence of homeless and the fear for the safety of their children. Yet, the Ward is not willing to provide housing for the homeless and the lack of jobs in a rough economy for aging, single men keeps the men in the park. The Ward may clear the park, but may create another problem by scattering the men throughout the Ward aside from the important human rights concerns.
As in the United States, homeless people in Japan have little recourse. To make matters worse, homeless in Japan are denied the right to vote having no permanent address, thus they have zero representation in government. A lack of political will in a climate that is experiencing a crushing limitation of financial resources prevents local authorities from being proactive on the issues of the local homeless, and worse, a societal attitude that assumes family support for elders, completely marginalizes aging, single men as being outside the network and thus not true members of society. How the situation will play out in the long term, is unknown, but for the short term, it appears that Japanese local officials have taken a cue from the Americans and put business ahead of the demands of social minorities.